by Joseph Erbentraut
Tuesday Nov 24, 2009
With his election last week as Broward County’s new mayor for the 2009-2010 term, Ken Keechl holds a new distinction as part of an already impressive resume. Now responsible for overseeing a population of 1.8 million and a budget of $3.3 billion, Keechl is the highest-ranking openly gay mayor in the country.
But the news was not been exactly shocking to Keechl, whose 2006 election to the Broward County Commission already labeled him Florida’s highest-ranking openly gay politician of any stripe in the state’s history.
But perhaps, just two days after his appointment, coming off an evening spent in the company of Virgin America’s Sir Richard Branson, the news just had not yet sunk in when EDGE had the opportunity to talk with Keechl on his recent victory. He described his appointment both as "unbelievable" and "not shocking."
"It’s still a whirlwind," Keechl said. "But when I was elected to County Commission three years ago, that was probably more shocking to me. But I don’t think ’shocking’ is the right word as much as a ’hurdle.’ The historic nature of [that victory] really affected me."
’Hurdle’ feels both more accurate and familiar for Keechl, who said he grew up poor and was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He said he "figured out" a way to get to law school before opening his own firm. And Keechl pursued his political career with similar determination.
"I’ve always known if I wanted something, I could get it," he said. "I thought it would be extremely difficult for an openly gay or lesbian person to be elected to a position of power, one that I would want."
Angered over previous Commissioner Jim Scott’s questionable decisions related to land purchases, Keechl entered the race in 2006 amid concerns his socially progressive views and sexual orientation could have proven problematic within the predominantly Republican district. They weren’t. And he won the seat through his environmental positions and his pledge to not raise taxes.
During his tenure as commissioner, Keechl also played a heavy role in championing causes for the county’s LGBT residents, though he doesn’t describe these issues or his identity as his platform’s "primary consideration." His accomplishments include adding transgender people to the county’s Human Rights Ordinance, reinforcing nearly-mandatory domestic partner benefits and sponsoring resolutions against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Having already instituted "the bulk" of specific goals for LGBT-friendly legislation,Keechl said he plans to utilize his influence to pursue further progress in the socially conservative Sunshine State. As one example, he has endorsed the progressive Attorney General candidate Dave Aronberg. He said he did not anticipate the power of his mayoral influence.
"I think I was in the right place at the right time as a gay man to ascend to a position of power as commissioner and then as the mayor," Keechl said. "It also gives me some bargaining power to bring more attention to the social issues that are important to me and the economic issues that are important to my constituents."
And owing back to his sexual orientation, Keechl said he hopes to serve as a positive example of what openly LGBT political candidates can be and accomplish. His partner Ted Adcock has remained by his side through nearly every step of his campaign, including his swearing-in ceremony last week.
"It gives me an opportunity, and a burden of course, to show people in Florida that 1.8 million people can be lead by an openly gay man or lesbian and it can be done well," Keechl said. "I want to be a role model and I’ve always wanted that."
As he looks to the year ahead in these economically turbulent, socially divisive times, he said he anticipates a lot of hard work. And Keechl added he did not rule out opposition from the state’s conservative voices. He seems ready, however, for whatever comes his way.
"I am proud to be the mayor of Broward County, proud to be an openly gay man and proud to be a role model to the extent that I am," Keechl added. "This is a great job and you have to earn it every day so I’ll work twice as hard as I worked to get there to stay there. I am looking forward to the next 12 months."