Miami Beach’s gay community is buzzing with talk that, for the first time in Florida history, an openly gay state legislator could win office and sit in the state House.
The promise of a first-ever gay lawmaker became a real possibility last week Rep. Richard Steinberg resigned Friday amid a scandal involving inappropriate sex-text messages he sent to a female federal prosecutor.
At the same time, the Legislature has signed off on new legislative maps that rejigger the boundaries of Steinberg’s District 106, which has all of the gay “mecca” of Miami Beach, said CJ Ortuno, executive director of Save Dade.
The new district is among the most liberal and Democratic in the state.
“We have never had the opportunity that this new district presents for the LGBT community,” said Ortuno, using the shorthand for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “We are going to be contacting people in the community,” he said, “planting the seed and watch for a reaction.”
Gov. Rick Scott has not set a special election date to replace Rep. Steinberg, but both political parties seem in no rush to fill his seat. The primary could take place along with the others in the state Aug. 14.
Ortuno said Save Dade, which raises about $300,000 annually from donors, has about 50,000 members and gay-community contacts – about 10,000 of whom live in Miami Beach.
Meantime, an openly gay activist from the Orlando area, Joe Saunders, has filed to run as a Democrat for House District 49 in Central Florida. An openly gay Wilton Manors Republican, Scott Herman, has filed to oppose incumbent Democratic Rep. Gwendolyn Clark-Reed.
Paradoxically, an openly gay lawmaker who advocates for the LGBT community could also help conservatives because gay issues can be divisive in the Democratic caucus. One of the bases of the Democratic party, African-Americans, have a tendency to oppose issues such as gay marriage. In 2008, for instance, Florida exit polls showed that black voters were the most-supportive of a constitutional gay-marriage ban.
“There can be some division here,” said Bill Bunkley, head lobbyist and chief executive officer of the conservative Florida Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is connected to the Florida Baptist Convention.
“What I’ve seen in the African-American community is that many of their representatives practice their faith,” he said, “and aren’t inclined to be supportive of homosexual issues and that lifestyle.”
Bunkley said religious conservatives oppose legislation geared toward helping gays because the Bible speaks against homosexuals as well as fornicators and adulterers – the latter two of which don’t have lobbies.
But another conservative activist, David Caton with the Florida Family Association, said he detects an increasing amount of support for some gay issues, such as the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the granting of some civil-rights protections to gays.
"It's not just the African American community or among Democrats that we're seeing this kind of support," Caton said. "Even among Republicans who oppose changing the definition of marriage, there's more of a tolerance for gays in the military or changing discrimination law."
Ortuno acknowledged that there could be some discomfort with a gay legislator who advocates for equality. He said Florida’s civil rights law, for instance, doesn’t protect employees, bank customers or renters from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
“It’s not the worst thing to remind people of both parties that this is a human rights issue,’ Ortuno said.