As the debate intensified at the June 5 meeting of the Hillsborough County Commission on a proposal initiated by Commissioner Kevin Beckner to have the board repeal its 2005 ban on gay pride events, tension built as commissioners Victor Crist and Ken Hagan raised concerns. Hagan said he wanted an amendment that required commission approval for any county promotions or acclimation of gay pride events.
But Beckner was having none of it, saying that by demanding that the LGBT community be singled out for further scrutiny, the board would be continuing to perpetuate discrimination against a class of people, which ran counter to the whole point of repealing the ban in the first place.
Crist then advised that any festivals that the gay community might indulge in should not resemble something out of Key West or San Francisco, prompting Equality Florida's Nadine Smith to bark out from the back row, “That’s Gasparilla!” While the audience laughed, Beckner noted the comment and used it as a debating point a moment later.
“I’m going to ask you, Commissioner Crist, does it turn you on if you’re at Gasparilla and a woman flashes her breasts at you? Do you like that?” Beckner asked.
While some supporters of the repeal whooped at that line, others in the audience at the county center seemed to hold their breaths, as if to ask: Did he really just say that?
Beckner added that he was no legal expert and attorney, “though I play one on TV sometimes,” and that the board would have a hard time defining what exactly pornography is.
Later in the discussion, Beckner pulled out a copy of the Constitution and then a Bible to counter arguments that God didn’t want the county to allow gay pride. All in all, it was a dazzling display of thinking on his feet, and it earned Beckner glowing coverage in the dailies immediately afterward.
“There were so many moments where it felt like consensus could slip away,” Smith reminisced four days later at a victory party celebrating the repeal of the ban at Hamburger Mary’s in Ybor City. “But the things that Victor Crist was saying were so outrageous and mean, and Kevin just checkmated him every single time.”
It’s not exactly news that Hillsborough County has a reputation around the state for being blatantly discriminatory against the gay community. Twenty years ago the board repealed a measure including gays and lesbians in the county’s human rights ordinance. And then, while local governments throughout the Bay area and the state were adding domestic partner registries left and right in the past year, the BOCC found a way to reject such a feature just a few months ago.
So why the push now on gay pride? In the weeks before the June 5 vote, Beckner had reached out to local reporters, explaining that the Board had recently created a comprehensive strategic plan, and a top priority was to review current policies and make sure that they reflect the diversity of the community.
Beckner has said in the past that the 2005 ban spurred him into running for office in the first place. The 42-year-old is an Indiana native who was living in the suburbs of Chicago working as a financial planner when he moved to Tampa Bay in 1998. He began having conversations with Democrats like Bob Buckhorn, Kathy Castor, Jan Platt and Pat Frank, all of whom encouraged him to run for office if he was unhappy with the state of affairs in the county.
It was in late 2006 that he met political consultant Mitch Kates at an Equality Florida event. Kates said Beckner had done his homework, including taking a candidate training course with the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. This guy is serious, Kates thought to himself.
From the jump, Beckner told him that he was going to be running as an openly gay man less than two years after the ban on gay pride had shaken the community. Kates says that throughout 2008, many respected Democrats and journalists would speak to him in off-the-record sessions, acknowledging that Beckner was impressive and a nice guy and all, but “There is no f-ing way that he can win.”
But in what was considered a masterly race, Beckner did win, handily, over former pro wrestler Brian Blair, 55-45 percent.
Kates acknowledges that for all the concerns and fears that an openly gay man running for office in Hillsborough County was a handicap, it was also a blessing in some respects. “I told people he’s going to win because he’s going to have a base of support of early money, and that base will grow, and I think people would be inspired.”
Though the Beckner/Blair race was devoid of any real divisiveness, Blair appeared to lose his composure in the aftermath, saying that Beckner had distorted his record and that he would be suing him. In discussing how he thought Beckner had falsified things, he offered an unfortunate comparison.
“Can I say his boyfriend gave him AIDS? Of course that’s not true. I would never say that.”
Except he just had.
Blair did sue Beckner, claiming that he falsely characterized issues like Blair using taxpayer money for cleaning up lakes, a pay raise and flying the Confederate flag. But in 2010 Judge Bernard C. Silver found that Blair had insufficient evidence to support his case.
But Hillsborough Republicans vowed that they would do whatever was necessary to oust Beckner in 2012, and some GOP political strategists speculated that there could be explosive charges against the county’s first openly elected gay official.
In retrospect, that was all a bit of hot air. The Republicans' best candidate in the race, Steve Cona from the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, dropped out in April of 2012, leaving only hard-right conservative Margaret Iuculano as Beckner’s chief foe.
Iuculano got off to a poor start among all but the Tea Party element in the fall of 2011 when she sent out a fundraising letter that claimed Beckner wanted to replace “our capitalist, democratic republic with a European-style socialist welfare state,” adding for good measure that under Barack Obama, “they’ve already had some degree of success in meeting that goal.” She added a little red meat by saying that Beckner endorsed an “ultra-liberal San Francisco-style agenda.”
But Iuculano’s missive got little traction and she was essentially marginalized, even among some Republicans. Though GOP strategists had explicitly told this reporter that there would be real smoking guns delivered against Beckner during his re-election, nothing ever materialized.
When asked if he has ever felt any significant homophobia from constituents when he brings up domestic partnerships or the ban on gay pride, Beckner says there’s only been a “very small amount” of such correspondence, though he says he has seen “falsehoods” about himself written on blogs.
Beckner believes that the issue of gay politicians will become less important as time goes on. “I think a first for anything makes for part of history, it shows the progress we’re making as a community and county. But at the end of the day, I think people will want somebody who will fairly represent them that they believe will give them the voice and representation they need in government.”
Beckner has been with his partner, Hillsborough County Sgt. Gil Sainz, since late 1999. Though Floridians voted to ban same-sex marriage at the polls in 2008, the times are a-changin’ obviously. A poll conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found 75 percent of Florida voters favor allowing gay couples to legally marry (38 percent) or form civil unions (37 percent), against only 23 percent who said there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.
“That’s always been our lifelong dream,” Beckner says of formalizing his relationship with Sainz. “It’s an important issue for us, to be able to have that right and to have all the benefits and all the ups and downs that come with marriage. But certainly our relationship is not defined by a piece of paper. It’s defined by our commitment and our love toward one another.”
Beckner’s successes on the board include leading the county’s efforts to curb personal injury protection (PIP) fraud, which earned him a shout-out by no less than Rick Scott when the governor addressed the Florida State Fair last year. He’s also worked on issues like juvenile justice, and trying to find a way to reduce the county’s reputation for being a haven for illicit pill mills.
Republican Steve Cona, who wanted to replace Beckner a year ago, calls the Democrat a “very smart and well prepared public servant.” Even though he just was reelected last fall, there are those who are curious about his plans post-BOCC.
In the world of politics in which people assume lawmakers are working toward higher office, Beckner says he has no idea what his future plans are. Then again, he still has more than three years to go before he’s term-limited out, and there’s still lots of work to be done.
“I told people when I got into public service I did it where I feel I could make a difference, so where there’s opportunities in other areas that I can be a good leader and contribute to the community, that’s where I’ll go,” Beckner says.