Five for fighting: Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan isn’t going anywhere

By : Billy Manes
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It’s getting ugly out there. As this article was coming to fruition, scant weeks before the Nov. 3 municipal election, you could taste the mud, even if you weren’t in its slinging distance. Between the District 4 election, featuring likely victor Patty Sheehan (who is seeking her fifth term), and the mayoral election starring purported victor Buddy Dyer (a race which seems to be overcome with bad political hacks and the shoes they pranced in on), Orlando’s great race has taken on an ugly hue. Talk of smearing the blood of certain candidates’ parents along the road aside, the tone is worse than we’ve ever seen, and we tend to look at a lot of smears and laugh.

We sat down with Sheehan, the city’s first LGBT commissioner, elected in 2000, as a means of hearing her out, good and bad (though even she can’t explain the “hyperbolic” display of local-politics animosity being played out here). Sheehan isn’t a figurehead to be grandfathered into anything, mind. She’s been painted as an opportunist, a former activist, a perpetual “yes” vote to Mayor Buddy Dyer’s Tomorrowland of expensive projects and the bonds they rode in on. She’s taken her punches, but she remains accessible. Also, as one of the key movers in the fight to make LGBT rights matter in Central Florida, she is, without a doubt, an ally.

You’ve been doing this forever. A fifth term?
But the thing is, people don’t think I’ve been with them for that long because I moved around so much. I mean, I’ve literally had the most change in my district. I’ve been through two redistrictings, so people aren’t tired of me … to them I’m new, especially in Wadeview and Delaney (both in South Orlando). I just picked them up in the last redistricting. I keep joking. I’m like, I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, and my constituents tell me don’t grow up. So the bottom line is, if they’re happy with me, and there are difficult moments: They’re called elections.

But why keep trying? Sure, the “career politician” flag is being flown at the moment in your direction, but what keeps you going internally?
I still love what I do, though. And the thing is, I think I had to use up so much political capital, to be honest,with my first part of my career – all of the gay stuff. And I’ve pretty much gotten, I’d say, 90 percent of the gay stuff is accomplished. I’d like to start working on some art stuff that I’ve been doing and working with the small businesses. You know, doing the city commissioner stuff. Like I said, I did have to put a lot of political capital, time, effort and energy into that.

You were Orlando’s poster child for it.
Right. And now I’m hitting my stride. I’m on the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council. I’m working on school issues. I’m working on other issues that I really love, and I don’t think I’ve lost my passion. You know, if I really felt that I didn’t have anything to offer, of course I would go do something else for a lot more money and use a lot less energy, to be honest. I mean it’s not like I’m getting rich doing this.

You’ve developed a thick skin over the years, then.
I have, you know? I mean, people have been saying, when I first got elected, they said it wasa fluke. Now they say, I’ve been here. Now they sayI’ve been here too long. So it’s always something with the people who don’t like you. If it’s legitimate criticism, I’ll take it to heart, and I’ll make changes. God knows I’ve made enough changes in my personal life when I’ve needed to. I’m not so thick-skinned that I can’t change. But, there are some people, no matter what you do, they don’t like you, and that’s OK.

It’s been such a gangbusters period for Orlando, with Orlando City Soccer Club and with the venues and all of it. Where do we move forward from here?
It has. It’s been an amazing time. Everybody says, ‘What’s the next big thing?’ And it’s hard to predict. Could we have predicted all of this success with all of these venues four years ago even? Probably not. They were visions. Butit makes a difference who your representation is, because [former Mayor] Glenda Hood tried to accomplish a lot of the same things and was unsuccessful. And she had a divided council, and people weren’t on board. It’s exciting to be on a council that’s not fractured, and there’s not any fighting. And that’s one of the things I like about local government is that there’s no such thing as a Democratic or Republican pothole. But at the end of the day, we’re all human beings, and I think that’s something that I wish media and politicians would remember instead of vilifying each other. At the end of the day, we do go home to our families. We do hurt. We do have horrible things happen to us. We are human. I think people forget that I’m human sometimes. They’ve come up and said crazy stuff to me and, while I’m thick-skinned, sometimes it really does hurt my feelings. But at least I don’t get comments about my hair anymore, because my hair is fabulous.

Do you want to talk about your sobriety,And how much that has meant to your reputation orpublic criticism in general?
Yeah, of course I do. I think that’s important, because that used to be the thing everybody criticized me for. I was a jerk. I was a drunk… but I was drunk. But here’s the thing: I also went through my own personal hell. It wasn’t as dramatic and public as a lot of people’s. I was going through a horrible divorce that I tried to do everything to not make tabloid-fodder. … I was still drinking at the time, but it made me look at everything in my life. And they say, when someone kicks you off the cliff, you either fall or you grasp on for something, and I think it forced me to grasp on and take a look at what was going on with me. I’ve always been the rescuer; I always wanted to fix things for other people. And while that makes me a good politician, it did not make me a good partner.

You weren’t on Facebook for a while. You came late.
At first I wasn’t because …

Someone made a fake account for you.
It was a fake account. There were all of the issues that came with that, and I was frightened of it. And then I said, you know, I’ll try it. And I’ll do iton my terms. And I don’t air my laundry. I mean you can’t be airing your laundry out there, you know, every bad thing that happens to you… and expect that people are going to be leaving you alone. If you put it out there for people, it’s fair play. ButI try to use it to inform. I don’t engage in this Facebook fighting… you can’t.

Because you’re not looking at a face, you’re just typing words.
They call it “keyboard courage,” and I don’t engage in it. I don’t believe in it. I don’t think there’s any good that can come from it.

Let’s talk about the issues then. Let’s talk about the city. It has been 15 years, what are your proudest moments?
When we lit Lake Eola, the fountain, again for the first time after it had been off for almost two years, that was really cool. Of course the wedding day [Jan. 6] was just amazing. It was just incredible. Domestic partnership day for me was lovely, even though it didn’t last long. My relationship didn’t last long at all. They still play us on the B-roll on CNN. Oh my god, it’s so embarrassing. And, like you, I had to go through that publicly, and at the same time I was just dying inside.

Are you seeing someone now?
I’m not. It was horrible for me, because I was heartbroken. I mean, I was absolutely devastated and heartbroken. I didn’t see it coming at all. I had no idea. I mean, literally it went from one day to the next and it was over. I didn’t have any idea it was coming.

PattySheehanSwanDifferent subject! Are you proud of the venues projects downtown?
I’m incredibly proud of the venues. You know, to be able to do all those in the worst budget years, but to be able to do it with Tourist Development Tax and using our partnerships and some of the community redevelopment agency, has been great. What people don’t understand is, ‘Why are you using our tax money?’ Well, TDT is the hotel beds’ tax. … And the hotel industry people have been wonderful partners to say they want to help us build these venues downtown. They’ve been great. I’ll be the first one to thank them. And they appreciate that out of me. It would have never been possible without their support. I think it’s a great thing. We have a performing arts center that’s amazing, the Amway Center. This is the thing: People naysay what they don’t understand. They don’t think we deserve nice things. And we do. I do believe that we deserve nice things.

But even you had a bit of an issue with the Amway situation, as far as naming rights and the corporation’s notoriously anti-gay leadership.
There were just a couple scrapes here and there. I didn’t know if we were going to get enough money. I still don’t know. … Either your colleagues are going to agree with you or not. … I can disagree with the mayor from time to time. I can still like him. I can still work with him. I still support the man. Sometimes we have a disagreement. That’s OK. Now, do I go to people, do I go to him, do I go to his desk and say I have a problem with the following things while trying to work it out? Yep. I don’t just blather it out to the media, unlessI feel like I’m not getting listened to.

Have you had any problems with Buddy that you would want to speak about?
Well there was the Tinker Field thing, but we got it worked out. I don’t go to the media unless I feel like I’m just being severely ignored. I thought the Princeton [development] thing was ridiculous. The legal people told us we weren’t commissioners anymore. I’m like, ‘nonsense.’ We’re city commissioners, and we can vote on this, and if you tell me that we’re going to get sued: That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. So sometimes people will try to take advantage of my colleagues’ lack of experience. That’s what you get with experience. You know what the code is. You know what your rights are. I mean I’m a senior member of council now. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

In terms of living-wage issues…
This is the interesting thing. We were very supportive the last time the unions brought us the living-wage ordinances, made the adjustments. Well now they’re back, and I fully support it. But the thing is, they always seem to wait until election time. Don’t wait until election time. You guys, I’m here every day. Why don’t you bring some of the other legislation that has been passed in other cities that has worked? We’ll have to look at the budget implications. And you know, we’ll see. I’m certainly supportive. I think if someone works 40 hours a week, they should be making at least $30,000 a year. Absolutely. So of course I support that. But I also have todo a study, and then once we raise the lowest people, then we’ve got to figure out the whole implication in the budget. But yeah, I support it. Because I think that people who work hard, and people who cast aspersions upon government workers, think we all should be beaten and kept in the dark and not paid any money. You know, we have a very good group of people in City Hall, and I’m proud of them. They do a good job.

What have been your biggest challenges?
Being gay. At first I said it was a fluke. And the funny thing was that they wanted to ask me right away, the conservative folk. And the other funny thing was that they didn’t come after me for being gay. They went after me for sidewalks, which was hilarious… I’m still the queen of sidewalks. There’s a reason we’re the No. 1 pedestrian fatality city in America: because we don’t have sidewalks. So we thought, we get federal funding every time we ask for it because we’re the No. 1 pedestrian fatality place in America. So we always get funding for it. We go through and do it. I hired aa full-time person to deal with it, because people are cuckoo with the city about sidewalks. They say we don’t want sidewalks and nobody has ever been hit walking on our street. I was actually in a neighborhood talking with someone who was very upset about sidewalks, and I spent two hours getting yelled at – tried to work it out, explain it and I did. I thought we came to a meeting of the minds.

Does it get exhausting?
You asked me what’s hard. I gave a speech to the National League of Cities about sidewalks, and people laughed, because they thought I was kidding. I had to have a police officer. I had 24-hour police protection, because the threats got so bad. It’s the hardest thing we do. But, you know, one of my friends got killed walking to school in second grade. I’ll never forget that. You know, I mean, that’s the thing. If you’re a public servant, which I feel I am, I think there are two reasons people get into politics: You either want to be somebody or you want to help somebody. And I come from the ‘trying to help somebody’ thing. I mean if I’m not willing to take a stand on something as elementary as children walking to school safely, or people walking safely – if I’m going to sit there and warm a chair and not do anything controversial, even though it seems like it should be considered silly, then I don’t belong there. You know, it’s not about warming the chair. People who want this job think it’s about parading and getting attention. You don’t get the attention unless you put in the time.

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