A lesson in anti-gay politics

click to enlarge AS SEEN ON HTV: A screen shot of the commissioners' final vote tally. - Htv Government Access Broadcast
Htv Government Access Broadcast
AS SEEN ON HTV: A screen shot of the commissioners' final vote tally.

You could see the baby-seal clubbing that Kevin Beckner was going to get a mile away.

Blame Beckner for either political naïveté (he is a first-term Hillsborough County commissioner, after all) or for believing that a rationale, responsible argument could carry the day.

Neither of those is helpful when you are talking about anything even remotely connected to being gay, since that particular issue causes wild flailing by social conservative special interests.

Beckner's idea: Since the county's insurance contract is up for renewal this year, how about having county officials find out what, if any, extra it would cost to expand employee benefits to domestic partners? It would make sense, since if it costs a lot more, the county is pretty broke, and it is a moot point. And if it doesn't cost more, you could insure a lot more people and save money on health care by keeping folks well instead of sending them to the emergency room with a cold.

But thanks to former Commissioner Ronda Storms, the county staff can't study such an idea. She led a vote in 2004 to prohibit county employees from spending any time finding the answer to such a question, as a way of heading off any discussion of domestic-partner benefits, which could be, of course, given to gay couples.

They could be given to unmarried straight couples, too; studies show that two-thirds of those who take advantage of government employee domestic partnership benefits are heterosexuals. A policy change could also give a boost to economic development, making it easier to lure progressive companies to Hillsborough.

But the gay angle got the headlines.

Take this one, for example, from Bay News 9 on the day that Beckner's request was voted down 5-2: "Gay and lesbian community lose battle in Hills. Co."

Beckner's attempt to repeal the Storms Policy was dead before it had any life. Even before he could spin the media or muster grassroots support, the wheels apparently were turning behind the scenes at the county commission offices, spreading the word to right-wingers that the gay commissioner was trying to pass a gay measure.

The aide of at least one commissioner was so accommodating that he/she earned a shout-out from Terry Kemple, the head of the Community Issues Council, who had alerted his Christian supporters about Beckner's request. In an e-mail I obtained from two sources independent of each other, he told his supporters: "The aide to one of our commissionersoriginally told me about the effort to grant domestic partnerbenefits. I've removed the aide's name to protect the source." The unknown aide had written to Kemple: "We've gotten 10 emails in support of the benefits, including Lorna Bracewell, and 258 in opposition of the benefits. You're doing a great job!"

That didn't make Bracewell — a musician, CL blogger and director of the human rights group Impact Florida — super happy. She felt betrayed by her county government and worried for her safety and privacy, since she gave all seven commissioners her phone number and address. (That info would be subject to release under public records laws, but that is a whole different thing from an aide acting as a personal tipster for the Christian Right.)

"Over the three months I've been involved with Impact-Florida, I have received some pretty frightening e-mails," Bracewell wrote to me. "The thought of my address falling into the hands of the persons behind those emails is a terrifying one. I have no evidence that the persons writing these emails are CIC members, but they very well could be.

"This flow of information between groups like the CIC and the commissioners could have a chilling effect on communications between advocates on my side of the issue and our elected officials," she said.

Terry Kemple sees nothing wrong with such interactions. "It's entirely proper for an aide to tell a supporter of an elected official's position 'attaboy!'" Kemple told CL. "They do it all the time. It's absurd to think otherwise! I chose to protect my source only because of the nature of this issue and the virulence of those who vilify anyone who opposes any issue that is a part of the steamroller of the homosexual agenda."

So to recount, some media accounts elevated the issue. Social conservative activists mobilized. And at least one aide, paid with your tax dollars, conspired with them.

Beckner talked with me two weekends ago, just as the first story about his request ran in the Tampa Tribune. He hated the story's slant and implication that he wanted a vote on granting the benefits.

"This is totally going to get blown out of proportion," Beckner said.

At least he was right about one thing.