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David Caton, demagogue

David Caton has disappointed me again. First he decides not to run for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. Then he fails to get his statewide anti-gay rights measure past the Florida Supreme Court.

Too bad. I was looking forward to both campaigns. They would have been wonderful opportunities for the world to see what a modern-day demagogue looks like.

That may sound harsh _ Caton certainly thinks so _ but let's look at Webster's definition of demagogue: "A person who tries to stir up the people by appeals to emotion, prejudice, etc., in order to win them over quickly and so gain power."

Prejudice? Emotions? Sounds like the David Caton I know.

As the Florida director of the American Family Association, Caton has repeatedly shown he will say anything to win.

Caton once claimed that a gay rights measure would allow teachers to show up in class dressed one day as a man and the next as a woman. He even said it would prohibit police from enforcing laws against sex in public. Both were ridiculous and unfounded, but they sure stirred up the emotions.

In the waning days of his 1992 campaign to overturn Tampa's sexual orientation amendment, Caton claimed that gay rights supporters had recruited the KKK to take Caton's side. It didn't matter that he had absolutely no evidence to support such an absurd charge. The only thing that mattered was putting distance between him and the Klan.

But nothing he said could make the Klan go away. Prejudice makes for unpleasant bedfellows.

His victory in Tampa was short-lived. The state Supreme Court invalidated the referendum on technical grounds.

But that hasn't stopped Caton from taking take his cause to a larger stage. What he sought to do in Tampa he tried to do for the whole state: Caton began a petition drive to amend the state Constitution to ban gay rights laws.

You'd think Caton would moderate his tactics a bit when he's operating statewide. But old habits die hard. Besides, overheated rhetoric comes naturally to a demagogue.

Last week, Caton sent out a news release with a nice conspiratorial bent. It seems the Florida Supreme Court wasn't moving quickly in ruling on Caton's amendment.

Of course, reasonable people might assume that a complex subject such as this would take a while to figure out. Sober reflection takes time. But Caton had his own theory. It went something like this:

Rosemary Barkett, chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, is up for an appointment to the federal bench. She's already being attacked by conservatives for being too liberal. Hoping to avoid controversy, she was deliberately holding up the court's decision on Caton's amendment until after the Senate holds confirmation hearings to improve her chances of getting appointed.

What a grand theory. Too bad it was wrong.

Caton must have forgotten about all that when the court issued its decision on Thursday. The court's decision blocking the amendment from the ballot was announced even though Barkett still hasn't been confirmed yet. Oh, by the way, Barkett abstained from the vote because of a conflict unrelated to any of Caton's wild theories.

Still, Caton was unbowed even in defeat. He will continue his campaign on the local level, Caton said.

"Homosexuality is a destructive lifestyle," Caton told one reporter. "It offends a lot of employers to have to hire someone who can affect the profitability of their company."

The amazing thing about Caton is that he can say things like that and still claim that he's not trying to legalize discrimination.

But read those two sentences again. Discrimination is exactly what Caton wants. He thinks it's okay for an employer to fire people because of their sexual orientation.

Too bad he can't just come out and say so. But that would be too honest. And that's not the David Caton I know.

Tom Scherberger is a Times editorial writer in Tampa.