Thursday, March 22, 2018

As Election Day nears, gay rights group with Tampa Bay roots raises profile statewide


When judges in two counties struck down Florida's ban on same-sex marriages last month, a St. Petersburg-based advocacy group was poised to get the word out.

The group, Equality Florida, organized celebrations from Tallahassee to Key West, and flooded social media with colorful graphics proclaiming "Love Wins in Florida!"

Equality Florida has been working to protect Florida's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for more than two decades. But its statewide profile has risen to new heights in the aftermath of the rulings.

Its leaders hope to carry that clout into the November elections.

"We have more than 300,000 pro-equality voters that we have identified and mobilized in different elections," founder and CEO Nadine Smith said. "We will be doing everything in our power to get them to the polls."

Equality Florida bills itself as the state's largest gay-rights organization.

The nonprofit group boasts 21 employees, 4,000 volunteers and almost 50,000 likes on Facebook. It has offices in Tallahassee, Gainesville, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Miami and Hollywood.

Equality Florida raises about $2 million annually, Smith said. Its principal sources of revenue are fundraisers, donations and membership dues.

To help win votes in Tallahassee, the group has its own lobbyist. It doesn't hurt that state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, has worked as a paid Equality Florida field director.

"Especially with the younger members of the House and Senate, they have a tremendous amount of clout," said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale.

It wasn't always that way. Equality Florida started out as a network of activists pushing the Hillsborough County Commission to adopt a human rights ordinance in the early 1990s.

Their efforts were successful — though the commission repealed the part banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1995. Commissioners are now considering adding that language back.

After the original ordinance passed, the activists, then known as the Hillsborough Human Rights Task Force, helped promote similar ordinances elsewhere in the state.

They turned their eyes to Tallahassee in 1997, the year Florida lawmakers passed legislation banning same-sex marriage.

"That's when we made the commitment that we would be statewide, and we would never let another session pass without having a presence in Tallahassee," Smith recalled.

The group chose a new name to reflect its new, expanded mission: Equality Florida.

Equality Florida has continued its work on the local level, while also pushing for antibullying legislation, gay adoption and equal benefits on the state level.

"We are on the ground at school board meetings, commission meetings," said Nate Klarfeld, a retired dentist from Fort Lauderdale and Equality Florida volunteer. "We have changed the hearts and minds of people in Florida, and we've done it one at a time."

Andy Janecek of the Tallahassee chapter of the Florida GLBT Democratic Caucus said Equality Florida has also provided leadership and support for other advocacy groups across the state.

"They've been able to focus on tough legislation and visibility," he said.

But the group has shouldered some criticism, including allegations it has claimed credit for victories made by other LGBT organizations.

In a 2012 report on the organization, South Florida activist and retired businessman Stephen Herbits likened Equality Florida to a "cash cow, sucking donations from the LGBT and LGBT-friendly community in Florida without providing any benefit."

Herbits was also critical of the group's lobbying efforts in Tallahassee.

"Their strategy is to work with only known sympathetic legislators, dismissing all others," he wrote. "In a Republican-controlled legislature, it is important that they work both sides of the aisle."

Smith, the CEO, said Equality Florida has worked in a bipartisan way, and has key victories to show for it, including the passage of an antibullying law in 2008.

By far, the organization's most visible work has been around the issue of marriage equality. It has been a focus since 2008, when Florida voters passed a Constitutional amendment prohibiting gay couples from marrying.

Last year, Equality Florida launched a "Get Engaged" campaign urging members of the LGBT community to share their stories and feelings about marriage. Then in January, the group joined six same-sex couples suing Miami-Dade County Clerk Harvey Ruvin for marriage licenses.

Similar litigation was filed in Monroe County.

In both cases, the judges ruled Florida's gay marriage ban violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection and due process clauses. Attorney General Pam Bondi's office is appealing the decisions.

Still, public opinion appears to be shifting. A Quinnipiac poll in April found that Florida voters support gay marriage by 56-39 percent.

Smith expects LGBT issues to factor prominently into the upcoming election cycle — and says Equality Florida is poised to play an influential role.

Earlier this summer, Equality Florida threw its support behind Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist. It was a controversial pick; Crist is a former Republican who once opposed same-sex marriage. He has since changed his position on the issue.

Some observers questioned why the group did not endorse Democrat Nan Rich, a former state senator and longtime advocate of gay rights.

"The numbers are what they are," Smith said. "This is a race that will be Crist versus (incumbent Gov. Rick) Scott. We need to make sure our community understands what's at stake, and start delivering that message as early as possible."

Crist has already made LGBT issues a priority in his campaign.

In a July 29 email to supporters, Crist said he would "prohibit any form of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity within the state agencies or its contractors" starting on the first day of his administration.

When asked where he stands on gay marriage, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has said he "supports traditional marriage, consistent with the amendment approved by Florida voters in 2008, but does not believe that anyone should be discriminated against for any reason."

Equality Florida also intends to be influential in local races throughout the state.

"It is not only the marquee races," Smith said. "We also get involved in the smaller races, especially in places where we have considerable membership and the vote is going to be decided by a few hundred people."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]

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