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Hillsborough domestic partner registry ad­vances on unanimous vote

By Will Hobson, Times Staff Writer
John Pendygraft | Times
Rebecca Brocious holds a photo of Beth Wagner, left, Brocious and their 6-year-old son. The couple attended Wednesday’s Hillsborough County Commission meeting.

TAMPA — A lot has changed on the Hillsborough County Commission in 20 months.

Late in January 2013, commissioners voted 4-3 against creating a domestic partnership registry.

In several other cities and counties, similar registries ensuring rights like hospital visitation and end-of-life decisionmaking for unmarried couples, gay and straight, sailed to passage.

But in Hillsborough, social conservatives who argued the registry was tantamount to legalizing gay marriage won the day.

Fast forward to Wednesday: The same commissioners unanimously approved moving forward with such a registry, the latest in a series of votes showing a shift for what had been a staunchly socially conservative board.

Four Republican commissioners reversed their votes from 2013. And the socially conservative speakers were hardly seen this time — only one person at Wednesday's meeting spoke against a registry.

"People evolve and grow," said Republican Commissioner Al Higginbotham as he explained his change of mind.

Last time, Higginbotham cited his Christian faith in explaining why he could not vote for the registry. Wednesday, he not only voted to have County Attorney Chip Fletcher draft an ordinance, he asked Fletcher to bring it back for a vote before Election Day, quelling talk that Republicans on the board would try to postpone the issue until after Nov. 4.

Wednesday's discussion was proposed by Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who has seized on an ideal climate to advance gay rights issues. Not only is this election season, but the local business community has taken a more active role in supporting issues like the registry as important for economic development — a rationale Republican commissioners have embraced.

While Higginbotham and Commissioner Victor Crist are campaigning for new terms, neither faces conservative opposition. Their opponents in the Nov. 4 elections — Democrats Pat Kemp and Elizabeth Belcher, respectively — spoke in favor of the registry at the meeting.

Afterward, Fletcher said he would try to bring a draft ordinance back for a vote in October, but "it will be tight."

So it is still not certain that Hillsborough would join governments like Tampa, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County in adopting a domestic partnership registry. Commissioners still have to vote on the ordinance Fletcher writes.

And while Wednesday's vote was unanimous, there was debate over terminology. Commissioners Crist and Sandy Murman suggested an "advance directive registry" — a living will — would be more appropriate.

Still, the discussion ended with a vote that provided another entry in a series of victories secured by Beckner, who is gay.

In June 2013, he pushed his colleagues to repeal Hillsborough's ban on recognizing gay pride.

In July, he proposed outlawing discrimination against gay or transgender people. Commissioners unanimously asked County Attorney Fletcher to write a draft expansion of Hillsborough's human rights ordinance, which they will consider on Oct. 1.

The local business community played a key role in securing Wednesday's vote — as it did in advocating July's vote on the human rights ordinance.

Tampa General Hospital president and CEO Jim Burkhart sent a letter to commissioners this month requesting a registry, and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bob Rohrlack spoke in favor of it.

"Hospitals need it to provide the best care, and our companies need it to attract the best and brightest people they can get," Rohrlack said at the meeting.

Of the commissioners who switched their votes, Higginbotham was the most introspective.

Crist, who said last year a registry would give a false sense of security, said he changed his mind after a situation in which a Pinellas County hospital didn't recognize his authority to make decisions for his elderly father.

Murman said she changed her mind after researching registries.

Ken Hagan didn't speak about the issue Wednesday.

Support for the registry was nearly unanimous among those who spoke during a public comment period. Of the 11 people who spoke, only one was opposed — Terry Kemple, a candidate for a seat on the Hillsborough County School Board.

"There are four of you who voted against this bad policy in the past, and nothing has changed," said Kemple. "This is really cynical political manipulation."

Kemple was outnumbered at the meeting by people like Edmond Lally, 61 of Tampa, who repeated a sales pitch that has resonated with commissioners.

"It's not just the right thing to do," Lally said, "It's the smart business thing to do."

Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.