LGBTQ and ally candidates talk Florida’s Aug. 28 vote

By : Samuel Johnson
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The midterm election primaries are right around the corner on Aug. 28. The LGBTQ community numbers nearly 900,000 Floridians, comprising 4.1 percent of the adult population of Florida. Of that adult LGBTQ population, more than a quarter of them are raising children. Based on these numbers, the LBGTQ vote can impact elections, especially in the primaries.

In Florida there are candidates throughout the state who are advocates for the LGBTQ community. They are vowing to protect and promote equality for LGBTQ—and all—Floridians. The midterm primaries in Florida are boasting at least eight openly gay candidates, plus a slew of advocates and allies who are running. Voter turnout during the primaries of midterm elections is notoriously scant. Take the numbers from the last Florida midterm primaries: The percentage of Floridians who voted in the 2014 midterm primaries was a paltry 18 percent, according to the Florida Division of Elections statistics. Many pundits point to the fact that midterms don’t have the same allure as presidential election years. That notwithstanding, Florida didn’t exactly overachieve in 2016. The Florida Division of Elections estimates that less than a quarter of Floridian voters, just 24 percent, cast their ballots.

Before the early 1990s, Democrats held sway over both chambers of the Florida legislature, something that changed in 1996 when Republicans wrestled control of both chambers of the legislature.

The GOP hasn’t looked back. In 2014 the Republicans boasted an 82-37 majority. That was reduced in 2016, but not by much. After the 2016 elections the Republicans held 79 seats and the Democrats 41.

To give some perspective, if a party has 80 members or more, that party can override the governor’s vetoes, even without a single vote from the opposite party. This year it appears as if there could be a paradigm shift in who governs the state.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs has employed the mantra of “know before you go” for years when advising American citizens traveling abroad. One could easily apply the same phrase to going to the polls. It’s been reported that America is experiencing a schism of political ideology, where members of each party entrench themselves against the other. This might unfold into primary voting strictly along party lines. Even if this were true, which it may not be, it belies something which can sway the primaries, and by extension, the general election: undecided or independent voters.

As of June 30, Florida’s Division of Election shows that of Hillsborough County’s 830,544 eligible voters, 262,829 are registered as Republicans, 322,254 as Democrats and 245,461 hold no affiliation or have registered with minor parties.

For Orange County’s 764,173 voters, 205,646 are registered Republicans, 320,491 are Democrats and 238,036 hold no affiliation or have registered with minor parties.

Pinellas County has the lowest number of eligible voters with 650,253. 229,893 are registered Republicans, 229,589 are Democrats and 190,771 list a minor party or no affiliation.

We’ll be highlighting some of the salient issues impacting the LGBTQ community, meeting some of those candidates who are on the political frontline of promoting these issues. Will there be a blue wave of equality, equity, and parity? Before we start gazing into the crystal ball or analyzing the tealeaves, it’s beneficial to understand the issues that are germane to LGBTQ Florida. A tremendous repository for gathering a sense of current LGBTQ basic civil rights issues is Equality Florida.

Equality Florida is an advocacy organization dedicated to LGBTQ civil rights. They monitor the LGBTQ and other candidates that are running, leverage a 300,000 member database and their 1.3 million member pro-equality voter database, as well as engage and educate people about the races. This makes up the day-to-day workweek of Joe Saunders, Equality Florida’s senior political director. Saunders was one of the first openly gay Floridians elected to the Florida House of Representatives.

One of the major themes affecting the LGBTQ community in Florida, according to Saunders, is workplace equality. He said that for the past 15 years in a row, Equality Florida has been introducing a piece of legislation called the “Florida Competitive Workforce Act.”

Saunders emphasizes its necessity, advising that “it would finally create a statewide non-discrimination law to protect the LGBTQ community in employment and in housing and accommodations, just like every other protected class in the state.” Right now, LGBTQ discrimination protections are based on zip codes. Meaning, if you are lucky enough to reside where the local government has established those rights, then you’re covered.

The current senior director of Planned Parenthood Southwest and Central Florida, Anna Eskamani, is a Democrat running for Florida House District 47 Representative. She is also an Orlando native. She supports workplace equality for all Floridians and especially the LGBTQ community within her district, which includes the Pulse nightclub. She asserts that protecting the rights of LGBTQ workers is paramount to economic growth, noting that “this is an economic issue. We will not attract high paying jobs to Florida unless we guarantee equality for all.”

House District 49 candidate Carlos Guillermo Smith (left)

The incumbent in Orlando’s House District 49 race, and the first openly-LGBTQ Latino Florida lawmaker, Carlos Guillermo Smith, goes one step further. He asserts that’s the reason Amazon passed up Florida for its second headquarters, because “it’s been an open secret that [for] Amazon’s HQ2, [for] Jeff Bezos, that workplace equality for LGBTQ is something they look for… we’re not going to get an HQ2. One of the reasons why is that we’ve refused to update the Florida Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ people.”

Smith views the ethos of workplace equality as moving in a bipartisan direction. He maintains that more and more GOP lawmakers and candidates are getting on board with the equality message.

Orange County Commissioner District 4 candidate Susan Makowski

Orange County houses the third largest metropolitan area in Florida: Orlando. For decades Orange County has experienced a predominance of Republican control. This is despite the total average of registered Democrat voters versus Republican registered voters. There are two openly LGBTQ candidates who are poised to change that: Susan Makowski and Eric Rollings.

Makowski is running to become Orange County Commissioner in District 4. Makowski is no stranger to District 4, having served seven years as the chief administrative aide to current Orange County Commissioner for District 4 Jennifer Thompson. Makowski’s former boss supports her bid for the Orange County Commission, as does Earl Crittenden, chairman of the onePulse Foundation.

Rollings is the Orange Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor and Board Chairman and is running in District 3. Much like Makowski, Rollings is no stranger to the district for which he hopes to be elected County Commissioner.

Orange County Commissioner District 3 Eric Rollings

“I have always been active in the LGBTQ community, as well as active in the environmental community,” Rollings has told Watermark. “It’s very scary for me to see where the nation as a whole is going. Every day we wake up and, whether it’s the environment or whether it’s women’s rights or LGBTQ rights, we are seeing them either be threatened or stripped away. If we don’t keep the door open and elect people that are like-minded individuals, we can see just how fragile these rights are.”

Garnering support for LGBTQ issues among the Republican candidates and lawmakers, particularly the Workplace Equality Act, is the strategy of Miami’s SAVE. SAVE is an overarching advocacy organization, with an educational branch, a grassroots branch and a PAC branch. Tony Lima, executive director at SAVE, succinctly labels it as an organization protecting LGBTQ people against discrimination through their efforts in getting candidates elected.

SAVE has started an initiative called “Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality.” Although, Lima points out that SAVE is nonpartisan, noting “it’s really about bringing more conservatives into the fray… [getting] more of those conservative leaders who are willing to put their necks on the line for the sake of making non-discrimination protections a reality.” The focus is on centrist and moderate right Republicans, he says. The thrust of this campaign has been in South Florida for the past 3 years, but since about a year ago, SAVE has been pushing into Central Florida and Tallahassee.

Currently, the Republicans in Tallahassee have a firm grip on almost all levers of power. This midterm election cycle may be a harbinger of drastic change. Not only will Florida be voting on a new Governor, but an entire Governor’s cabinet. This shake-up of high profile positions includes the Attorney General, currently held by Pam Bondi. Democrat Sean Shaw wants that job. At the moment, Shaw is House Representative of District 61 in Tampa and is quick to point out that he co-signed the Florida Competitive Workforce Act. He vows to use the full extent of his mandate, as AG, to prosecute those who discriminate, even if that means butting heads with the next governor.

Florida Attorney General Candidate Sean Shaw

Shaw advises that if the next governor “does not believe that we need to protect people based on gender, based on sexual identity, based on sexual orientation, then they’re going to have a problem with my office. Because, I will.”

One of the duties of the AG is to not only prosecute but also to defend Florida, and there is a lawsuit looming over the state. It centers around the gun safety measures passed earlier this year by the legislature, including bans on ammunition.

Shaw says he is willing to fight against the National Rifle Association, noting that Florida could have an “Attorney General, like me, who believes in sensible-commonsense gun safety measures,” or “an Attorney General, like the Republican nominee, who is going to taut their NRA A+ grade.”

Guns, gun violence and curbing the ubiquity of military-style weaponry are top of mind for all of the LGBTQ and the LGBTQ advocacy candidates. Smith points to the fact that minorities and the minorities within minority groups are the target of gun violence. “We’re targets of hate crimes,” he says. “Three transgender women of color have been murdered in Jacksonville just this year… and unfettered access to weapons of war makes us even easier targets.”

House District 69 candidate Jennifer Webb (right)

Jennifer Webb, a Democrat running for House District 69 Representative in St. Petersburg, is an openly gay candidate. She is an anthropologist by education, having graduated from the University of South Florida where she worked as the director of community partnerships. Developing relationships among disparate entities is a well suited job for an anthropologist and a definite springboard for a politician.

She underscores the poignancy of gun violence and what it means to the LGBTQ community. “I was of the generation that was raised in bars,” she says. “That’s why Pulse was so devastating, because that really was our safe place.”

Eskamani suggests starting early, in schools, to educate kids on tolerance and acceptability as a way of curtailing and reducing gun violence against the LGBTQ community, so that “every young person grows up with a sense of respect and love for each other. That alone will help reduce violence in the future.”

School and education figure prominently on the agenda of LGBTQ-friendly candidates going into the primaries. Webb insists that kids often get positive affirmation at schools. Moreover, she says, that affirmation needs to be buttressed with more counselors and LGBTQ-oriented clubs in schools—such as the Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs.

Smith suggests a model that is being testing in California, where LGBTQ history is taught as part of the curriculum. He says the civil rights curriculum taught in California public schools encompasses the life and work of Harvey Milk, lamenting about his own school curriculum. “We need LGBTQ role models to look up to,” he says. “I didn’t have any when I was growing up, not one… having LGBTQ role models [is important] when you’re a young queer or questioning person.”

Smith says sex education has to have parameters in order to be effective. “What we need is comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education to also include sex education for LGBTQ youth.” He also sees the state’s adherence on teaching abstinence only sex education as contributing to Florida’s high level of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. The Florida Department of Health recorded an increase of 20 percent, throughout the state, of new HIV/AIDS cases has been recorded for people in their 20’s during the period 2007 to 2016.

House District 47 candidate Anna Eskamani

Eskamani recounts that a comprehensive sexual education curriculum is essential for LGBTQ youth being their authentic selves. Webb is thankful, but alarmed, that sometimes the only mental healthcare that LGBTQ youth receive is at school. “That gives them the resiliency to go back home or into a community that might be less than accepting,” she says. Webb calls this “upstream treatment,” meaning that it is preventative or offers early detection.

Healthcare, in general, is a concern within the LGBTQ community going into primary season, particularly for those within the transgender community. What is of grave concern is ensuring that healthcare be both equal and affordable. The old adage rings true; what is done to the most vulnerable of us is done to all of us.

What will this look like on a legislative landscape? Eskamani breaks it down, pointing toward the need for “having policies that also support members of the transgender community [and] that ensure that healthcare providers are inclusive, and trained, to provide LGBTQ competent care.”

Another issue facing the LGBTQ community is the practice of conversion therapy, which the candidates Watermark spoke with unanimously condemn. “Conversion therapy—sometimes called ‘ex-gay therapy’—attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Equality Florida has previously advised Watermark. “It has been discredited by the American Psychological

Association and every other major professional health organization as ineffective, unethical and dangerous. Conversion therapy has been shown to lead to higher instances of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and even suicide.”

While there is no statewide law banning conversion therapy, many cities and counties have passed local bans on the practice, although it’s estimated that it is still legal in nearly 30 percent of Florida. Lima reminds everyone why this odious treatment should be a motivation to get the LGBTQ community and its allies out to vote. “It’s something that can be addressed,” Lima notes, “because it’s something that is aimed specifically at our children.”

SAVE is taking its political advocacy machine into the cities and other municipalities throughout the state in order to awaken voters to the fallacious treatment. Lima emphasizes the need to keep the ban on conversion therapy in the political discourse of Florida. “There aren’t, necessarily, any [conversion therapy ban] bills out there; pushing forward… whereas, with some of these other issues, there is actually the possibility to affect positive change.”

Looking forward to the general election, not one of the primary candidates is resigned to sit back, and watch the ethereal blue wave scoop them up to victory.

The candidates are counting more on the constant drumbeat of equality to be the message. They’re also of like mind, focusing on the ground game and spreading the message. Motivating voters could be the real blue wave.

However you approach the midterm primaries, dramatically, drastically or direly, change is going to come—and the openly LGBTQ and ally candidates are leading that charge.


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