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Issue hangs on county election

The future of Hillsborough County's ban on discrimination against gays and lesbians probably hinges on the winner of County Commissioner Jan Platt's countywide seat Nov. 8.

Platt, a Democrat who is barred by law from running again, consistently has supported the county's 3-year-old amendment to its Human Rights Ordinance, banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in matters of housing and public accommodations.

Democratic candidate Paddy Moses said she would continue Platt's support of the amendment if she wins Platt's seat. But Republican Chris Hart said he would vote to repeal the amendment. The rest of the board, by all indications, will be a 3-3 deadlock.

Opponents of a similar amendment in the city of Tampa reached a key milestone two weeks ago, when elections officials certified that a measure to repeal the amendment will appear on the city elections ballot in March. Unlike the county, the city's amendment also bans discrimination in employment.

Opponents of the amendments are marshalling several arguments in their favor. They say other laws already extend gays and lesbians the protections contained in the amendments. They cite a return to "family values," and claim to represent a wide coalition of religious groups opposed to the measures.

Amendment supporters see the question as one of fighting discrimination, pure and simple. They also say they are worried about the community's image. Some of Tampa's power brokers have weighed in against repeal, saying Tampa Bay would incur a nationwide blemish on its reputation, and experience the loss of convention business that Denver and Cincinnati experienced after similar legislation passed in those communities. Tampa lost some convention business itself when its amendment was repealed for a time in 1992 and 1993.

The issue no one

wants to talk about

The sexual-orientation question is the stealth issue of the County Commission races this year. People are thinking about it, but with few exceptions, not talking about it publicly.

Political candidates on both sides hesitate to bring it up because discussions about it _ like the discussions earlier this year about removing the Confederate flag from the county seal _ have the capacity to hurt and divide.

Moses said she favors the amendment because "I do not believe in discrimination against anybody. Everybody has the right to own a home."

When asked whether he would vote to repeal the amendment, Hart first said, "I'd have to think about that." Then he said he would, and added, "I don't think there's a need for it."

Would he make a motion to repeal it? "I don't plan to," Hart said.

The candidates say they've heard next to nothing about the issue on the campaign trail. And it is clear they would rather talk about almost anything else.

"My campaign's about more important things," Hart said. "This is not even on the map. I haven't addressed it because the community hasn't addressed it. Crime, education, training . . . those are the most important things. This has not even been brought up in my campaign."

"It's never been an issue," Moses said. "People are concerned with crime, very concerned with education, they're concerned with taxes, they see that government is not really responsive. . . . This is a non-matter to anybody."

There is little speculation about the votes other commissioners would cast. Chairman Joe Chillura, who has drawn one write-in opponent, has opposed the amendment. So has Commissioner Jim Norman, who drew no opposition this year. Commissioner Lydia Miller opposed the amendment, but Republicans declined to renominate her earlier this month. Both of the women who are running to succeed her, though _ Democrat Linda Ray Barrow and Republican Dottie Berger _ said they oppose the measure.

On the pro side, there is Commissioner Ed Turanchik. Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, who originally voted against adopting the amendment, since has said she will not vote to repeal it. Commissioner Sandra Wilson, who succeeded the late Sylvia Kimbell in June, could not be reached for comment Friday. But she has indicated to others she supports the amendment.

Changing the balance

on the commission

Political candidates may hesitate to discuss the issue, but activists on both sides do not.

David Caton, head of the Yes! Repeal Homosexual Ordinance Committee working against the Tampa ordinance, said the race for Platt's seat represents "an opportunity for Hillsborough County to change the balance of our commission from a liberal majority to a conservative majority."

"The moral face of our County Commission would change to the right with Chris Hart," Caton said. "It would stay at the left with a vote for Paddy Moses."

Caton said his group's concentration on the city amendment has left insufficient resources to promote Hart or fight Moses the way they would like to.

On the other side of the question is Todd Simmons, co-chairman of the Human Rights Task Force of Florida. Simmons said Hart hadn't given him a clear answer regarding how he would vote if the amendment came up.

"He did tell me he would not initiate a negative vote on the issue," Simmons said. He said he thought Hart was "still in kind of an information-gathering phase" on the issue, and still might be open to persuasion.

Hart, Commissioner Norman and others have said they feel existing state and federal laws provide adequate protection for gays and lesbians.

That view is contradicted by Turanchik, who supported the amendment and who is a practicing attorney representing, among other clients, employers in wrongful termination suits.

"It is a big misconception that your job is protected," Turanchik said. "Florida is an at-will state. A private employer can fire an employee for any reason at all, or no reason, or a bad reason, as long as it's not a reason that is discriminatory."

Simmons said "Once people learn it's not a gay rights ordinance, that it doesn't give anyone special rights or special treatment or affirmative action, all of these people say, "Well, no, I don't think anyone should be thrown out of their home because they're gay, or penalized at a public accommodation because they're straight.' "

Simmons acknowledged that for many voters, the issue is not very important.

"I don't think a great many people wake up thinking, "Oh, God, I live in a county with a human-rights ordinance _ my property values are falling.' The only time people think about it is when they are victims of discrimination, or repeal hurts the image of the city or the county."

Tourism industry

worried about image

Image is a major concern for a group called Citizens for a Fair Tampa, which is fighting to keep the amendment on the books in the city. A number of community figures, including Democratic fund-raiser and Jim Walter Corp. CEO Dennis Ross, have signed on with the group.

Chairman John Dunn said the last time the law was repealed in the city, convention bookings were withdrawn, and the entire local economy was hurt _ city and county.

"The image went out of being an intolerant community," Dunn said.

Jim Clark, director of the Tampa Hillsborough Convention & Visitors Association Inc, said Tampa suffered some convention cancellations in 1992.

Legislation against equal protection for gays and lesbians "has nailed the convention industry in other cities" as well, he said.

"We don't get as much association business because we don't have _ guess what _ a convention hotel," Clark said. "But the National Council for Social Studies, the American Library Association, not just gay and lesbian groups _ all expressed strong concern about going to cities (with that legislation). Primarily educational groups, but not exclusively."

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