BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
A day after President Barack Obama announced support for gay marriage and on the eve of his accepting an award from Miami-Dade County’s leading gay rights group, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has tip-toed out of the political closet.
“I have a record fighting against discrimination and standing up for people’s civil rights based on their sexual orientation,” Nelson said in an email Thursday to The Miami Herald, not revealing whether he agrees with Obama’s progressive stance on gay couples marrying. “I believe marriage should be left to the states, and Florida voted on same-sex marriage in 2008.”
“That’s interestingly safe,” said C.J. Ortuño, executive director of SAVE Dade, which Friday night presents Nelson its 2012 Champions of Equality Award. “Bill spent his whole career saying I’m not this liberal Democrat, parts of me are conservative.”
Like most Democrats in today’s national spotlight, Florida’s senior senator is walking a political tightrope, not wanting to turn off the traditional liberal base — or the moderates and independents needed to win a statewide election.
“Florida is not one state. It’s three or four,” said Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward County Democratic Executive Committee and a Democratic National Committee member. “South Florida is like the Northeast; Central Florida is like the Midwest; and North Florida is the real South.”
Nelson, running for reelection in November, points to a record that includes co-sponsoring new anti-bullying legislation to protect children based on sexual orientation; advocating to provide medication for poor people with AIDS; and co-sponsoring repeal in 2010 of the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
“I was proud to do so,” Nelson said in e-mailed remarks he plans to give Friday night at the SAVE Dade fundraiser. “The courage, the bravery, the sacrifice and the patriotism of all Americans who serve deserve no less.”
Nelson was unavailable to be interviewed directly, according to his Washington press office.
SAVE Dade will honor Nelson specifically for his role in repealing the military gay ban. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, is scheduled to introduce him.
“Sen. Nelson voted with his constituents and, what we believe, was his conscience in ending the military ban known as ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’" Ortuño said. “Elected officials uniquely occupy a place in our movement that they get to publicly declare their position on our issues in the form of a vote.”
Nelson has not co-sponsored several other issues important to many gay activists, including the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; and the Uniting American Families Act, which would grant legal status to same-sex partners of U.S. citizens and legal residents.
“We still have work to do with Sen. Nelson,” Ortuño said. “He’s not 100 percent on the issues, but he is one of our two senators and SAVE Dade is committed to chipping away at Sen. Nelson’s challenges in supporting full equality.”
Ceasar said Nelson, like other Democrats, is in the difficult position of trying to make everyone happy.
“Which by definition is impossible,” Ceasar said. “Anyone who tries to make everyone happy makes no one happy in politics. As in life.”
His advice to Nelson and other Democrats grappling with gay marriage and other hot-button issues:
“They’re going to have to make decisions based on their own thoughts,” Ceasar said. “I would say to them, ‘With one eye look into your own heart. With your other eye, look at the demographics of where you are.’”
IF YOU GO
SAVE Dade’s annual Champions of Equality reception is 6-9:30 p.m. Friday at LMNT, 55 NW 36th St. Honorees are U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and White & Case, a national law firm with a Miami office that represented the gay Log Cabin Republicans in a 2010 federal lawsuit to repeal the military gay ban. Tickets are $95; $125 night of the event.