“To stop a bully is really easy. But silence to a bully is encouragement. And right now there are too many people who feel the way we do, who are very silently shaking their head at the County Commission. And we need them to be vocal and visible.”
Those were the words of Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, speaking at a town hall meeting in Ybor on Tuesday night. The meeting was a response to the controversial 4-3 vote last month by the Hillsborough County Commission, rejecting creation of a domestic partner registry. Such a registry would give unmarried partners — gay and straight — a handful of benefits typically reserved for married couples, such as allowing a man or woman to be able to make health care and funeral decisions for a partner, and to be notified as a family member in case of an emergency.
Sixteen cities and counties in Florida provide such benefits, but none in the Bay area did so until less than a year ago. That’s when Tampa City Councilwoman Yolie Capin initiated a proposal that ended up getting passed unanimously, 7-0, with very little public opposition. City Councilman Harry Cohen said that his office received nearly 900 positive emails about the registry, not a single one of them negative.
But the cultural fissures that divide city and county have never been more pronounced than when it comes to issues that carry even a whiff of benefiting the lives of lesbians and gays. Historically, Hillsborough commissioners have never paid a price for anti-LGBT votes. Activists wonder if this time will be different.
Smith told the audience at the Children’s Board on Tuesday that the four commissioners who opposed the measure — Ken Hagan, Al Higginbotham, Sandy Murman, and Victor Crist — made a mistake, and are unaware of how popular such registries are. She said Equality Florida robo-called thousands of voters in both Crist’s and Murman’s districts, and more than 80 percent supported a domestic partner registry.
Three of the four commissioners who voted No could be on the ballot in 2014. Crist and Hagen are eligible to run for re-election in their respective seats. Higginbotham is term-limited out in his, but has filed paperwork to run for the GOP nomination for the District 7 seat being vacated by a term-limited Mark Sharpe. Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, who was also in attendance and has filed her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in District 7, echoed Smith’s sentiments, saying that the four No voters are “out of touch.”
In a subsequent interview, Smith said that “Hillsborough has changed. I think that the commission is going to continue to feel the heat as long as they aren’t keeping pace with where the electorate is, and where the country is.”
The perception of hostility to the LGBT community in Hillsborough dates back to 1995, when the Board of County Commissioners removed gays from an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, real estate and public accommodations.
Congresswoman Kathy Castor says the fact that the BOCC continues to exclude gays from its human rights ordinance is more outrageous than the recent rejection of a domestic partner registry. “That is so backwards when you look at equal rights and human rights in this country.”
The ban on gay pride events in Hillsborough in 2005 was another blot on the county’s reputation. Less noted is how a year before that, the BOCC passed an ordinance banning county staff from even researching the option of offering domestic partner benefits to county employees — a vote that was reaffirmed in early 2009 after the notion of such benefits was revived by Commissioner Kevin Beckner.
Beckner noted last week that one of the proposal’s sharpest critics at the time was Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who called it “irresponsible” considering the state of the economy.
But last month it was Sharpe, and not Beckner, who introduced the domestic partner registry. Sharpe says the fact that he presented the bill rather than Beckner, who is openly gay, should have given sufficient “cover” to some of his fellow GOP colleagues.
Acknowledging the fact that the issue brings out a hard Christian conservative following, Sharpe was still surprised his proposal failed. “I thought this was one where the facts laid out in favor of us moving forward.”
When asked by CL if he had evolved on LGBT issues, Sharpe demurred, saying simply, “It’s not my role as a government official to determine which citizens get more rights than others. I serve all citizens, and that includes a community of citizens, whether they be lesbian, gay, whatever it might be.”
Some observers say they weren’t surprised that the registry was opposed by conservative commissioners Hagan and Higginbotham. Although supporters emphasized that the registry helped straight and gay couples and was in no way leading toward recognition of same-sex marriages, Higginbotham didn’t see it that way. He says that his Christian faith, recognition of “thousands of years of societal precedent,” and understanding of U.S. laws prevented him from “supporting an expansion of that unique and special status, privileges and responsibilities to those outside a marriage relationship.”
More enigmatic to some observers were the No votes from Murman and Crist, both considered to be more moderate.
Murman told CL it was a difficult vote for her, acknowledging that the gay rights movement has progressed tremendously over the past decade, but that she herself is a “deep Christian.” She says she’s now working with county staff to come up with a form and a process that would allow for health care surrogacy. “I believe no matter what somebody’s situation is, if they have health care needs and want their loved ones near them, that’s where I’m at,” while saying she was concerned that the creation of a registry would increase the size of government.
District 2 Commissioner Crist had been considered the swing vote.
In on- and off-the-record discussions with reporters in his primary campaign last summer against Tea Party GOP challenger Sharon Calvert, Crist described his record as more moderate than the typical Hillsborough Republican’s.
La Gaceta editor and publisher Patrick Manteiga said, “He would point out the work he did up in the Suitcase City area near USF … He comes across as selling himself as very Democratic.” Manteiga suggested in his newspaper columns that Crist was a viable choice for Democrats (who didn’t run a candidate against him). “I actually said that Democrats should consider him because this woman is a Tea Partier.” He now calls Crist’s No vote “tragic.”
Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee Chair Chris Mitchell is uncharitable in his assessment of Crist’s vote, saying it was done solely out of political considerations, and not in the best interests of the public. Saying that Crist is worried about being “primaried” by Ronda Storms, Mitchell said, “If he wants to put his political aspirations before the public or residents of this county, then he doesn’t deserve to hold that office.”
Crist dismisses that allegation, and tells CL that either way he voted on the issue he realized he was going to “piss off my friends and family,” but said he had problems with the process as much as the policy.
Those problems included the fact that the proposal by Sharpe was filed on the Friday before the MLK Day holiday weekend, “blindsiding” him and not allowing him to check with constituent groups before such an emotional vote.
During the Board’s debate on the issue, testimony was presented by Nick Kouris, business development director with Florida Blue, also known as Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida. Kouris told the board that policies like a domestic partner registry would attract well-educated, well-skilled employees that Hillsborough needs to attract, adding that it would enhance the county’s quality of life.
Crist, asked about that testimony later, acknowledged the existence of a negative attitude toward Hillsborough among the LGBT community, noting that Florida film commissioners have told him that the movie industry has reservations about working in the county.
But he is not convinced that the No vote on the domestic partner registry would contribute to that negative perception. “It all depends on how it’s stirred by the media.”
Crist says if certain parts of the proposal are amended, he’s open to supporting it, but the changes need to include “language that further provides comfort to some of the board members that are concerned with the marriage issue.”
In endorsing a domestic partner registry for Hillsborough County, the conservative Tampa Tribune editorial page wrote that “more and more local officials now see domestic partner registries as a way to not only help citizens but to ensure their communities appeal to businesses that value diversity.”
But other than a letter from the Westshore Alliance’s Ron Rotella endorsing the plan, the Tampa Bay area business community was absent during this debate. Some analysts say that exposes a lack of strategic planning among organizers.
A spokesperson for the Tampa Bay Partnership told CL that they have not weighed in on the issue, nor have they been asked. Similarly, Bob Rohrlack, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said he has not been contacted by any groups about supporting a domestic partner registry.
Hillsborough activists might follow the example of their colleagues in Orange County, which has an even bigger Republican majority on its county commission (6 Republicans to 1 Democrat).
Orange County offers domestic partner health benefits for its employees, and over a year ago passed a domestic partner registry.
Randy Stephens is the executive director of Orlando’s Gay Community Center. He says getting letters in support of a DPR from the president of Rollins College and the CEO of Darden Restaurants (the only Fortune 500 company in the area) was significant in turning around a GOP-led board.
But he also says that forming the bipartisan group OADO (Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee) was crucial. “This was a group that’s taken it on ourselves to be the leaders on getting the passage of such ordinances.”
Equality Florida has recently created a Web site (equalitymeansbusiness.org) to build an online directory of pro-equality businesses across the state. Nadine Smith says the effort to engage businesses to pass DPRs will redouble now, “because it certainly is the right thing to do and we can make that argument and we can win.”
For Kurt King, the owner of Ybor City restaurant Hamburger Mary’s, the issue is hardly academic. Two years ago his partner Larry was ill at Tampa General Hospital, and three times he said he had to leave the hospital and return to his home to obtain the Power of Attorney form that allowed him to make medical decisions for his partner.
During one of those occasions, after he’d gone to his Valrico home and back, he discovered his partner was no longer in his hospital room.
“His room was empty, his belongings were in the trash can … and it took me an hour to find out where he was at.”
At the end of Tuesday night’s town hall meeting, the more than 50 activists in attendance came up with a strategic plan to rally businesses, faith-based groups, USF officials and the commissioners themselves to reverse their vote. Whether it will be enough could answer the question about where the county is in 2013.
The goal, Smith said, is for Hillsborough County to “stop embarrassing us, and embarrassing itself, and actually catch up with the rest of the region and the rest of the state.”