Equality-focused organizations, candidates and voters hope to turn the tide Nov. 6

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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The LGBTQ vote matters. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)—the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization—it made up five percent of the electorate in 2016’s general election.

The organization stresses that LGBTQ voters were one of the few voting blocs to increase its turnout following 2012’s cycle, noting one critical element. “Here’s the key thing to remember,” HRC President Chad Griffin tells Watermark. “Because we are intentionally excluded from the census—the Trump-Pence administration eliminated what would have been a census that included us—we know that number by independent exit polling data.

“That means that five percent of the electorate walked out of a polling location in a swing state and told a stranger that they were L, G, B or T,” he stresses. “So obviously our numbers are much higher than that.”

Since the election, Donald Trump and his administration have spearheaded numerous anti-LGBTQ measures, most recently in Oct. 2018. Following reports that the administration was considering defining gender as an immutable condition determined by one’s anatomy at birth, which Griffin calls “a destructive precedent intended to erase LGBTQ people from federal civil rights protections and eviscerate enforcement of nondiscrimination laws,” the Department of Justice filed a brief advising transgender workers weren’t protected by civil rights law.

Nearly a month prior, Mike Pence became the first sitting vice president to address and support the Values Voter Summit, hosted by the Family Research Council. The council has been designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the advocacy organization dedicated to fighting bigotry. Trump preceded his vice president, having become the first sitting president to address and support the summit in 2017.

“This election is the most important election of our lives,” Griffin says of the Nov. 6 vote. “No matter how many times we’ve all been told that in past elections, it’s actually true this time.”

Immediately following Trump’s election, Griffin says HRC made a commitment to mobilize LGBTQ voters nationwide for the 2018 midterms. That led the organization, which has over 3 million members and supporters nationwide, to endorse more candidates than ever before and invest in the largest grassroots expansion of its nearly 40-year history.

To reach Floridians, HRC partnered with organizations like Equality Florida and SAVE. At 300,000 members, Equality Florida is the state’s largest civil rights organization, dedicated to securing full equality for all LGBTQ Floridians. SAVE is the South Florida advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the LGBTQ community against discrimination.

“Equality Florida and SAVE are incredible partners across this state,” Griffin says. “We have all worked to turn out not only each of our organizations’ members, but also to turn out broader allied voters in key districts across the state.”

To do that, HRC Rising—the organization’s voter-mobilizing campaign—identified 700,000 LGBTQ voters and over 3.2 million LGBTQ-allied voters throughout Florida. Similarly, Equality Florida utilized its Action PAC to target nearly 500,000.

“These aren’t super-voters who are going to show up and vote no matter what,” Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders says, “or people who may be registered but never show up.” Instead, it’s the electorate that considers equality a litmus test issue.

“When it comes to our targeting, over the course of more than four years we have perfected the Equality Voter model,” Griffin says. Utilizing organizational and commercial data, HRC identified voters who make a candidate’s position on LGBTQ equality determinate on how they vote.

That’s critical because the State Senate is a four-vote margin away from progressive control, Saunders notes. He says that matters because while Equality Florida has worked to build bi-partisan support for the Competitive Workforce Act—which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing and public accommodations—“the balance of power shifting in the Senate would dramatically change the possibility of moving pro-equality laws forward.” In addition, “it would stop the anti-LGBTQ attacks that we see every cycle.”

Organizations and advocates stress that a major component in shifting that power lies in electing LGBTQ candidates, of which 2018 saw a record number. For the first time in U.S. history, openly LGBTQ candidates ran for office in all 50 states and D.C.—Florida chief among them. Twenty-eight LGBTQ Floridians ran for elected office in 2018, with 17 reaching the November ballot.

“LGBTQ candidates are running for office in unprecedented numbers and it is already inspiring more LGBTQ people to run in the near future,” President and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund Annise Parker says. Parker, the first openly LGBTQ mayor of a major American city, leads the organization. It is the only national LGBTQ group of its kind to exclusively endorse LGBTQ candidates.

“This rainbow wave of candidates is certainly concentrated in blue states and districts, but LGBTQ leaders in conservative parts of the nation are standing up and are determined to become public servants while remaining true to who they are,” she continues. “The struggles and experiences of LGBTQ candidates provide a unique perspective that makes them authentic, values-driven leaders, and it is increasingly resonating with voters.”

To elect LGBTQ and ally candidates, NextGen America says the youth vote is critical. It’s what drew the nation’s largest youth electoral program to Florida in 2017. “It’s probably the most important swing state in the country,” Pinellas County Field Organizer Stefanie Reynolds says. “We’re large and diverse. The LGBTQ vote matters so much because we are a big force here; we can really make things happen.”

Ahead of this year’s voter registration deadline, NextGen registered 50,908 voters between the ages of 18 and 35, predominantly across the state’s college campuses. She says that as for what’s next, the newly-registered voters and the LGBTQ community at large have to make it to the polls on or before Nov. 6.

“It is imperative that people vote,” Saunders says. “There has never been a more important time. If you’re frustrated by what’s happening in D.C., this is the moment to engage and to change Florida—and by doing so, change the country.”

The U.S. Senate

Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson was first elected in 2000 to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate. He faces Republican and outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, whose second term began in 2014. Nelson is applauded for his leadership by organizations like HRC and Equality Florida for his civil rights record, which includes support for marriage equality and co-sponsorship of the Equality Act in 2016.

Sen. Bill Nelson’s civil rights records includes support for marriage equality and co-sponsorship of the Equality Act in 2016. Photo courtesy Sen. Bill Nelson’s Facebook page.

If passed into law, the bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to federally protect LGBTQ Americans against discrimination for sexual orientation, gender identity and sex in employment, housing, accommodations and more.

“Bill Nelson has been a champion of LGBTQ rights,” Saunders says. “He has been ready to stand up against those who would create a pathway to discrimination.”

HRC agrees. In its Congressional Scorecard for the 115th Congress—released Oct. 17 and which Nelson is a part—the incumbent senator scored a 94 percent. The score measures support for LGBTQ equality based on a range of key indicators, from votes in the Senate to confirm what it calls anti-LGBTQ Trump-Pence cabinet officials and judicial nominees to votes and co-sponsorships of legislation significantly impacting the LGBTQ community.

While Equality Florida does not make federal endorsements, it does remind voters of a candidate’s record—as the organization does with Scott. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub tragedy in Orlando, the organization says the governor sent staff to meet face to face with Equality Florida leaders.

“His Chief of Staff made a commitment to swift action on an executive order protecting LGBTQ state workers,” Equality Florida shares, noting that it is a step that Scott could take without legislative approval. “After years of delays and excuses, Gov. Scott made clear he was not going to honor that promise. Under pressure from the media, he began to assert that an executive order was unnecessary because existing federal protections were sufficient.”

“Like a lot of elected officials, Rick Scott did everything he could to stand in front of cameras,” Saunders recalls. “He rushed down to Orlando and stood in front of cameras like any politician, but I would argue that even in that moment he struggled to acknowledge that the tragedy at Pulse happened to LGBTQ people.”

Saunders says that Scott “made a promise and it’s one he didn’t keep. We haven’t forgotten that and we don’t expect that the LGBTQ community in Orlando or Pulse survivors have forgotten that. It’s a testament to his record.”

Nelson and Scott did not respond to Watermark’s requests for comment.

The Governorship

A rallying point for Equality Florida, HRC, NextGen and other organizations is the office of governor, the executive head of the state. Democrat and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum faces former Republican member of the U.S. House Ron DeSantis.

“While in the last few decades the LGBTQ community has made great strides, we’ve seen the Trump and Scott administrations attempt to undo that progress and hurt this community,” Gillum tells Watermark. “I will work hard not only to protect the progress we’ve made, but move our community closer towards full equality. I would sign and support the Competitive Workforce Act and use the executive office to provide full protections for the LGBTQ community to the greatest extent of the law.

“I will fight to put an end to the harmful practice of ‘conversion therapy’ for minors, and work to implement policies that address bullying and harassment in our schools,” he adds, “and work hard to curb homelessness among LGBTQ youth. As governor, I would fight to outlaw housing or employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum speaks at a St. Petersburg town hall Oct. 19. He says that while the Trump and Scott administrations have attempted to undo progress, he will “use the executive office to provide full protections for the LGBTQ community to the greatest extent of the law.” PHOTO BY Dylan Todd

“It’s difficult to find a state with a starker contrast between the two candidates than what you see here in the state of Florida,” Griffin says, pointing to DeSantis’ score on HRC’s Congressional Scorecard. While he received no ranking for its score of the 115th Congress due to his resignation from Florida’s 6th District in September, he received a zero for the organization’s score of the 114th.

“It is really hard to earn a perfect zero,” Griffin says. “That’s the legacy he leaves in Congress and that’s exactly how he would lead as governor. We are so proud to have endorsed and be partnered in efforts to elect Andrew Gillum as the next governor of Florida.”

“DeSantis has made clear on the campaign trail that he is no friend to the LGBTQ community,” Saunders says. “It’s clear that his strategy has been to stand as close to Donald Trump and his anti-LGBTQ policies as possible. We expect that he’ll carry that legacy through if he was to be elected.

“When Andrew Gillum promises the LGBTQ community that as a governor he’ll pass an executive order that creates statewide nondiscrimination protections,” he continues, “and that he will veto any bill that seeks to create a pathway for religious discrimination against LGBTQ people, we don’t just believe him. We know he’ll be the first one to speak out in favor of our families and against attacks on us.”

DeSantis did not respond to Watermark’s requests for comment.

Rainbow Candidates

A total of at least 618 openly LGBTQ candidates ran for public office in 2018, with 399 appearing on ballots nationwide in November. That’s why LGBTQ Victory Fund came to Florida, joining Equality Florida and HRC in supporting candidates like Jennifer Webb and State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.

Webb is vying to represent District 69 in Florida’s House of Representatives and Smith, the state’s first openly-LGBTQ Latinx state legislator, seeks re-election for District 49. “We are ably represented in many places by allies; the people who care about us and speak up for us,” Parker says. “But when we can speak for ourselves, it changes the conversation and it dramatically changes the ability of the other side to pass anti-LGBTQ legislation.

“It’s much harder for someone to look you in the eye or sit next to you in a committee meeting and willingly vote to strip you of your rights,” she adds. Webb and Guillermo Smith understand that.

“I have championed bipartisan legislation that treats LGBTQ people fairly and equally under Florida law and led the charge for gun safety after Pulse as the first-named sponsor of the assault weapons and large capacity magazine ban,” Guillermo Smith says. “Earlier this year I was recognized by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation for my advocacy for the HIV community and have also been honored by Equality Florida and the LGBT Center in Orlando.”

LGBTQ Victory Fund CEO Annise Parker (C) meets with Florida House candidate Jennifer Webb (L) and Florida Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (R) in St. Petersburg to discuss the Rainbow Wave Oct. 21. PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMS-JENT

Additionally, he co-sponsored legislation banning “the dangerous and scientifically-debunked practice of conversion therapy on minors.” As a former staffer and government affairs manager for Equality Florida, Guillermo Smith also helped author the Florida Competitive Workforce Act as legislation. “I won’t leave the Florida legislature until these protections are signed into law,” he vows.

Webb, who has made access to mental health and substance abuse programming a cornerstone of her campaign, will serve as the first openly LGBTQ woman in the Florida Legislature if elected. She says she’s spent three years getting to know every inch of her district, noting that “I have an agenda that will strengthen our community and ensure that no one falls through the cracks.”

She hopes to sponsor the Competitive Workforce Act and to ensure there are no “bathroom bills” targeting transgender Floridians. “The president of the United States is trying to disappear transgender people,” Webb says, “to qualify what gender is and what it is not. There’s nothing more personal than your own identity – we need people who are in the State House protecting us from these horrific policies that are coming out of D.C.”

“Every aspect of our daily lives in in some way regulated by an elected body,” Parker adds. “Kate Brown, who is the bisexual Governor of Oregon, was elected by seven votes. Tell me a single vote doesn’t matter.”

It’s essential for the LGBTQ community and allies to make it the polls, Webb stresses. “If not for yourself, for people who are even more vulnerable than you are. It matters. We can take back our country if we can take back our state this year.”

Across the ballot

“This is such an important vote,” Reynolds notes. “The LGBTQ community is here in large numbers and we have a voice. If we don’t use it then we get candidates in office who don’t have our best interests at heart.”

Attorney General Candidate Sean Shaw (Photo Courtesy Sean Shaw for Attorney General)

That’s why electing ally candidates is critical, and why Watermark reached out to 154 men and women running for political office across Central Florida and Tampa Bay to ask five questions focusing on LGBTQ equality.

“I consider myself to not just be an ally to the LGBTQ community; I am an accomplice to the LGTBQ community,” says Anna Eskamani, candidate for Florida House District 47. “That means that I am by your side through thick and thin, through victories and loss. My commitment to inclusivity is unmatched, and I have been fighting for equality alongside LGBTQ friends and coalition partners for more than ten years.”

U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist, who represents Florida’s 13th district and is seeking re-election, adds that he lives his life by the Golden Rule. “That means treating everyone with kindness, respect, and fairly,” he says. “The fact that discriminating against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity remains legal bewilders Floridians.  It bewilders me.  This type of discrimination is unacceptable, and I strongly support outlawing it at both the state and federal level.  It’s not right in 2018 that you can get married on Saturday and fired on Monday.”

From those seeking to become Florida’s next governor to the next member of their local school board, Watermark contacted Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians and those without a party affiliation. Given the nature of the questions, judicial candidates were excluded. Equality Florida refers voters to the National Organization for Women, Palm Beach County Human Rights Council and SAVE for additional information on judicial candidates.

Click here for the 2018 Midterm election LGBTQ Voters’ Guide.

The amendments

This year’s ballot lists 12 potential amendments to the Florida Constitution. Only two of those were proposed by Florida’s citizens, including Amendment 4. Amendment 4 restores the right to vote to over one million convicted felons in Florida who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation, excluding those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

It is the only amendment Equality Florida has taken a stance on, advising that the eligibility to vote is fundamental to democracy and that voting yes “is the first step in helping LGBTQ people with former convictions.” To read more about 2018’s proposed amendments, click here.


For information on when and where you can vote on or before Nov. 6 click here.

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