Politics in Orlando now takes place in a post-Pulse city

Pulse victims flag

A before-and-after time line now exists for Orlando – June 12, 2016 – and on this side of the Pulse massacre the city may be seen by the world and through its own citizens’ eyes as a very different place, with a new political perspective.

Before June 12, Orlando was a city without an an image, an identity or, most importantly, a unifying factor for its people that didn’t involve mouse ears or rocketing roller coasters.

It took horror, pain, shock, suffering, outrage to change that. It took the unthinkable, the unbearable. It took June 12. Nothing good may ever be attributed to the slaughter of 49 people and destruction of countless other lives that took place at the popular gay nightclub Pulse, perpetrated by the ISIS-pledging, gay-hating madman Omar Mateen.

But in the aftermath, a new, Orlando emerged, pledging unity, support, hope, faith, understanding and love. Politics in Orlando now takes place in a post-Pulse city.

That became clear in the responses of a score of Orlando political leaders who expressed to FloridaPolitics.com how Pulse has changed things.

“We are kinder to one another,” said longtime Democratic Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the LGBT godmother voice for Orlando.

“Gay, straight, trans, black, Latino, Muslim, Evangelical, Atheist, Democrat, Republican – you name it. We were all there for each other,” said Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who also is gay.

For now, the post-Pulse period has only just begun, said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a Republican. All of that unity, support, hope, faith, understanding and love still is needed, must continue for practical reasons, she said.

“I think it’s very important to realize that a lot of people – especially those most traumatized by the Pulse violence – are still in the beginning stages of processing what they’ve actually been through, and how it has affected them,” Jacobs said. “So I want to be very clear in reassuring people that how they feel, how they act, and how they grieve and recover is an incredibly personal and individual path. Each survivor, victim, family or friend of those who perished needs this community to be their soft shoulder, and to extend understanding and compassion as each of us travels the path to healing.”

And perhaps to extend that understanding, compassion and healing elsewhere. A number of area politicians, including Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, a Republican, and Commissioner Victoria Siplin, a Democrat, spoke of extending love and support beyond Pulse, to address the victims and communities such as Pine Hills experiencing their own violent horrors, or at least to keep the momentum going. Orlando City Commissioner Robert Stuart is formally looking for ways to foster that, through a “Compassionate City” project he, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and the city commission launched in August.

“I hope that the unity that brought our great community together these past few months continues into the new year,” said Congresswoman-elect Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat. “I also think this tragedy has caused many of us to get more involved in our community to honor the lives lost and to help prevent tragedies like this from happening again.”

Support for Orlando’s gay community is now the standard in political rhetoric. Recognition of Orlando’s Hispanic community, particularly the hard-hit Puerto Rican community, is nearly universal.

“It made everyone everyone confront the horrors of homophobia and its root causes,” said Anthony Suarez, a Republican lawyer who chairs the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Central Florida. “Those that profess that gays and lesbians are sinners and committing sin had to reflect on their comments and the results of such. For a very religious community, the reaction was overwhelming support and a mainstreaming of tolerance.”

“It’s been very fascinating,” added Clarke, “My circle of friends and other folks, I’ve seen a softening. It’s sad it takes a tragedy to do that.”

Yet some divides remain, now hardened by the affirmations Pulse brought to very different beliefs held by people on opposite sides of existing divides. Almost every Democrat believes the introspection of the massacre surely, finally, signals a change in the popular thinking tide on gun control, while virtually no Republican concedes that point.

“We have a moment in time where our voices can be louder than most in calling for serious gun safety reforms,” said Democratic activist Susannah Randolph.

Others prefer to put the focus on better-supporting law enforcement. “We must stay vigilant and ensure that law enforcement has the tools they need in order to protect us,” said Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey, a Republican.

Sheriff Jerry Demings, a Democrat, couldn’t have agreed more, saying, “The Pulse nightclub incident represents a paradigm shift in how terror subjects now see soft targets within the continental US, as their primary targets for violence. American cities must prepare for the change in strategy and develop plans to prevent, respond to, and mitigate terror attacks.”

Many Republicans said they see the Pulse massacre as Demings implied, an act of radical Islamic terrorism.

“The tragedy at the Pulse nightclub confirmed to me that the appeasement of any radical group, such as ISIS and it’s supporters, will not work,” said Republican state Sen. David Simmons.

Few Democrat cite terrorism at Pulse, and some even dismiss it.

“Terrorism based on religion has nothing to do with it,” said Democratic attorney John Morgan. “That is the cover to give that miserable miscreant cover for a higher purpose.”

There also is a sense of fear, of driving the horrors of the world home.

“When I go to crowded public places, there’s a bit of anxiety while I constantly look over my shoulder at the people around me and the nearest exit points,” said Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, a Democrat. “This is not how we should live, but it is embedded into our psyche now.”

Lost, perhaps, to many non-Puerto Ricans are the ties that Pulse has brought with the island.

“Many of these people who lost their lives on this tragic date are from Puerto Rico, the island of my parents, the place I few up in,” said state Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican. “The tragedy not only affected Orlando, but also had a huge impact on Puerto Rico… We saw the whole world in mourning.”

And the whole world has watched, Mayor Jacobs said.

“I think it’s important for us to understand that how the world sees us – how the world views Central Florida – has changed,” Jacobs said. “We’ve long enjoyed a global reputation as a fantastic leisure and business destination, but now, the entire world has watched as we’ve come together, in seamless unity, like no community before us. The world has watched us respond to the victims’ families, those who survived, those with broken hearts and bodies, our first and second responders – our extraordinary outpouring of acceptance and love came naturally, from within the fabric of this community. So I would say that as we heal, let’s not forget that through our individual and collective actions, we’ve not only changed how the world perceives us, we’ve learned something wonderful about ourselves. Let’s cherish and nourish not only our famed culture of collaboration, but our extraordinary culture of caring.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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