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Bill McCollum's political career marked by contradictions over gay rights

TALLAHASSEE — When it comes to homosexuality as a campaign issue, Bill McCollum is a study in contradictions.

The Republican candidate for governor is clear: He opposes same-sex marriage and says gay couples should not be allowed to adopt children.

"I don't believe that the people who do this should be raising our children," McCollum says.

But the finance chairman of his campaign, Miami investor Jon Kislak, led the unsuccessful drive to keep a same-sex marriage ban out of the state Constitution in 2008. Kislak said his gay daughter had to move out of state to marry her partner and adopt a child — his grandson.

It's the fifth time McCollum has faced apparent contradictions involving gay issues as a candidate or attorney general.

• He told a Baptist publication last week that he opposes an existing state law that lets gays serve as temporary foster parents, a stand even one of his most conservative supporters disagrees with.

• His office paid $120,000 to antigay activist George Rekers as an expert witness in a gay adoption case, only to learn that Rekers traveled to Europe with a male escort. McCollum accepted full responsibility for hiring Rekers and said in retrospect he would not have hired him.

• He has long sought political advice from Arthur Finkelstein, a respected Republican consultant in Massachusetts who, along with his longtime gay partner, has adopted two children. "I've had a number of people who are gays work for me," McCollum says. "I have no discrimination in my office about employing anybody or working around me."

• McCollum was vilified by social conservatives in his 2004 U.S. Senate race as a tool of the "radical homosexual lobby" for favoring a federal hate-crime law including protection for gays and lesbians. The attack reflected a broader strategy by allies of the victorious Mel Martinez to puncture McCollum's pro-family image.

A mailer savaging McCollum over the hate-crime bill so enraged him that he waved it in the air in a live TV debate in Tampa and angrily called Martinez "unfit" to be a senator.

"He's been running away from that ever since," said Nadine Smith of Equality Florida, a Tampa-based gay rights advocacy group. "It's absolutely appalling. Political desperation in its ugliest form. The real shame of this is, I don't think he believes any of this. He's pandering as hard as he can."

Locked in a fierce fight with Rick Scott for the GOP nomination for governor and vulnerable on his right flank, McCollum says he favors changing state law to prevent gays from being foster parents.

Florida already bans gay couples from adopting — the only state to do so.

That prohibition is being challenged in a case before the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami. A trial judge struck down the gay adoption ban, and the state has appealed.

McCollum's office is defending the ban on behalf of the Department of Children and Families, and he told Florida Baptist Witness it is inconsistent to allow gays to be foster parents if they can't legally adopt children.

"Should homosexuals be permitted to serve as foster parents in Florida?" interviewer James A. Smith Sr. asked McCollum, according to an online transcript.

"Well, I personally don't think so, but that is the law," McCollum said. Asked if state law should be changed, he said: "I think that it would be advisable. I really don't think that we should have homosexuals guiding our children. I think that it's a lifestyle that I don't agree with. I realize a lot of people do. It's my personal faith, religious faith, that I don't believe that the people who do this should be raising our children."

Questioned by reporters in Tallahassee on Tuesday, McCollum seemed to backtrack from his earlier comments. He said he wants to wait until the Supreme Court rules in the case.

"I reserve my opinion about what we should or shouldn't do till we see what that ruling is with regard to foster care," McCollum said.

Smith said he recorded the 20-minute interview with McCollum on Aug. 3 in Daytona Beach because he anticipated it could be controversial, and the candidate was quoted accurately.

"He said what we reported him to have said. It's black and white," Smith said. "I decided to put it up there to let people make up their own minds."

Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, statewide co-chairman of Social Conservatives for Bill McCollum, said says children do best with mothers and fathers as parents, but he disagrees with McCollum's position.

"Only because there is a need, and gays are filling a very small part of that need, would I not now pursue a repeal,'' he said.

Stemberger said it was of no concern to him that Kislak serves as a key fundraiser despite his avowed support for gay rights. Kislak did not respond to requests for comment, and his daughter Rebecca, a health care executive in Rhode Island, declined to comment.

She and her partner have adopted a boy. In a 2008 essay, Jon Kislak wrote: "It's just not right that our laws, public policy and social climate in Florida are so unwelcoming as to keep a grandfather like me from seeing his grandson. Providence is a long way from Miami."

During an appearance at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon Wednesday, a reporter asked McCollum how he squares his views on gays, adoption and marriage with his ties to people who advocate — and live — an opposing perspective.

"I have people who work for me who are my friends who are gays who support positions I don't agree with,'' he said. "I happen to have my own opinions. I think same sex marriages are wrong. I think same sex adoptions are wrong. That's my view.''

McCollum, 66, describes himself as a Christian who was raised Methodist in Brooksville. His wife, Ingrid, is Episcopal and the couple attend All Saints Episcopal Church in Winter Park. In the Florida Baptist Witness interview, he said his faith would guide him as governor.

"When God asks, I listen," McCollum said, "and one of the things that I never forget are the morals of Jesus of Nazareth."

Today, with the primary 12 days away, McCollum's antigay rhetoric is stronger than what he told the Times/Herald last May about the state's effort to prevent a South Florida gay couple from adopting a child.

Then, McCollum said he was challenging the lower court ruling only because DCF asked him to. "We are representing our client. It is our client's intent that the constitutionality of this statute be resolved," he said.

Asked whether he would have pushed to defend the gay adoption ban on his own, McCollum said, "I don't imagine that we would have any reason to. We represent clients. That's a hypothetical … routinely we will not."

A recent study by three researchers at the University of Virginia and George Washington University concluded that adopted preschool-age children develop the same, whether the parents are straight or gay, and that the kids showed "typical gender development" regardless of the parents' sexual orientation.

The study appears in the July issue of the scholarly journal Applied Developmental Science. The researchers studied parenting in 106 families in which 50 sets of parents were heterosexual, 27 lesbian and 29 gay.

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and John Frank contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Bill McCollum's political career marked by contradictions over gay rights 08/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 7:48am]
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