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Hillsborough group hits street for Democrats

TAMPA — The parade of Democratic candidates across the stage at Skipper's Smokehouse seemed endless.

Congressional hopefuls John Dicks, Bill Mitchell and Doug Tudor; Phyllis Busansky, who wants to be Hillsborough County's supervisor of elections; Hillsborough County Commission candidate Kevin Beckner, to name a few.

There were office-holders, too: Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern and Florida CFO Alex Sink.

"Thanks for all your help and support of me up in Tallahassee," Sink told the cheering crowd.

The occasion?

A Get Out the Vote concert fundraiser sponsored by the Hillsborough County Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Allied Democratic Caucus.

Just three years after its creation, the caucus has earned a reputation locally as one of the most dedicated, hard-working and organized Democratic groups.

"They're one of the more significant activist groups because they're good at getting boots on the ground for candidates," said Susan Smith, who heads the Northwest Hillsborough Democratic Club and is an "allied" member of the GLBTA caucus.

The group came to be in August 2005.

That was just two months after the Hillsborough County Commission, at the behest of then-Commissioner Ronda Storms, voted to ban county sponsorship of Gay Pride events.

"A lot of what we've done is probably in direct response to that," said Sally Phillips, president of the caucus. "We saw that we needed to have our voices heard. And to have our voices heard we needed to organize."

Members staff phone banks, walk neighborhoods for candidates and organize voter registration drives.

"There's no infighting. That's what's amazing to me," said Ana Cruz, a political consultant and former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "Our job is to pick at the Republicans. Not one another. And they're able to do that."

Although Hillsborough County has more registered Democrats than Republicans, the county's GOP has long been better at marshaling its forces.

In the past few years, county Democrats have been working to pull themselves together. Clubs have formed everywhere from South Tampa to the Republican strongholds of New Tampa and East Hillsborough.

But the GLBTA caucus led the way, said Pat Kemp, vice chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee.

"No one's been doing it as long and consistently and reliably," Kemp said. "They really set the example."

Now the group is organizing behind Kevin Beckner, an openly gay candidate making a run for the County Commission seat held by Republican Brian Blair.

He faces businessman Joe Redner, best known as the owner of the Mons Venus strip club, and civic activist Dee Layne, in the Democratic primary Aug. 26.

Phillips gets wide-eyed and excited when talking about the possibility of an openly gay county commissioner just three years after the anti-Gay Pride vote.

"It's huge," she said.

The only candidate more important than Beckner right now is Barack Obama, she said.

This year, for the first time, the caucus came out with official endorsements, one for Beckner and another for School Board candidate Stephen Gorham.

The group worked for Gorham in 2006 when he ran for the Florida Senate against Ronda Storms, but it did not officially endorse him, figuring it would hurt him more than it helped in the conservative district, said caucus vice president Ken Key.

"We try to be sensitive to what the needs of the campaign are," he said.

Now, though, he said, the strength of the caucus has empowered it to take an official stance.

"We thought we were in position to offer endorsements that mean something," he said.

But even without formal backing, Cruz said, the help of the GLBTA can make a big difference in close elections.

She points to newcomer Mulhern's win over City Council veteran Shawn Harrison last year as an example.

"They were just one of the groups that helped me," Mulhern said. "But they might have been the ones that did the most walking for me. They were huge."

With 52 members, the Hillsborough GLBTA is not the largest of Florida's 12 gay caucuses. But the Hillsborough group has gained recognition statewide as a powerhouse.

As evidence of that, Michael Albetta, president of the Florida GLBT Democratic Caucus, notes that five of Florida's 25 GLBT Democratic convention delegates belong to Hillsborough's group.

"Even the liberal counties such as Miami/Dade, Broward, Palm Beach County did not send as many as Hillsborough," he said. "They're everywhere and they're active."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Hillsborough group hits street for Democrats 08/10/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2008 6:18pm]
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