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Sue Carlton: Can Hillsborough evolve on basic rights?

Could it actually happen?

Could the Hillsborough County Commission finally shuck its image as a stodgy, backwards, backwoods board, resistant to evolving when it comes to the rights of citizens straight or gay?

Or will the board back down?

Tomorrow, commissioners take up what ought to be a no-brainer of a measure that passed easy-breezy in the city of Tampa, in assorted cities and counties and most recently in Pinellas. They will consider starting a domestic partner registry to give unmarried couples some of the same basic rights as married ones in certain critical moments.

Couples who sign up for such registries make it official that they want their significant others to be informed if they're in a medical emergency, to be allowed to visit and make decisions at the hospital, and to make funeral arrangements, among other things.

You might think your right to have the person you chose as your partner involved would be a given with or without a marriage certificate, but this is not necessarily so. Some 368 unmarried couples determined to make their wishes perfectly clear on this have already signed up in Tampa since the registry opened last summer.

Now for the politics: The fact that this benefits straight couples living together could be enough to give wary commissioners cover to vote for it. And the fact that it protects gay couples could have some of them on the run.

A little Hillsborough history: In 2005, during a dustup over a gay literature display at a public library, then-Commissioner Ronda Storms got the board to pass a ban on any county recognition or display of gay pride. The lone commissioner to vote no was Kathy Castor, who is now in Congress.

Storms is long gone from the commission (and just lost her latest bid for public office.) Other like-minded board members are gone, too: Brian Blair, beaten in a race against, interestingly, the first openly gay commissioner, and Jim Norman, out of politics after a scandal over a vacation home bankrolled by a political benefactor.

Mark Sharpe, who voted for that gay pride ban, is now the guy who put the domestic partner registry on this week's agenda. Evolving, it's called. Sharpe wants it unanimous — "7-0 is the way to go," he says.

Does it have a prayer?

Because you can count on the usual characters from the We Know Better Than You What God Wants Coalition, or whatever they're calling themselves these days, to be on hand hollering about "special rights" that aren't special at all, just basic and decent and equally applied to couples gay or straight.

Do those voices still matter? Well, it is instructive to note supporters of the registry waited until after the November election to bring it up in the interest of avoiding political pressure.

Two Democrats on the board, Les Miller and Kevin Beckner, have indicated their support. Republicans Ken Hagan, Al Higginbotham, Victor Crist and Sandy Murman will be worth watching.

Because it would take just one of them to step up and say: You know what? Enough already. Time to move forward in the name of fairness and letting people decide for themselves who should be by their side if the worst happens.

And how evolved that would be.

Sue Carlton: Can Hillsborough evolve on basic rights? 01/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 7:08pm]
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