TALLAHASSEE — This week’s primary was a historic day for equal rights in Florida.
Michele Rayner, who won Tuesday’s Democratic primary that clinched the race for House District 70, is believed to be the first out queer Black woman elected to the Florida Legislature. And Shevrin Jones, a gay state representative, notched a convincing victory in the Democratic primary for Senate District 35. With only a write-in candidate opposing him in the November general election, he’ll become the first openly gay state senator in Florida’s history.
Jasmen Rogers-Shaw, another queer candidate, narrowly lost to an incumbent in a Democratic primary for a House district in Broward.
Other LGBTQ victories came in the form of notable defeats. At least three incumbent candidates with anti-LGBTQ track records lost their primaries Tuesday: Democratic Rep. Al Jacquet of Lantana, Democratic Rep. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville, and Republican Rep. Mike Hill of Pensacola. One of Jones’ opponents, former state Sen. Daphne Campbell, had a history of supporting anti-gay legislation, including a ban on gay adoption.
Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida, which bills itself as the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, said the results from primaries in both major parties show voters’ broad support for gay and transgender rights.
“It reflects a repudiation of this kind of hostile, divisive rhetoric aimed at the LGBTQ community,” Smith said. “I think people are tired of it.”
Smith noted the candidates who lost failed to fight to ensure equal rights for all as legislators. For example, Democrats Daniels and Jacquet both supported giving taxpayer money to charter schools, even those with explicit anti-gay and anti-transgender conduct and admissions policies.
And Hill, a Republican whom Smith’s organization called an “infamous homophobe”, was rebuked by his own party’s leadership last year for laughing at a constituent who suggested he should craft a bill that would allow for the summary execution of gay men. He later apologized.
Hill lost Tuesday to Army veteran and community activist Michelle Salzman. He said he had no comment on Equality Florida calling his defeat an example of “a total repudiation of anti-LGBTQ lawmakers.”
“I don’t think that was really a factor in this campaign,” Hill said of LGBTQ issues.
Salzman agreed in an interview, to a point. She steered away from social issues as much as possible, she said. But she said that if LGBTQ Floridians are celebrating Hill’s defeat, that she’d “celebrate with them.”
“This is a victory for all the people in Florida,” said Salzman, who netted 52.5 percent of the vote. “This isn’t my victory. Mike was a very divisive man.”
Salzman will face Democrat Franscine Mathis in November.
Jones, who faced campaign smears and attacks targeting his sexuality during his run for Senate District 35, came out on top in a deep blue district where large swaths of the constituency regularly attend church. It’s not the most friendly place for an openly gay candidate, Jones has admitted. Still, he beat five opponents in a crowded, expensive and closely watched Democratic primary with 43.3 percent of the vote.
Jones said his historic win speaks to a larger narrative among young, queer candidates advancing in races across Florida.
The August primary results, he said, were “a rejection of homophobia and hatred” and show that communities don’t want divisiveness. Instead, they want a leader who can serve without taking shots at the private lives of Floridians.
“All of these races were the community saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” he said. “As lawmakers, are we going to pick and choose who we are going to serve? Or are we going to serve all 21 million people?”
Rayner, who won the House District 70 race which covers South St. Petersburg and parts of Manatee, Sarasota and Hillsborough counties, said bigoted identity politics has simply become less compelling in the time of a global pandemic and a collapsing economy.
Voters are looking for solutions, not personal attacks, said Rayner, who won 31 percent of the vote in a hard-fought four-way race.
“A lot of candidates had these dog whistles and voters were saying, ‘Those are not explaining how we’re going to make it day-to-day,’” she said.
Still, Rayner said her victory showed how voters are becoming more open to the idea of queer leadership in Tallahassee.
Advocates hope the fresh injection of queer and LGBTQ-allied legislators can turn into meaningful legislative change. Equality Florida has fought for years for the passage of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, a bipartisan measure which would ban sexuality and gender identity based discrimination in the workforce, housing and in public places.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, who will be the House Speaker if Republicans maintain control of the chamber in November, as they’re widely expected to, did not respond to requests for comment.
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson Simpson did not address whether a gay legislator in the chamber would make a meaningful difference for LGBTQ legislative priorities. Generally, even as the chamber gets more diverse, Democrats and Republicans “will disagree because that’s what democrats and republicans do,” Simpson said.
Republicans will likely control whether LGBTQ-friendly bills get passed next legislative session. But Democrats faced their own reckoning in some parts of the state on Tuesday.
Daniels, the Democratic representative from House District 14, had long held a litany of conservative social positions that clashed with her party’s mainstream. She was beaten in her primary by community organizer Angie Nixon, 60 percent to 40 percent.
Some in the party wondered what took so long.
Lake Worth Beach Commissioner Omari Hardy, who beat incumbent Rep. Al Jacquet in District 88, said he thinks the wave of progressive wins can’t be credited to the party, which stayed silent early in the campaign when Jacquet made homophobic slurs toward Hardy on a radio program in February. Jacquet did not respond to requests for comment.
He said “it’s a shame” that people like Jacquet and other other Democrats like Daniels were in the Legislature.
Hardy, who won with 43.2 percent of the vote Tuesday, is not himself queer but was raised by two gay mothers.
Hardy will face Republican Danielle Madsen on the November ballot.
While he said he recognizes that the goal of a political party is to win elections, Hardy added that he wishes there was “some sort of moral compass” attached to winning races. Jacquet is far from the only Democratic candidate to have made anti-gay statements and that party officials, especially in 2020, should do more.
“At what point do you become complicit in bigotry and hate speech?” Hardy said. “It’s a shame that the party didn’t condemn their hateful rhetoric more quickly and more forcefully.”