When the Florida Democratic Party turned to Sarasota City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie as a surrogate, it left some activists on the Gulf Coast angry based a years-long strain with the city official over gay rights.
On Sept. 20, Eddie led a protest outside a Ron DeSantis rally, where the Florida Democratic Party billed her as the top speaker. She welcomed the role as a chance to chastise DeSantis for gutting health care protections to those with pre-existing conditions.
“I care about working families having access to affordable health care,” Eddie told Florida Politics, “as a business owner, an attorney who represents low to moderate income clients with families, and as a working class individual.”
But area activists say the city official does not stand for one Democratic constituency: LGBT Americans.
Eddie’s tension with the community began in 2015, shortly after her successful run for Sarasota City Commission. At the time of her campaign, she’d won the endorsement of the pro-LGBT Equality Florida, as well as Ruth’s List, which helps elect pro-choice Democratic women, based on candidate questionnaires.
But after defeating a Republican incumbent, Stan Zimmerman, she emailed the two left-leaning organizations asking to be taken off their lists of supported candidates.
“I’m writing to inform you of my continued personal struggles and spiritual conviction with continuing to be listed as a supporter of the primary legislative goals of Equality Florida, which advocate for marriage equality among same-sex couples and abortion rights for women,” she wrote in an email to that organization.
“As an attorney, I fully support equal protection under the laws of our land, and disapprove of governmental interference with a woman’s decisions concerning her body. However, as a Christian and a child of God, I believe in God’s definition of marriage, as a holy covenant ordained by God between a man and a woman, and that life begins at conception. Accordingly, I personally disapprove of women making the decision to terminate their own pregnancy.”
The missive immediately thrust the elected official into scandal.
“You don’t have an epiphany about your public views after you win an election,” said Gabriel Hament, a Democratic consultant involved in a separate city election at the time. “She had no intention, from my point of view, of informing the public to the fact she had not been forthright in her responses to the questionnaires.”
He noted her email to the organizations — she sent a similar request to Ruth’s List — specifically asking that her answers to questions be expunged.
Now, Hament says, he’s frustrated the Democratic Party, or Gillum’s campaign would turn to Eddie to represent the party at a public event.
Ken Shelin, a former Sarasota commissioner and co-chair of Equality Florida at the time of the questionnaire kerfuffle, remains frustrated Eddie used the group to get elected, then distanced herself from its message.
“I was calling for her resignation at the time,” Shelin said. He also tried to get the Florida Bar after she publicly misrepresented a political view.
Karma’s long wrath
Republicans never forgot the incident either. When DeSantis held his rally in Sarasota last week, Republican Party of Sarasota Chair Joe Gruters called out Democrats for poor judgment in inviting Shelli to speak.
With Gillum and Democrats calling for inclusiveness and criticizing DeSantis for “dog-whistle politics,” Gruters said the party should be careful who speaks for its own platform.
“Here you have one person who has not been inclusive, and who has been called out by the LGBT community as not inclusive,” Gruters said. “I think it’s interesting they would lead with her, based on her background. They are trying to make Republicans look racist and sexist, but the one leading the protest here locally is the one who has gotten in trouble.”
Of course, Eddie’s election also helped install the first all-Democrat city commission in years. She’s also the first black candidate ever elected to a city position outside of a district drawn specifically to produce minority representation.
She dismissed criticism from Gruters. “I have no comment,” she said. “If he has concerns, questions or specific inquiries, he is free to contact me personally.”
She’s tried in intervening years to make a delineation clear between her religious beliefs and views on public policy. When Hament led an ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent her selection as mayor in 2017, she stressed to ABC-7 WWSB that she’s always supported equal protection under the law for LGBT people.
“There’s no intention on my part to do anything that would remove rights, reduce rights or do anything that would make it more difficult for any individual, including members of the LGBT community to exercise their rights,” she told the news station.
Tensions between Shelin and Eddie remain years later. He most recently has pushed for Sarasota City Commissioners to impose a local ban on conversion therapy for youth similar to that proposed by Equality Florida at the state level.
Eddie voted against the measure in February. At the time, she said her concerns stemmed from conversations with parents who “question whether the government can say it knows better than an individual parent regarding the relationship between them and their child.”
Shelin said it’s a mistake for Democrats to continue to embrace anti-LGBT politicians at a time when activists become increasingly activated. He noted many fundraisers and canvassing events in the Sarasota area organized by gay activists, and said Democrats couldn’t risk potentials gains this year by upsetting a significant voting bloc.
As for Eddie?
“I don’t have much confidence in her,” Shelin said.