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Kevin Beckner picking up wins for gay equality in second term

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's first openly gay commissioner didn't focus on advancing gay equality in his first term on the board, and didn't have much success when he did.

As he pledged as a candidate, Kevin Beckner concentrated on public safety, from pushing for alternatives to juvenile offender incarceration to cracking down on pill mills and staged auto crashes.

So far in his second term, Beckner, a Democrat, has placed the gay rights debate front and center. And he's scoring some victories with his Republican-dominated board, this week securing the repeal of an 8-year-old ban on county recognition of gay-pride events that had been a touchstone for rights advocates.

Commissioners and some of their observers agree Beckner deserves credit for succeeding where he and others have failed previously. But they say a changing national climate, a commission evolving in makeup and philosophy, and a narrow framing of the topic by him and others has enabled some small steps.

Beckner didn't disagree.

"I give my colleagues a lot of credit. They are good people," he said. "It's not my sense they have the vitriol or the divisiveness that past boards have had. We have gotten to know each other. We have a lot more in common than we have different."

Beckner, 42, an Indiana native, first filed to run for the County Commission in the wake of that 2005 vote to ban gay-pride recognition. But he said he was just as interested in other issues, from fixing the county's transportation system to making the community safer, and he made those areas priorities after dispatching Republican incumbent Brian Blair in 2008.

"I've never looked at Kevin as the gay commissioner," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "I've looked at him as a commissioner who happens to be gay."

Early in the term, he sought to extend health care benefits to domestic partners of county employees and later proposed discrimination protections based on sexual orientation for commission aides. Both failed.

But the board was changing. Gone were some of its hard-line social conservatives, such as Blair, Jim Norman and Ronda Storms, architect of the gay-pride ban.

And at the end of his first term, Beckner won support for creating a diversity committee to study ways the county can make itself a more welcoming place. Commissioners agreed to create a slots for gays.

"Absolutely without a doubt," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida "Kevin Beckner's presence on the County Commission has changed the tenor of what used to be a screechingly homophobic body."

But so, too, have three new board members who arrived in 2010, each former state legislators — Republicans Sandy Murman and Victor Crist and Democrat Les Miller, who speak in more moderating terms.

Still, the new term brought a new defeat when commissioners in January rejected a proposal by Sharpe to create a domestic partnership registry for unmarried couples, including those of the same sex. Sharpe was seeking to atone for his support of the gay-pride ban, but couldn't bring fellow Republicans with him.

Beckner, seemingly, was not deterred.

"Usually before a commissioner bellies up to the bar, they're checking the winds, checking the landscape," said public affairs consultant Todd Pressman. "And in a second and final term, any politician tends to get a little more emboldened. They're more experienced, have more expertise, and decide to pursue what they really care about."

That description fits Beckner, he said.

Two weeks ago, Beckner appealed to commissioners, asking them to support a proclamation for GaYBOR Days, an annual event that seeks to promote the region as welcoming to gay tourists.

When Chairman Ken Hagan signed it, along with Sharpe and Miller, it was the first time a majority of the board had done so in six years.

Hagan said he was simply supporting a group promoting Hillsborough as a tourist destination. With that couching, the three holdout Republicans joined him the next day.

This week came the repeal of the gay-pride recognition ban, at Beckner's urging.

"It doesn't have anything to do with where I'm at in my term," Beckner said. "It has to do with where I think we are as a community and as a board. I just think this is the right time to do it."

He said he has given no thought to what he might do politically after he reaches his term limit in 2016.

The vote came during a meeting with plenty of drama. A bloc of commissioners, led by Hagan and Crist, attempted to soften the repeal with caveats.

Beckner held firm for a clean elimination of the policy, securing the unanimous vote. Commissioners said they ultimately voted to repeal a policy that singled out a group like none other in their rule book.

"He is definitely an effective strategist and tactician when it comes to politics," said Terry Kemple, an activist who opposes gay equality measures and has repeatedly sparred with Beckner. "I can see what he's doing and the way he goes about doing it. I can appreciate the logical thought that goes into it."

Murman said the latest two votes are a result of how the issues were cast, both by Beckner and also by other members.

"The GaYBOR proclamation was an economic development issue and it involves small business," she said. "And clearly the (gay pride recognition) policy in place was not in line with other policies. That was about decency and fairness and to right a wrong."

Her former legislative colleague from the Democratic side, Miller, agreed. He said he thinks each would have passed regardless of who brought them forward.

Still, he does think it represents a change in posture by the commission. Then again, he said he's not sure it means commissioners are ready to embrace other priorities of the gay-rights movement, as evidenced by the domestic partnership registry vote earlier this year.

"It's kind of hard to read," Miller said. "But I do believe (Wednesday) set a tone that this commission looks at things in a different light than in 2005."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Kevin Beckner picking up wins for gay equality in second term 06/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 7, 2013 1:10am]
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