TAMPA — Before last year, the Hillsborough County Commission was known as a bastion of social conservatism, a body that banned gay pride displays and dismissed efforts to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.
Now that reputation is in jeopardy.
This week's unanimous vote to move forward with a local human rights ordinance is the latest in a series of events marking a new era for Hillsborough County. While the law isn't finalized — the county attorney needs to write it, and the commission will have to approve it — eventual passage is likely. Five of seven commissioners have expressed support.
So what changed? National momentum has shifted in recent years in favor of gay rights, with the spread of anti-discrimination laws such as the one proposed in Hillsborough and with court rulings like the Monroe County decision this week that found Florida's gay marriage ban unconstitutional.
But there were two key local factors that paved the way for this week's shift, according to current and former commissioners and others in the community.
One is politics. It's a more moderate board than in years past. While five commissioners are Republicans, none identify as standing for "traditional family values" as strongly as two former commissioners — Ronda Storms and Brian Blair.
In 2005, commission Chairman Mark Sharpe sided with Storms and Blair on a controversial vote to ban county recognition of gay pride events. Sharpe reversed it last year when the commission unanimously repealed the ban.
"When I came on the board in 2005 … it was a different philosophy," Sharpe said this week. "There were some board members who came with the attitude that they wanted to pick that fight."
Blair, unseated by Kevin Beckner in 2008, agreed with Sharpe, whom he called a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only).
"You can tell him I said that. Mark's a friend of mine, I tell him that whenever I see him," Blair said.
And even with a moderate board, timing matters, Blair said. Beckner, the commission's first openly gay member, picked a good time politically to bring the issue up.
Three Republican commissioners are seeking new terms this year. Ken Hagan has already clinched an unopposed win and Victor Crist has no Republican opposition.
Only Al Higginbotham has conservative opponents who could make an issue of his vote, and Higginbotham is running countywide, where he has to appeal to more Democrats than he's ever had to in east Hillsborough's conservative District 4.
"Nobody's got anything to worry about," Blair said.
Another major factor is a push from the business community. It's one thing for Republican commissioners to vote against Democrats and gay rights advocates. It's another for Republican commissioners to defy dozens of local business leaders who are urging an expansion of Hillsborough's anti-discrimination protections.
"When companies are recruiting, those in that community (gay and transgender people) are aware which communities have ordinances and which ones don't," said Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "This directly affects our members' ability to hire the best qualified candidates."
The city of Tampa's human rights ordinance has protected both gay and transgender people since 2009. But the lack of those protections in county law has hurt business recruiting, chamber officials said.
"It's an economic issue as much as it is a social issue," Rohrlack said.
Emphasizing economic development to sell politicians on human rights ordinances is a strategy deployed successfully by Equality Florida, a statewide gay rights advocacy organization.
"It isn't an accident the leading voice for change on this has been the business community," said Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith, who attended this week's commission meeting. "The hostility toward gay people in Hillsborough County contrasted so starkly with the city of Tampa … It's a competitive disadvantage."
Beckner enlisted the help of some business leaders in advance of Wednesday's meeting, but some just heard the issue was coming up and volunteered their support.
By Wednesday morning, the list of companies pushing the commissioners to approve an expanded human rights ordinance included a prominent law firm, five major banks, three major professional sports teams, Tampa General Hospital, the University of South Florida, and dozens more.
"Nobody's asked them to weigh in on this issue before," Beckner said. "Many of them just shook their heads, gave a gentle smile, and said we can't believe government hasn't yet addressed this yet … Then they said, oh yeah, this is Hillsborough County."
Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.