Jacobs touts competence, explains LGBT views

By : Tom Dyer
Comments: 9

At a recent forum sponsored by the Metropolitan Business Association, the local LGBT community got a good look at three of the four candidates running for Orange County Mayor. Commercial real estate developer Matthew Falconer and sitting commissioners Bill Segal and Linda Stewart answered questions for more than two hours, some addressing LGBT issues, but many dealing with overall county governance.

Former commissioner Teresa Jacobs missed the forum when she was delayed at a meeting in Polk County and then caught in traffic. She later offered her regrets and expressed a willingness to address the issues raised in an interview. We took her up on the offer, and met at Watermark’s Orlando offices for a wide-ranging discussion on Thursday, August 12.

Where do you get your news? How do you make sure you stay informed?
That’s a good question. When I was on the county commission, an article came out that was critical of me because I had more subscriptions to local publications than any of the other commissioners. I guess shame on me for trying to stay abreast of things.

I read the Orlando Sentinel, the Orlando Business Journal, and some of the local weekly papers like the East Orlando Sun, the West Orange Times and the Apopka Chief. They’re all helpful in staying informed. Even though some of those papers are outside my district, as a commissioner you deal with land use issues throughout the county.

What about national publications or web sites? Any bloggers that you’re addicted to?

Finance is one of my primary interests, and I follow that in the Wall Street Journal. I don’t have time to read blogs, but fortunately my husband is a news hound. He usually starts my day telling me, ‘Here’s what’s going on,’ or ‘You need to read this.’

We complement each other like that. For instance, I hate to shop and he likes to shop. I didn’t know that when we got married, but what a godsend.

You were the last candidate to announce that you’re running. Why do you want to be Orange County’s mayor?
The motivation to run for county commission back in 2000 was pretty easy. I was very unhappy with my representative, and I couldn’t find anyone else to run.

I was totally apolitical 15 years ago, so this was a complete turnaround. The county decided to put a road through my neighborhood, they kept dumping more kids into my children’s classrooms, and portables started popping up all over. And so I thought, ‘Someone’s not doing something right around here.’ That’s what got me interested… very local issues that affected me and my family.

Prior to that I served for about four years as president of a volunteer board that represented about 100 neighborhood associations, and that’s where I really developed this passion for taking on the fight for the everyday person. We need a voice.

And then to run for mayor?
A lot of the same things… the simple things that I think government ought to be doing. I want a fiscally accountable government. I want a government that understands that its role is to serve citizens. Not to please everyone, not to pander, but to serve the best interests of the total population and not just those who are the most powerful or who contribute the most to campaigns. I want a government that’s looking out for me, the regular person.

When I ran for county commission I figured that if I can unseat the incumbent I will have won; I will have done a good thing. When I got there I discovered that the problems are a little bit bigger, a little bit broader, a little bit more impactful, a little more complicated. I think I got a lot of good things done, but a lot of them were harder than they should have been. And what I began to realize is that as a county commissioner I was just one voice constantly trying to fight the culture of government instead of changing it. I wasn’t in a position to change it. As county mayor, I can change it.

I know that sounds like bravado, but it’s because the position of county mayor is so strong. It’s the most powerful county government position in the State of Florida. No other county has our governance model. In Orange County, the mayor is both the chief executive officer of the county and also the chairman of the board, and so controls the agenda, the budget, and hires and fires all the staff. In most counties, board members are equal partners and they rotate the gavel.

This is a unique and powerful position, and with that power comes the potential to change the culture of the whole organization; to make it really accountable and responsible to people. And so that’s why I’m running.

As a commissioner you were often a very effective irritant to the powers that be, but being in charge is a different dynamic. Do you think you will be an effective leader?
I think so or I wouldn’t be running… and I’m keenly aware of the difference. It’s a valid question for you and public to ask. You were a good commissioner, but will you be a bad county mayor or a good county mayor? What skill sets do you have?

The reason I’m confident I can lead is that I’ve been in that position. I was elected president of the Florida Association of Counties. And I actually prefer to get along and to find solutions without fighting. I will fight if I have to fight, but it’s not what I like to do. I like to sit down with a bunch of people and figure out how to move things forward in a positive way. What’s the problem? What’s the solution? How can we all agree on it? On our board, too many times that wasn’t possible, because of the structure and because of the culture.

At the Florida Association of Counties, a troublemaker was not what we needed. We needed someone who could identify the problem, come up with a solution, build consensus. And I did it successfully. I worked with cities and counties all over the State of Florida on issues that they historically fight over.

For example, cities want to be able to annex whatever land they want; counties want to keep their high value land and get rid of their low value land. It’s a constant struggle. And I pulled cities and counties together and chaired a statewide committee to come up with legislation that we could agree on. It took six months, and it took me saying, ‘Okay, everyone take your hats off and switch them and try and understand what it’s like to be on the other side of this argument. Because if you can’t understand the other side, we’re not going to be able to reach a consensus that’s good for all of us.’ We wrote the legislation and we got it passed. It allows cities and counties to coexist more peacefully, and it creates the legal environment where cities and counties can do cooperative long term agreements that are cost effective for citizens, and without all the political battling.

The Orlando Sentinel endorsed you. I think a lot of people find your candidacy appealing because you have a reputation for asking tough questions, doing research and sticking with issues until they’re resolved.
We’re gonna get it done right rather than get it done fast. I like to get things done fast. I’m an impatient person. But in government, if you’re patient you’ll never get anything done. There’s a balancing act. You can do things fast that you live to regret six months later. And I’ve done that. I’m not always right, I know that. But I work darn hard trying to make sure I’m right.

In the Orlando Weekly, Billy Manes asked you—tongue in cheek, I’m sure—if you missed the MBA candidates forum because you hate gays. He quoted you as responding with, ‘Can I say I have gay friends?’ Do you want to elaborate on that answer? Do you have gay friends?
Of course I do. Tommy Manley and Chris Alexander-Manley [owners of GayDayS.com] live in my neighborhood and they’re good friends.
When Billy asked the question it was offensive to me. I have gay friends, and you can’t have gay friends if you hate gays. So I answered the question candidly and it was taken out of context.

You have four kids, all college age or close to it. There’s been a tremendous generational shift in terms of acceptance and, maybe more importantly, comfort level with gays and lesbians. Have you had discussions with them about this?
Oh gosh, yes. My kids talk to me about it without me bringing it up. A couple years ago they had a ‘Day of Silence’ protest at Olympia High School. Everyone who had respect and tolerance and that wasn’t prejudiced on the issue of gays or homosexuality wore a t-shirt and walked around silent all day. All my kids respect that, but my daughter was passionate on this issue.

You’re right. It’s no issue. It’s so funny with them… they’ll just say, ‘Oh yeah… so-and-so’s gay.’ Even quite a few years ago one of them said something like, ‘This one’s bi,’ and I thought, ‘I can’t believe they’re even saying this word.’

The reason I ask is that one of things most LGBT voters want to see in a political candidate is that, for lack of a better term, they ‘get it.’ That they understand that a certain number of people are gay, and that if everyone is encouraged to connect with each other, take care of each other and create rich lives, the entire community benefits. And government plays a role in that.

If one of your kids’ friends came to you and told you, ‘I’m gay and I don’t know what to do,’ what would you say to them?
I think what I would try to figure out is how to help them have that conversation with their parents. You can’t go through your life not being honest with your parents about who you are, and I think too many kids underestimate their parents. I know some folks that seemed pretty rigid in their belief systems, and who thought that [being gay] is a choice; that it is a conscious decision that is either right or wrong. Their kids did not want to tell them— and so I’ve been there.

Sometimes in life our beliefs are challenged, and most of us will use that as an opportunity to reassess our belief systems. Most parents love their kids, and most parents when faced with this will choose to love their child and recognize that maybe they’ve been wrong. So the advice that I gave was to have enough trust in your parents to have the conversation. It won’t be easy, and it may take them a little time, but have the conversation.

I want to share three situations that came up in my law practice—all in the last couple months—that illustrate how these issues of equality arise in the context of governance:

AT&T required a client of mine to obtain evidence that he was in a domestic partnership in order to get health insurance coverage for his partner, who had just lost his job. They had to go to Gainesville because it was the closest place that would register non-residents.
Another client, whose partner of seven years had just died of cancer, was told by the DMV that they could transfer title of her vehicle to a spouse or next of kin, but not to her.

A third client lost his partner of more than ten years in an accident, and even though they had every estate planning document imaginable the parents had to sign cremation and medical release forms.

Municipalities tend to grant the kinds of rights that create equality in stages: first, a non-discrimination policy for employees; then a human rights ordinance for the county, governing employment, housing and public accommodations; followed by partner benefits for employees; and finally a domestic partner registry. Orange County has the first, and the second for housing only, which I know you voted for. But can you share where you stand on each of these rights?
I struggle with the issue of requirements for private employers, especially in this economy. I don’t think we need more regulation, so I would set that aside in the ‘largely undecided’ camp.

And I’m still wrestling with the issue of health care benefits for county employees.   I want to know the cost, and I want to know how we ensure these are bona fide relationships. Do we create a situation where someone with, say, terminal cancer or some very expensive-to-treat disease has a friend who works for county government and so gets on the county’s health care plan? If that becomes a gaping loophole, insurance costs rise. Of course, you could have the same problem with marriage, so I haven’t figured this out.
But I have figured out that we need something that makes it official that some relationships are bona fide relationships, and that’s where I think the idea of domestic partnerships or civil unions has more standing. There ought to be something that you have that grants you the right to have these other privileges.

So if I’m hearing you correctly, if there is some way to ensure that these relationships are legitimate, you’re receptive to the idea of domestic partner benefits for county employees.
Right. I want something that creates some sort of validation that makes it a little harder than just coming in and saying, ‘Yep… this is my partner.’ Maybe that’s the registry that you’re talking about, but I haven’t spent a lot of time on this, and I don’t want to give you a definitive answer on a registry until I’ve thought it through a little more.

There are two hurdles for me: first, we have serious budget problems right now, and health care expenses are a huge part of the budget. So let’s understand the financial implications of expanding the coverage. And second, in order to be fair to people regardless of their sexual orientation, how do we create this equal benefit system without creating something that is easily misused.

Do you believe same-sex couples can have partnerships that are as serious and committed as opposite-sex couples?

Then why should the benefits for same-sex couples, who may really need them, be subject to economic limitations of the county when benefits for married couples are not?
That’s a very good question. As long as we can find a way to determine that these are really bona-fide, permanent lasting relationships—but that‘s still a problem, because some marriages don’t last very long.
So, I’m still struggling with the issue. Philosophically, I think we should do it. We just have to figure out the right way.

Speaking of marriage, you’re on the record as having voted for Amendment 2, which amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Can you explain that vote?
I think that that the term ‘marriage’ is a term for husband and wife. It doesn’t mean I’m against civil unions or domestic partnerships, but I believe marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman. Maybe that goes back to my religious beliefs…

You’re Catholic. Does that enter into your thinking when considering gay and lesbian issues?
On the one hand I want to say ‘no,’ but on the other hand, when confronted with the term ‘marriage,’ I think it applies to a husband and wife. But I also think the benefits that accrue for married people ought to be available for domestic partnerships between people for whom marriage doesn’t apply.

In our legal system, marriage is the relationship that confers those benefits. So unless you’re going to reduce everyone to a civil union that creates access to those benefits and make marriage strictly a religious institution, you have to make marriage available to everyone. Otherwise, you have a separate but equal situation that opens the door to all kinds of problems. So you would vote for Amendment 2 again?
Well, I would probably read the language very carefully, but I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I also think civil unions ought to be an option. I think a lot of the privileges and rights should be there, like making health care decisions for a partner dealing with terminal illness. Those kinds of decisions ought to be afforded to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation.

Even John Stemberger supports that one. Can you think of any right or any privelege that arises out of marriage that should not be afforded to same-sex couples?
No… I might be missing something, but no.

What about gay adoption?
I don’t support gay adoption at this point in time. I’ve answered that question before, and you and your readers deserve an explanation.

Gay marriage and gay adoption are not issues that you would address as County Mayor, and I understand that. But I think gays and lesbians have a right to understand where the most powerful elected official in the region is coming from.
Well, this is likely going to be an issue that we just disagree on, especially in light of the generational shifts we talked about. When it comes to adoption, I think the person in the equation whose rights and interests have to be respected above all else is the child, not the parents. And I’m not as convinced as you are that, as a society, we have arrived at a point where a child that grows up in a same-sex household will not be ridiculed and persecuted. In elementary school and junior high school that can be overwhelming.

I think the interests of the child are best served by giving them the best chance at a successful life. I’m not concerned about undue influence [by gay parents], which I know is a concern for some. I do believe we are born into this world whatever we are, and that each child will be whatever they are. But I worry… and it may go back to when I grew up, and I may not be acknowledging where we are. I may change my mind in another ten or 15 years.

Hopefully sooner than that.
Maybe sooner than that. I have been impressed watching my own kids, but I also remember my son coming home when he was in third grade and telling me, ‘Wow… everyone’s calling each other “gay boy.” What does that mean? It must be a really bad thing to be.’ That wasn’t too many years ago. I don’t think we’re quite past that.

What about a ‘best interests of the child’ standard where a judge would make the decision, but adoptions by gays and lesbians would be a legal option? Lots of kids—I believe it’s something like 3,000 a year in Florida—never find adoptive homes.
That is a really good question. My husband and kids and I have had a lot of conversations about this. Some things are black, and some things are white… some things are clear in my mind, and this one is not. This is one I struggle with. There are children who would certainly be better off in a loving family than foster home after foster home. The issue isn’t the loving family. The issue is the environment around the children.

But if we’re going to say to a gay couple that you can only adopt the children no one else will adopt, I struggle with that, too.

What if the person seeking the adoption is the child’s aunt or uncle, with a close bond to the child… say after a tragic accident involving the parents?
Well, that’s totally different. Family is family.

But it’s not different. I’m gay. I wouldn’t be allowed to adopt my nieces and nephews if their parents died.
But couldn’t you gain custody some other way?

I could become their legal guardian, but that’s different than becoming a legal parent.

What about the whole idea of underestimating people? Aren’t we underestimating the children, and the parents, when we say they’re not resilient enough to deal with harassment? It would make for an incredible growth experience.
You may be right. I’m telling you where I am right this minute, and I’m not saying that there aren’t two very legitimate sides to this argument. Adoption is not a local government thing, but I think that kids shouldn’t be adopted into any family that doesn’t have two parents. Lots of single moms raise their kids just fine, but the kid ought to be given the best possible family.

But do you think that’s realistic?
Can single people adopt?

I didn’t know that. If I ever run for something where I oversee adoption I’ll have to know this.

So you would not support repealing Florida’s ban on gay adoption? We’re the only state with a blanket ban. You’re pro that?
(Long pause.) Yes.

Many of these issues aren’t in the purview of County Mayor, so I want to thank you for your candor. In these tough times, I think it’s fair to say that many gays and lesbians will not cast their votes strictly on the basis of the LGBT issues we’ve just discussed. We all want to elect the candidate that can run this county most effectively. How will county government be different under you than under the previous administration?
It will be very different in two major ways. I want the way the board functions to change fairly dramatically, but I also want to change the whole culture of the organization.

We have a lot of good county staff, but we do not have the professional and ethical culture that I want to see for Orange County. Throughout my eight years as a commissioner I would get a phone call at home from a county employee that needed to tell me about something that was not going right. I was glad people trusted me enough to call me, but that bothered me because we had not created a system where county employees felt safe enough to come forward and point things out.

Also, we didn’t have a very fair system. Our county code didn’t apply the same way for everyone, whether it be for permitting or for development approvals or whatever. There’s so much to our code and comp plan that with almost any development you can pick sections that would support it, and you can pick sections that would recommend denial. You could make a case either way. What I want to see is that if you come in for a land use approval, you’ll know that if you do A, B and C you’re going to get a ‘yes.’ But right now there’s no reliability, there’s no predictability. That’s bad economically for developers and business owners trying to get permits, because unpredictability costs money and time. They have to hire people to help them get through the process. It’s wasteful, and it also creates the opportunity for mischief. It creates the opportunity for government to abuse its powers and pick winners and losers. And that’s not the role of government. We’re supposed to be about serving the public.

That’s the culture I want to change. I want to make it a highly professional, highly ethical organization. I tried to get a whistleblower protection act in my last year in office. Any organization that doesn’t have a whistleblower protection act is an organization that needs some serious reform. I couldn’t get support from the board for that because they felt they should be able to confront their accusers. If somebody can call in anonymously or write in and provide documentation to prove there’s a problem, I say that ought to be good enough to take it to the next level. Right now, your neighbor can call anonymously and complain that you have a junk vehicle in your front yard that violates our code. They don’t have to give their name. They can rat you out if you’re breaking the law, if there’s proof. We provide that protection to neighbors, but there’s no protection for county employees to report abuse within the organization. And that’s just wrong.

So I want to first create a whistleblower protection act, but then I want to change the organization’s culture so that there’s a sense that employees feel like they must report things that are wrong; so that they feel like this organization has such a high ethical bar that, ‘If I’m not up there, I’m out of here.’

And then there’s the relationship between the board members. Right now, because of our top heavy organizational structure, there’s not as much discussion and debate, and there aren’t as many workshops as there should be. It’s more like the mayor decides which way the organization is going, and everybody get in line or else. Leadership is good, but in order to lead you have to listen first. You have to do your homework. You have to build consensus. So I want to see a board where we take maybe one morning a month to look at an important issue. Before we start voting on ordinances and land use provisions, let’s look at them and really tackle them. How do we feel? What do we need to know about this subject to make a good decision? Who do we need at the table? What are the long term ramifications? If we do that, even if everybody doesn’t get on board, most of us will know the direction we’re going and why. Then we can defend it and we can stand behind it.

And then I want to empower different board members to take the lead on different issues. There’s no reason that a single person should drive the different issues we encounter.

How involved is the county in making sure that commuter rail and high speed rail work together effectively?
I worked for the Department of Transportation for about a year after I left the commission—for the record, I was not a lobbyist—and one of things I worked on was a mapping system. (Draws map.) Here’s commuter rail, and here’s high speed rail, and the problem is that there’s no connection. They pass right over each other, but you’d literally have to jump out of the window of one onto the other to make a connection. We’ve got to have another train that makes the connection. Without the connection, this thing doesn’t work for us locally at all.

But I have major reservations about high speed rail because of the funding. It’s only 50% paid for. One of the other candidates is saying, “The federal government was going to spend the money somewhere, so they may as well spend it here.” If they were spending 100% of it here, and they were building the whole thing, and we had money to operate it—I’m good with that. But it’s kind of like giving me half a horse. I would love to have the horse, but if I have to pay for half of it, and then I have to pay to maintain it, then I can’t afford the horse.

And so how involved is the county in fixing this situation?
I’m not sure. I did hold a meeting with staff at the convention center, the county, the airport and Lynx [bus service] to talk about linkage. Because once the funding came through and we knew we were going to have these two trains passing in the night, we knew we had to make the linkage.

Frankly, I think a connection between the airport and Miami would be better. It would connect us to Scripps down in Palm Beach County, which helps our medical city. And there would be more traffic, because the inter-city flights between here and Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach are likely to go away completely.

Last question: You have a reputation for being thorough and detail-oriented. How will you run an organization as big as the county, with issues that affect lives in profound ways every day, and not make yourself crazy?
You mean how will I delegate? When I ran the first time, one person told me I wouldn’t make a good commissioner because I’m too detail-oriented, and that I wouldn’t be able to let that go and just focus on the big stuff. I frankly think I did a very good job as a commissioner, and a big reason for that is because I’m detail-oriented. Somebody has to read that stuff.

But it will be very different being County Mayor. You can’t pick and choose your issues. You have to care about all of them and lead on all of them. People have asked me why I waited so long to get in the race, and part of the reason was because it’s a very different job. There will be stress. I needed to believe that I can do the job better than anyone else who’s running, and that I could be 150% committed to running the campaign and the county. And it took me some time to reach that conclusion.

The key to it is surrounding yourself with good people that you trust. If you do that, you can delegate. And I did that as a commissioner. One of the rules we had in the office was, ‘Don’t come in here and tell me I’m right when you think I’m wrong.’ Because I believe that if you’re not challenging me when you think I’m wrong, you’re not helping me.

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