This is the year that Central Florida gays step boldly into the political spotlight, joining an increasingly large outpouring of gay candidates statewide.
Four openly gay Orlando-area Democratic candidates are running for election in federal and state races this year; Valleri Crabtree in Florida’s 9th Congressional District centered in south Orlando and Kissimmee; Bob Poe in Florida’s 10th Congressional District centered in west Orlando. There is also Beth Tuura in the 47th Florida House District centered in central Orlando, and Carlos Guillermo Smith in the 49th Florida House District centered in East Orlando.
It’s a coincidentally big coming-out party in a city that — through the most horrible of tragedies, the Pulse nightclub massacre — has come together to support the LGBT community this summer in depth and ways that even the most hopeful in the LGBT community might never have thought possible so soon.
Equality Florida, a statewide LGBT organization, is tracking six other openly gay candidates for state offices this year, including Democratic incumbent state Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach, three running in Broward County (two against each other) and one in Pinellas County. Equity Florida’s politics committee also is supporting Smith and Tuura in Central Florida, Jennifer Webb in St. Petersburg, Richardson in Miami Beach, and Paulette Armstead, Ken Keechl, and Michael Gongora in Broward County. Openly gay Kevin Burns also is running, against Gongora.
“It really is a sign of the changed times that, overwhelmingly, voters care about candidates’ qualifications irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida.
The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund & Institute tracks, researches and supports gay candidates nationally. The political committee calls Florida a “low-equality state” in a comparison of states’ legislative records. Among low-equality states, Florida’s current one openly gay lawmaker is about average, but its bushel of candidates this year is highly unusual, said Victory Fund & Institute spokesman Elliot Imse.
Nationally, California has the most openly gay lawmakers in the state Legislature, with seven; followed by Colorado and Maine with six each; and Washington and New York with five each. At the same time, some states not known for Democratic-dominated politics also have a few. Montana has four; and Georgia, three.
“I think it’s a really exciting time for Florida. Very rarely in what we call ‘low-equality states’ do you have so many qualified, viable LGBT candidates running for office,” Imse said. “That’s a really important opportunity for the LGBT coalition because representation matters. The more LGBT folks that are in the state Legislature, the more likely we are to not face anti-LGBT legislation.”
Pollitzer said Florida’s number would certainly double this year and there is the potential there could be five or six gay lawmakers in Tallahassee next year, citing Smith, Tuuro, Webb, Keechl, Gongora and Armstead (who could become the first openly-gay African-American office holder at any level in Florida) as all having good shots at winning.
The Central Florida candidates all seek to follow the footsteps of Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who has represented central Orlando since 2000; and former state Rep. Joe Saunders, who was, with Richardson, one of the first two openly gay members of the Florida Legislature when elected in 2012. Saunders lost re-election in 2014.
Sheehan also suggested another reason there are more openly gay candidates now than in the past: because it’s far more OK for gay candidates to be open.
“When I first ran there were three other gay candidates, but they just weren’t ‘out,'” she said.
At this point, only Smith, who is running in Saunders’ old district, is a shoe-in to win. He has practically no opposition, save an independent candidate with little money, Shea Silverman. Smith also has as much support, organization, campaign experience, legislative know-how, and money as any non-incumbent in Florida, in a youth-filled district centered around the University of Central Florida.
“It’s a great development to see so many great LGBT candidates running for office. It can only change hearts and minds,” said Smith, who is a lobbyist for Equality Florida. “It puts forward real people as examples for a community that, for some legislators, is an unknown entity.”
Smith believes it’s a result of the maturation of the relationship and acceptance between the general public and the LGBT community; a relationship helped by the trailblazers such as Richardson.
“It’s also becoming less of a novelty, which is a good thing,” he added.
The other three Central Florida gay candidates have tough Democratic primaries. And each of those three primaries includes a straight opponent who has a long and deep background supporting LGBT issues, potentially splitting votes among those who want to forward gay rights issues.
In Tuura’s case, she also would have to defeat an incumbent Republican, state Rep. Mike Miller, in November. Crabtree and Poe also would have Republican opponents, but both of their districts lean strongly Democratic.
Smith is the overt LGBT activist, the candidate who looks most natural with a rainbow shirt and a megaphone in his hand. He also has legislative savvy. Before he became Equality Florida’s lobbyist, he was Saunders’ legislative aide. His effort to reclaim Saunders’ district for the Democrats became a near-certainty last fall when incumbent state Rep. Rene Plasencia, who beat Saunders in 2014, decided to switch districts this year.
If elected, Smith would become the first openly gay Hispanic lawmaker in Tallahassee.
Poe and Tuura are more subtle about their sexual identities. Both are active in the LGBT community’s public programs and rallies, and both have made sure voters know they are gay. But their identities are far more tied to routine Democratic platforms and policies, except for Poe’s active efforts this summer to educate the community about HIV — he’s HIV-positive himself — and AIDS.
If elected, Poe would become Florida’s first openly gay congressman (perhaps along with Crabtree.) He also would become the first member of Congress ever known to be HIV-positive.
He has a tough row to hoe first. CD-10’s leading candidate is former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings. Also running are state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, whom district voters know well; and lawyer Fatima Rita Fahmy, who’s been a visible and enthusiastic ally of the LGBT community and supporter of gay rights for 30 years.
If elected, Tuura could become the first openly gay woman in the Florida Legislature (perhaps along with Armstead and Webb.)
First Tuura would have to defeat Democratic lawyers Clint Curtis and Henry Lim in the primary. And Lim’s record of supporting the LGBT community is so strong he’s won awards from LGBT organizations. Then there will be Miller in November, in the swing district.
“We’re kind of at this tipping point, where the world, or at least a lot of the world, is accepting that we’re a part of the community,” Tuura said. “We’re an important part of the community, and we’re here, and there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Tuura said she had received no backlash as a candidate.
“From making phone calls and going door-to-door, I am pretty open about it because I don’t want people to be surprised,” Tuura said. “I haven’t received one negative comment or response.”
If elected, Crabtree could become the only openly gay woman member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first from Florida.
Crabtree makes no secret of her sexual identity but also makes little issue of it, though she’s quietly been a supporter of gay-rights organizations for decades. Her campaign prefers to characterize her as an ordinary Jane, a longtime Osceola County resident with a family and business, and active roles in mainstream community organizations. And if people ask, they would learn, oh, she’s also gay, then perhaps be surprised that she’s so much like them in every other way.
Crabtree is a long shot in a Democratic primary that includes state Sen. Darren Soto, who is vying to become Florida’s first Puerto Rican member of Congress in a district with a huge Puerto Rican population; Dena Grayson, who is married to the incumbent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson; and Susannah Randolph, a former activist who, like Fahmy and Lim, has such a strong relationship with Orlando’s gay community that she’d look natural standing next to Smith, sharing the megaphone.
Yet while both Pollitzer and Imse talk about the importance of having allies like Randolph, Lim and Fahmy, they also speak of the additional significance to the LGBT community of having actual gay lawmakers. There is the prospect that straight colleagues with limited contact with the gay community will feel more comfortable after working with gay colleagues. And there is the possibility that harshly-anti gay legislation will get at least watered down, if not defeated, because lawmakers have to look in the eye colleagues they’ve come to respect.
There’s more to it than that, Sheehan said.
“I love our allies, but there’s nothing like having your place at the table,” Sheehan said. “There’ve been times I’ve worked with very, very wonderful allies who’ve just not had the life experiences I have. It’s importance that LGBT candidates also support the issues, but that life experience is important.
“I love Mayor [Buddy] Dyer, but he cannot understand what it was like to be in the Pulse nightclub,” Sheehan continued.
All of the candidates have firsthand experiences with anti-gay hatred, and all of them still face legal discrimination, for in Florida it is legal for businesses to fire employees just for being gay. All of them promote legislation to stop that. But it also becomes more generalized.
“My thing is, we, all of us, need to have equal rights. I think that’s the story here,” Crabtree said. “It’s not that I’m focused on any particular group. I want all of us to have equal rights. Because I am gay, I’ve had some painful things happen in my past. This has caused me, I believe, to have a greater level of empathy for other groups that are discriminated against, and that could be discriminated against.”