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5/31/2007

Politics

GLENDA THE GOOD WITCH
Surprise! Glenda Hood did more for gays than Buddy Dyer has

 

It took only two votes, on the same subject, for Glenda Hood to become the bane of Orlando’s gay community. In November 2002, and again in December of the same year, the Republican former mayor voted with the city council’s biddy block – former commissioner Vicki Vargo and soon-to-be-former commissioner Betty Wyman – against an amendment that would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians anywhere inside city limits.

Shortly thereafter, then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Hood secretary of state and she resigned her mayoral post. Think those events were coincidental? Think again.

That Hood wanted out of her fabled red chair was an open secret. For more than a year, rumors floated that Hood was aggressively seeking an ambassadorship from George W. Bush. That never materialized. But Hood was on her way out, and Tallahassee seemed a likely destination. She’d been one of Bush’s chief fund-raisers, after all, and big-time fund-raisers often get rewarded with cushy jobs.

But prominent Republicans don’t get appointments from conservative governors if they give full-throated support to the “special rights” gays are after. So, although a lot of Hood’s gay-friendly allies were stunned by the vote – “This is truly out of character for this woman,” commissioner Daisy Lynum said at the time – the Machiavellian maneuverings weren’t that difficult to decipher.

Hood claimed she voted on principle: The city didn’t need to change the law to accommodate “lifestyle choices” because it was already gay-friendly. The gay community didn’t buy her explanation.

“The fact [is] that she was working behind the scenes to get it to pass,” says Patrick Howell, a lawyer who heads the Orlando chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans. He and others in the gay community say that, even as Hood announced she’d vote against the law, she made sure it would pass.

“She had staff work behind the scenes on it,” echoes commissioner Patty Sheehan, the ordinance’s loudest proponent on the council. Sheehan says Hood was onboard until the specter of a state appointment came into play. “If she had [supported the ordinance], there’s no way Jeb Bush would have appointed her to secretary of state.”

That sentiment is also reflected in a December 2002 editorial in the gay publication Watermark that imagines Hood orchestrating the vote’s outcome behind closed doors. And according to newspaper articles published at the time, Hood had told activists that she was on their side.

In May 2002, Sheehan pressed the Chapter 57 issue to Hood’s chief of staff, who told her to wait until commissioner-elect Phil Diamond was sworn in, replacing ordinance opponent Don Ammerman. Hood wanted another ally on the council before forging ahead.

“She told us that she had not brought it to a vote because she did not know where the votes were,” Joan Ruffier, who had worked on Hood’s long-ago city council campaign, told the Sentinel for an Oct. 27, 2002, story, “and she was reluctant to bring it to a vote until she knew there were enough votes to pass it.”

Only Hood knows her true motivations. But the fact is the gay community made significant progress during her decade-long tenure.

In 2000, two years before the Chapter 57 ordinance passed, the city extended anti-discrimination protections to its workers. That same year, the city elected Sheehan, its first openly gay commissioner. (Not a direct correlation, perhaps, but evidence that the city became more gay-friendly under her reign.)

In 1998, the Hood-run city flew Gay Pride flags downtown despite the ominous warnings of the Rev. Pat Robertson, and despite the loud objections of the local religious right. She routinely appointed openly gay people to city advisory boards. She was a huge proponent of the arts and theater communities. (Again, no direct correlation, but you get the idea.)

Thus, it’s not surprising that Hood enjoyed wide support from the gay community – until November 2002, anyway. Even then, there’s circumstantial evidence that Hood knew her “nay” vote would lose out, and the ordinance would pass without her pissing off the area’s conservatives. Consider the fact that she scheduled a vote. Under Orlando’s system of government, the mayor sets the agenda. If Hood didn’t want the ordinance to come up, she could have shelved it. And after the ordinance passed, she could have vetoed it, which the knuckle-draggers begged her to do. She didn’t.

Chapter 57 became law because Glenda Hood allowed it. Argue all you want that it’s cowardly to oppose something you really support for political expediency. But under Hood, the local gay-rights movement got results. How much of that was Hood and how much just the byproduct of urban evolution is debatable, but progress happened.

Let’s compare this, then, to the four-year-plus tenure of our “progressive” Democratic mayor, Buddy Dyer. Surely he’s one-upped Hood’s queer résumé during his time in office, right? He not only doesn’t have to kiss the ring of social conservatives to get re-elected, he’s got an overwhelmingly Democratic city council to support his “progressive” agenda.

So what has Buddy done for the gay community?

We asked him. This is, verbatim, the response we got from the mayor’s office nine days later, after they had plenty of time to formulate an answer: “Mayor Dyer was the first mayor to attend Gay Days and be apart [sic – Freudian slip?] of the festivities.”

That he was. It’s no secret that Buddy actively courts the gay community and has lots of gay supporters. He pays terrific lip service. But action has been thin.

Has the city set up a domestic partnership registry for gay (and unmarried straight) couples, like Broward County did in January 1999? That ordinance allows unmarried cohabitating couples – gay or straight – who register with the county to get the same prison or hospital visitation rights as married couples. In 2001, the Florida Supreme Court gave the registry the thumbs-up. But it’s not on Buddy’s agenda.

Broward County also extends health-insurance benefits to the domestic partners of its employees and gives its contractors incentives to do the same. Orlando doesn’t. Also, Orlando’s Chapter 57 ordinance doesn’t mention gender identity; Sheehan says adding it in 2002 would have cost her a needed vote. Dyer, apparently, isn’t eager to revisit the subject.

“Buddy really hasn’t done anything,” Sheehan says.

When she pressed for health-insurance benefits for the partners of gay city workers, Sheehan says Dyer told her, “We’ve hired your partner, what’s the problem?” (Sheehan’s partner, Jocelynn White, is the city’s After School All Stars Cultural Arts Specialist. She makes $24,214 a year, according to records.)

Sheehan says Dyer also told her he wants gay police and firefighters to lobby him – evidence that there is a need – before he pushes to give their partners benefits.

“He’s not going to get out in front,” Sheehan says. “I haven’t seen that level of support, even though I’ve asked for it.”

That said, Sheehan still showed up at Dyer’s re-election kickoff fund-raiser. “He’s been good to me,” she says.

Buddy’s not a bigot. But on this issue, he’s not a leader either.

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com
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