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5/31/2007

Politics

TIME TO GO
Patty Sheehan has become what she first campaigned against: an out-of-touch bureaucrat with bad ideas

 

It’s unfashionable to say this, but it’s time for Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan to go.

It’s unfashionable because Sheehan, as everybody knows by now, is Orlando’s first openly gay public official, and as such has helped this city grow up, something it desperately needs to do. She demonstrated that a candidate who wasn’t part of the white, conservative, predominantly male establishment could win an election, and she did it against an incumbent.

But the promise of progressive, open-minded leadership that she used to squeak by Bill Bagley in 2000 remains unfulfilled. In six years on the city council Sheehan has turned out to be a one-trick pony, and a deep disappointment if you care about issues beyond gay rights. And even if that’s all you care about, Sheehan hasn’t risen to the challenge of standing up to Orlando’s entrenched power base. If Patty Sheehan is the face of progressive politics in Orlando, progressives are in deep trouble.

Sheehan took her first crack at public office in 1996, when she ran for an open seat in District 4. She was one of six candidates, and she stood out not just because she was a lesbian, but because she was honest and talked about things that resonated.

“My biggest concern politically has been fairness,” she told the Orlando Sentinel in March 1996, “that everybody is treated equally. I’ve always been a person to speak up against injustice.”

Bill Bagley won that race, but Sheehan proved resolute. She learned to campaign and she raised her profile by becoming the president of her neighborhood association, and in 2000 she beat Bagley.

Once in office, Sheehan took aim at the odious tandem housing trend, which allows building two residences on a single city lot. (Full disclosure: My own neighborhood, near Greenwood Cemetery, is being overrun with tandem housing. I was very excited to hear that Sheehan opposed it, but her opposition never amounted to much outside of the historic districts and her own neighborhood in Colonialtown.)

The same year she successfully pushed to get sexual orientation added to the list of categories for which city employees can’t be discriminated against. Procedurally, the move was a master stroke; this sea change in city philosophy was hidden in the consent agenda for the express purpose of eliminating griping from wack-job conservatives who carped endlessly about the city flying the rainbow flag two years earlier. “Frankly, we just didn’t want to deal with three hours of nasty stuff like we did with the flags,” Sheehan was quoted as saying in the Sentinel in September 2000.

In 2001 she pissed off residents of Audubon Park by shoving sidewalks down their throats, but sidewalks have a place in urban planning, so let’s call that a wash.

Gay rights came up again in 2002 with the city’s infamous – and overblown – Chapter 57 fight, which protected gays from discrimination citywide. Sheehan led the charge and orchestrated the vote. It was major coup, and a leap forward for the city.

It was also five years ago. Ask yourself this: What has Patty done for us lately? Let’s see.

In 2003 she refused to “go out on a limb” and support a toothless show resolution denouncing the USA PATRIOT Act, as 411 other cities, counties and states (as of May 22) have done. She told this paper that while people who opposed PATRIOT had a friend in her, she didn’t want to embarrass the mayor. A fair-weather friend, then.

In 2004 she plunged the entire city into a partisan bitchfest by accusing mayoral candidate Pete Barr Sr. of uttering the word “nigger” at a party. The accusation was unprovable, of course, and conveniently served only to make her friend Buddy Dyer look better. Barr very well may have said it, but no matter; the timing was suspicious and the whole affair was slimy.

More recently, Sheehan’s two pieces of signature legislation have shown just how far she’s come as a politician. In 2006, she orchestrated a change in state law that allows cities to decide whether or not to allow pets in restaurants. Orlando quickly allowed them, thanks to her tireless efforts. A few months later, she was out in front of an ordinance that bans feeding homeless people in city parks. Fairness and injustice notwithstanding, those people are unsightly and upsetting to the potential buyers of downtown condos and need to be shuffled off under a bridge.

Just to review: dogs eating in restaurants, OK; homeless eating in parks, not OK.

Sheehan’s also been a stalwart defender of building the downtown venues, never once displaying the slightest curiosity about whether or not hundreds of millions in tax dollars to subsidize private enterprises is really the best use of the city funds; asking questions like that does not toe the Dyer line, and there is no way she’s going against her Buddy. (She did once raise an objection to the lack of parking for Joe Sixpack at the proposed new arena, though. Very egalitarian of you, Patty.)

In fact, if you wave enough money around, Sheehan doesn’t seem to care where it comes from. Here’s a quote from her published in this paper in January at the end of a story about Amway, the highly controversial legal pyramid scheme that purchased naming rights for the current arena: “I’m not as concerned about Amway, or where they’re at, or if they’re even in the market. If they’re willing to cough up a million and half a year for a nonexistent company, I don’t really care. Money’s money.”

When first elected in 2000, Sheehan portrayed her District 4 predecessor, Bagley, as an out-of-touch bureaucrat who made appalling decisions. Et tu, Patty?

bwhitby@orlandoweekly.com
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