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Social media posts on sexuality become issue in North Florida congressional race

James CallUSA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau
Winter Haven News Chief

Albert Chester has landed in hot water during his attempt to unseat Democratic Congressman Al Lawson of Tallahassee.

It comes after social media posts of his surfaced about gay people, creating a split between local leaders of the Leon County Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders supporters.

Chester, a Jacksonville pharmacist, is running to unseat Lawson in an eight-county district that runs from Quincy to Jacksonville along the Georgia border.

In a tweeted apology, Chester said the comments — some dating to 2013 — were “ignorant, insensitive, disrespectful and hurtful.”

“My past is not an indication of who I am today," Chester said. "Since that time, I have become more knowledgeable about the issues you face. I am fully committed to an inclusive platform that promotes gender equality and strengthens human rights.”

When Missouri football player Michael Alan Sam Jr. came out as gay before the 2014 NFL draft, Chester — a former Florida A&M University quarterback — criticized the move.

He wrote on Facebook he would understand if teammates were uncomfortable sharing a locker room with a gay player.

“I mean if u put a woman-loving man in a locker room with in-shape well sculpted women … damn right I’m going to look because that’s what I like … that’s what I’m attracted to,” Chester posted.

Then, he took aim at the gay-rights movement: “Stop disrespecting brother Malcom x (sic), mandela, Dr. King, and all the other freedom fighters … saying this like the civil rights movement …,” the post continued.

Before the Sam incident, Chester also wrote posts critical of same-sex marriages and of people “confessing and proud (to) stand for unnatural lusts and desires.”

And he suggested that the Obama administration’s support of equal rights for gays was a deal breaker.

“I’m starting not to be an Obama supporter any more ... this country has faaaar more important things to worry about than people 'coming out of the closet,' ” he wrote in 2013.

The posts were unearthed by a group of Tallahassee progressives after they had endorsed Chester in his challenge to Lawson. Last week, in a online meeting, they confronted Chester with the posts.

Video of that meeting has since been taken down from Chester's social media platforms and replaced with a formal apology statement for the remarks.

But now, the progressives and LGBT+ activists complain he has since backed off his apology. Chester disputed that Thursday.

"That forum was this past Sunday. The Tuesday after, I released a formal written statement reiterating my apology and changed views," said Chester, calling himself the sole progressive in the race.

The Tallahassee progressives say the attempt to hold Chester accountable for his social media postings has gotten them booted from the local party.

Chelsea Rimert, Jack Mills, Nicole Ordonez, Sierra Bush Rester and Bobby Johnson, said they are no longer allowed to speak at Leon Democratic Executive Committee meetings and have been removed from the group's Facebook discussion group of local politics.

Their comments have been deemed "uncivil" and impolite, they said.

“The Leon Democratic Executive Committee is actually attacking us for trying to hold Democratic candidates accountable,” Johnson told a reporter.

“They’ve (since) made civility rules that say holding candidates accountable is a violation of their rules. They’re banning discussion and education of voters entirely,” he added. "And we were the ones who had endorsed Chester."

Leon DEC chair John Hedrick disputes Johnson's account of what happened. He said the group wasn't removed because of their Chester comments, though he did not explain why they were booted, and restated the local party's "total" support for LGBT+ rights.

Johnson and the others are members of Florida for Bernie and are now working to have the statewide network that supported Sanders' presidential campaign rescind its endorsement of Chester.

A vote of county leaders concludes noon Friday. As of Thursday morning, only 10% of the vote was in, but was unanimous to pull the endorsement.

Watching the controversy unfold from his Washington office, Rep. Lawson said Chester’s “hateful rhetoric” is unacceptable.

“This type of language incites violence and further divides our communities,” Lawson said. "... He doesn't understand the role the federal government must play in creating safe spaces for our most vulnerable."