Gays elevate party identity
Candidates from across the state accept a call from the gay caucus in the Democratic Party as it moves to become a force.
By JENNIFER LIBERTO and ALEX LEARY
Published July 17, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - For years, most campaigning Democrats have held Florida's gay community at arm's length, acknowledging common interests privately but rarely publicly.
On Saturday night, several leading Democrats running for state office spoke, patted shoulders and shook hands with more than 100 gay Democrats on a fourth floor roof of the Doubletree Hotel, signaling a modest change in the way Democratic candidates are treating the state's gay community.
A poolside cocktail hour sponsored by the Florida Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Democratic Caucus, drew both Democratic gubernatorial candidates, state Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa. They spoke in support of less controversial gay rights issues without mentioning measures to ban gay marriages and civil unions.
"I don't know if it's just my North Florida twang, but I was asked when I came in here today, 'How comfortable are ya?' Well, I hope you won't quit me," Smith said.
There was a silence after that remark, which references a line from Brokeback Mountain, the movie about two cowboys in love. Then the crowd roared.
In a 10-minute speech that departed from his stump speech Smith addressed several gay rights issues, such as anti-bullying in public schools, gay adoptions of foster kids and embryonic stem-cell research for diseases like HIV.
"We have a message as Democrats that's got to transcend all of our differences and unite us on the things that matter."
By contrast, Davis peppered his 20-minute stump speech with fewer gay rights issues (he said he supports adoption), while going heavy on his campaign favorites, such as property insurance problems and the Terri Schiavo case.
"It's the same as any group that really decides to hunker down," said Davis in an interview about the GLBT's political identity. "This is an election where people that are willing to get out there and fight and stand up are going to make a huge difference."
Most of the credit for its new-found appreciation is due to gay Democrats, who in reaction to myriad anti-gay political measures, have recently refined their political prowess. Dozens of new GLBT chapters have been reorganized or newly created, including in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. In about two years, the GLBT has gone from an excuse for a social gathering into a sizable political voice with ample money and time.
"We're loyal, we turn out to vote, we work for the party and we raise a lot of money," said GLBT spokesman Stephen Gaskill. "We recognize we're not the darlings of the party any more, but we've been making a case that we are the base of the Democratic Party."
GLBT members say they believe they need to support Democrats, even those opposed to gay marriage, for the sake of seeking change on issues that affect a broader range of Americans. For example, they invited U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, who voted for a constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman, who addressed the caucus in Tallahassee.
Yet, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was not invited to the event, because he doesn't tend to talk publicly about gay rights issues, especially given that he has enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls against challenger, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, Gaskill said. Nelson has sent aides in his place to other GLBT events he was invited to.
"He's been a reliable vote on issues that matter to us," Gaskill said. "We'd like him to be a little more vocal about our issues."
Months before the Saturday event, GLBT caucus leaders had held their own meetings with Davis and Smith, pressing for support for gay adoption and anti hate-crime measures.
"They are listening to our issues," said GLBT caucus member Ken Keechl, who is running for Broward County Commission. At least two other members of the caucus are running for office.
As he stood near the Doubletree's rooftop pool Saturday, Keechl said the group's growing political identity was evident.
"Look at who has come here," he said, referring to Davis, Smith, state attorney general candidate Walter "Skip" Campbell and Eric Copeland, a candidate for commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.
The candidates appeared comfortable enough and worked the crowd. They received the most applause and whoops when they touched on gay rights issues in their speeches.
Several GLBT members said they were impressed with Smith but were supporting Davis for governor, because they believe that Smith is a more conservative Democrat than Davis.
"Smith is not a bad person at all, but Davis has a long record of being consistent on some impressive issues, some gay issues and civil rights issues," said Jeff Peters of Tallahassee.
Unlike Representative Boyd, who has endorsed Smith, Davis voted against the constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman. But he said he did so because the Constitution should protect rights, not deny them. Otherwise, he thinks marriage is between a man and woman. Smith said he feels likewise; both men support civil unions.
Republicans took note which Democrats appeared at the GLBT event. Florida Republican Party spokesman Jeff Sadosky asserted that the gay and lesbian caucus platform may play well to primary voters but are outside what Democrats at large are willing to accept.
"When you're forced in an effort to win a nomination to stand up with the likes of Barney Frank and his radical views, it is something that could hurt you," he said.
Sadosky said the GOP could use the gathering in a future ad or other campaign material. "We're going to educate voters about stances taken by the Democrats."