by Anthony Man
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
As a young woman, Betty James never imagined gays and lesbians exercising political clout. Seeing openly gay men and women elected to office seemed even more far-fetched.
Now, at age 82, James is living proof of a dramatic change in American attitudes. An out-of-the-closet lesbian, James is the mayor of Cloud Lake in Palm Beach County.
How much have things changed since James started voting almost six decades ago? Cloud Lake, population 170, where James lives with her partner, is the kind of place where pretty much everyone knows her story.
“It didn’t hurt my candidacy at all,” she said. In the 2008 election, she won 82.5 percent of the vote.
James is among an estimated 20 to 25 openly gay and lesbian elected officials in Florida, all at the local and county level. Getting a count that high means casting a wide net, including an openly gay commissioner of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.
Gay activists and political analysts think their ranks could swell with this year’s elections. By the time candidates finished qualifying for office Friday, there were openly gay candidates in South Florida running for the state House, state Senate and Congress. There’s also a transgender congressional candidate.
“By Florida standards, there’s been an explosion of gay candidates and activity and openly gay elected officials,” said Eric Johnson, who was chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.
Johnson, now a political consultant in Fort Lauderdale and Washington, D.C., said Florida could elect its first openly gay state legislator or member of Congress this year.
“The likelihood of adding gay elected officials in 2010 is quite high. It seems to me that we’ve turned a little corner in Florida as it relates to openly gay candidates seeking office and being seen as legitimate candidates,” he said.
It’s part of a broader change, said Hastings Wyman, who founded the newsletter Southern Political Report more than three decades ago.
“It’s been dramatic,” Wyman said. “The whole region has become much more accepting. Virtually every southern state now has one or more openly gay elected officials. I think Mississippi is the only holdout. When I first started writing, the only gay official in the South was the mayor of Key West.”
On Sunday, several of South Florida’s openly gay elected officials – and even more candidates – are planning to rally supporters in the gay community by marching in the annual Stonewall Street Festival gay pride parade. It’s held in Wilton Manors, where a majority of the City Commission is openly gay.
Among them is Donna Milo, one of three Republicans seeking her party’s nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. Milo is transgender. She was raised as a male and is now a woman.
“It’s an element of my life. It doesn’t define my values, my goals, my political ambitions, my conservative positions. It’s simply an element of my life and doesn’t define who I am,” Milo said.
Benjamin Lewis, president of the gay political group Sunshine Republicans, said Milo has been changing attitudes on the campaign trail.
He said he’s been to events at which people initially judge Milo unfavorably because she’s transgender. After hearing her speak, “people are standing back and saying, ‘Wow, this woman knows what she’s talking about.’”
Also marching in the parade is Broward’s highest-ranking openly gay elected official, County Commissioner Ken Keechl, who is currently serving his turn as county mayor and running for re-election.
A measure of the significance of the gay community’s political clout: Keechl’s challenger, former Broward Republican Chairman Chip LaMarca, is among the straight political candidates planning to march in the parade. Other straight participants include Republican Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink.
One reason they feel comfortable marching in a gay pride parade is candidates have more to gain by appealing to gay and lesbian voters, than they fear losing by alienating straight voters who are hostile to gays. Rand Hoch, who helped found the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council in 1988, said there’s been a big change in the last 22 years.
“Back then, we had people who were running for office who didn’t want to be seen talking to us. We had people who said, ‘I want your support but I don’t want it publicly,’” he said. Now, he said, people seek out council leaders to find out when they’ll conduct endorsement interviews.
Still, there are limits for openly gay candidates. Florida has never elected an openly gay state senator or state representative.
One big reason, Wyman said, is the shape of legislative districts. “It has a lot to do with whether or not there legislative districts that are drawn so that they include a large gay community within a larger liberal electorate. If you’ve got one of those and you’ve got an open seat, then I think a gay candidate stands a good chance. If you don’t, I think it’s much less likely.”
Wyman said hurdles remain high, “especially in the South. I think people are far less anti-gay than they used to be, but the prejudice is still there.”
Still, each said it’s important to have openly gay officials helping make decisions.
Resnick just finished a year as president of the Broward League of Cities, where he brought forward resolutions that put the group representing the county’s municipal governments on record in support of overturning Florida’s ban on gay men and lesbians adopting children and adding sexual orientation to the state law banning discrimination in employment.
“I was in a position to get Broward County’s cities on board with supporting changes in legislation that have been discriminatory for years,” he said. “I don’t think it would have been on anybody’s radar.”
Successful candidates – James, Keechl and Wilton Manors Mayor Gary Resnick – said they didn’t run as gay activists. Instead, they emphasized issues important to all constituents, because gay-related issues aren’t the most important aspect of their jobs.
Resnick has been in elected office since 1998, when he joined the the Wilton Manors commission. Since then, he said, “it’s more and more becoming a non-issue.”
Jack Majeske, former president of the Broward Log Cabin Republicans gay political group, said that’s an especially common view among voters in their 40s and younger. Many simply don’t care if a candidate is gay. And as older voters who do care pass away, he said, the voters who see it as a non-issue will grow into a majority.
“It’s a non-issue with young people,” Majeske said. “The older, die-hard group, they’ll all die out.”