The power of No

Will Hillsborough commissioners who voted against the domestic partner registry feel the heat from voters?

click to enlarge “SILENCE TO A BULLY IS ENCOURAGEMENT”: Nadine Smith speaking at a town hall meeting at the Children's Board in Ybor on Tuesday night. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
“SILENCE TO A BULLY IS ENCOURAGEMENT”: Nadine Smith speaking at a town hall meeting at the Children's Board in Ybor on Tuesday night.

“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.”

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