TAMPA — In years past, a proposed county law barring discrimination against gay or transgender people would have been dead on arrival at the Hillsborough County Commission boardroom.
Not in 2014.
A majority of the commissioners — four of the seven — have expressed to the Tampa Bay Times their qualified support for expanding Hillsborough's human rights ordinance to also ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in hiring, housing and public accommodations.
There are still a number of steps along the way to passage, starting with a discussion at Wednesday's meeting, and a vote on whether the county attorney should write a draft ordinance. But the mere fact that four of the seven commissioners agree discrimination against gay and transgender people should be illegal indicates a shift for a board that not long ago had a reputation for staunch social conservatism.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democrat and the county's first openly gay commissioner, is pushing an ordinance that would mirror those passed in 17 Florida cities, including Tampa, and eight counties, including Pinellas.
"The timing is right, the environment is right, and we've certainly progressed as a County Commission," Beckner said. "I feel very optimistic that a majority of my colleagues know what the right thing to do is."
Beckner also pushed for last year's repeal of Hillsborough's ban on recognition of gay pride, a unique stance taken by commissioners in 2005 that Nadine Smith, the president of Equality Florida, called "a stain on Hillsborough County's reputation."
Commissioner Les Miller, the only other Democrat, and Republicans Victor Crist and Sandy Murman told the Times they support barring discrimination against gay and transgender people, but would need to see the actual ordinance in writing first.
"I'm against discrimination to anyone, for any reason," Crist said. "Whether you agree or disagree with their lifestyle, choices, or whatever, the bottom line is they are part of our community and they do not deserve to be discriminated against."
Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe, both Republicans, wouldn't weigh in before Wednesday.
"I'm going to go into it with an open mind, and I look forward to what Kevin has to say," Higginbotham said.
Sharpe is one of two commissioners who voted for the gay pride ban back in 2005, a decision he later said he regretted.
"I really want to hear what the attorneys and Kevin have to say," Sharpe said. "I'll be listening to all sides."
The only commissioner to not comment was Republican Ken Hagan who, like Sharpe, was on the board for the 2005 gay pride ban. He was out of the room then when the measure passed but returned and supported imposing an extraordinary supermajority vote by future board members to overturn the ban. The ban was overturned by a unanimous vote last year.
Hagan did not return multiple calls for comment since Thursday, when the agenda was released.
Smith, the Equality Florida CEO, said Monday that she expects the Hillsborough ordinance to pass.
One local conservative activist has started mounting an effort to defeat the ordinance. Terry Kemple, a Hillsborough School Board candidate, called the offices of several commissioners Monday to express his concerns.
"It's bad policy, and this is a huge issue," Kemple said in a phone interview. "This puts government in the position of trampling on people's religious liberties in favor of people's sexual preferences."
Beckner, aware there may be opposition, stopped short of predicting the ordinance's success.
"I'm optimistic that we'll move forward on Wednesday," Beckner said. "But I always realize in a boardroom, anything can happen.
Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.