TAMPA — Seeking to capitalize on statewide passage of a gay marriage ban, a leading antigay-rights activist is setting his sights on same-sex domestic partnership benefits.
David Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association, says he will seek a change to the Hillsborough County Charter in 2010 to pre-emptively ban same-sex benefits for county employees.
Efforts to recruit volunteers and collect signatures from voters to get the issue on the ballot will begin early next year, he said.
In interviews with the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald on Thursday, Caton sought to frame the issue as a fiscal, as much a moral, argument.
"We're going to use the momentum from the marriage amendment to speak to the fact that most people in this state don't want a recognition of that type of relationship," Caton said. "At this time of economic stress, our government should not be providing benefits to nonemployees on the basis on their sexual relationships."
Gay-rights activists said any such effort by Caton will only galvanize an already motivated bloc of Hillsborough County voters. Those voters have shown greater evidence of organization and hustle in rallying for candidates and causes they support.
"We've got a coalition now, and we've got people who will work very, very hard to ensure he is not successful," said Sally Phillips, president of the Hillsborough County Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Allied Democratic Caucus. "He'll have a fight on his hands."
In addition to passage of Amendment 2, Caton said he probably would not be pursuing the matter at this time if not for the election of openly gay County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who won office Nov. 4. He cited strong turnout at Beckner's swearing-in Tuesday as evidence that his supporters will press him to pursue a gay-rights agenda.
"I think the heavy turnout for his swearing-in was more than just friendship; it was a politically motivated event," Caton said.
Beckner did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Hillsborough County does not offer domestic partnership benefits to employees, although the city of Tampa does. A change to the County Charter would not affect city employees.
The city's benefits, however, also figure in Caton's strategy.
Caton said he would seek to use the political momentum of a Hillsborough charter change to influence Tampa elections for City Council and mayor in 2011. With gay marriage bans getting passed in several states, he called same-sex domestic partner benefits the next frontier in the gay-rights battle.
"Domestic partnership will be the battlefield between the pro-family agenda and the gay-radical agenda,'' Caton said. "They're saying it,'' and he and other like-minded people are prepared to respond, he said.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said Caton's efforts will not pressure the city to change its policies. A majority of City Council members have said they would not seek to end same-sex benefits.
"We are going to continue our domestic partner benefits," Iorio said. "It's the right thing to do."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said Caton is seeking to address a problem that doesn't exist. In the meantime, the county is facing major challenges, he said.
"My focus is going to be 100 percent on solving some weighty issues: job creation, transportation," Sharpe said. "I'm going to spend the next two years trying to figure out how to bring people together to address quality-of-life issues."