1. Florida Politics

Now Hillsborough commissioners can step up for diversity

Published Jun. 21, 2013

Hillsborough County commissioners have one thorny issue on their hands in the form of conservative Christian activist Terry Kemple, and whether someone who is not exactly the poster child for diversity belongs on a diversity board in the name of, well, diversity.

Will commissioners go back to being old school or keep moving ahead?

Kemple is a familiar face at government meetings, speaking out against the Council on American-Islamic Relations being invited to talk in public schools and also against any government action that might let gay citizens know they're as much a part of the place as anyone else.

He also is running for the Hillsborough County School Board and is, make no mistake, a contender.

Kemple applied to serve on something to be called the Diversity Advisory Council. The idea is to put together people of varied backgrounds, ethnicities and life experiences to help government officials better understand the rich mix of citizens who make up the county. Among the categories: Hispanic/Latino; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender; and people with disabilities.

Yes, a man who speaks out against people with lives unlike his own would be one notable pick for a board all about understanding our differences. Commissioners got into some loud and lively discussion.

Then, the twist.

Soon after, coincidentally (or not), commissioners voted that, oh, by the way, any current candidate for office may not serve on boards to which commissioners appoint members. A candidate ought not be allowed to use such appointments to further a campaign, the reasoning went.

Some said this was unrelated to the Kemple conundrum. Others rolled their eyes and promptly started calling it the Terry Kemple Rule. Either way, commissioners could dust off their hands and walk away from one uncomfortable Kemple controversy, right?

But this is not the old school commission. This is the commission that lately has been shaking off its image as narrow-minded and immovable, the one that recently got rid of a mean-spirited ban on county recognition of gay pride. It is a commission more civil and even at times more thoughtful than was tradition.

This week, they thought better and reversed the (unofficially but appropriately named) Kemple Rule.

And Kemple remains a candidate for the diversity council.

For the record, he made his thoughts on diversity pretty clear in an email to his Christian advocacy group: Diversity, he said, is "code for some effort to forward the homosexual agenda." And this is not the "important work" the commission should be doing.

Which sounds an awful lot like asking to be on a board when you are against its very purpose.

"I don't hate anybody," Kemple told me this week. "I believe everyone deserves equal rights, but I don't think people deserve special rights because of their sexual behavior. A diversity council shouldn't be to promote a particular agenda."

Just maybe a diverse one.

So the proposed committee with all this ensuing, brewing controversy lives another day. The commission can decide on its own definitions of inclusion and diversity, not with a side-step or a technicality, but straightforward and head on. And they can choose: Old school or new?