1. Florida Politics

Carlton: Hillsborough approaches a new day of rights for everyone

Once upon a time, a politician named Ronda Storms held sway over the land, or at least Hillsborough County.

A conservative Christian and a county commissioner, Storms managed to prevent county government from even acknowledging gay pride events. She wasn't alone: the same board had previously repealed an ordinance to protect gays against discrimination.

But time passes, politicians fade and new ones step up. Sometimes even government progresses.

So could a County Commission you could once bet would side with intolerance be ready to move forward with pretty much the rest of the world?

Today — to the likely chagrin of a commissioner or two running for re-election — the board takes up the thorny topic of protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination in hiring, public accommodations, real estate transactions and county contracting.

Why thorny? Good question. Other cities and counties seem to pass this fair-for-everyone stuff without much fuss.

The grousing here has traditionally gone like this: Why should "they" get special protection?

Answer: Not special, just equal.

So if you're looking for a plot twist — a sign, even — a majority of commissioners this week indicated their cautious and qualified support. Who'd have thought it?

Do not, however, declare a new day just yet.

While this board managed to undo Storms' ban on gay pride, they could not bring themselves to pass a no-duh domestic partner registry giving unmarried partners rights in emergency and health care matters.

Two to watch today: Al Higginbotham, who has enjoyed some of that conservative support and is now running countywide, and Ken Hagan, who this week has been utterly mum on the subject.

And hopefully no one will pull one of those oops-I-was-out-of-the-room-when-we-voted moves so we get to know right where everyone stands.

Expect pushback from those opposed. But surely we've come a million miles since 1991, when 2,000 people showed up for a hearing on human rights proposals in Tampa and Hillsborough, metal detectors were used, and knives and Mace confiscated. When a gay man made his way up to speak, several women squirmed away. "I don't want to touch him," one of them said.

That can't possibly be Hillsborough County anymore.

It is interesting to see these fairness-for-everyone issues these days couched in economic terms as well. What company would want to do business here if we insist on being a backwards burg — the kind of county that flies a massive Confederate flag by the highway, the kind of state where KKK members turn up amongst your local police? (Oh, wait, those actually happened.) That economic argument could give cover to any commissioner who can't bring himself to vote for this just because it's the right thing to do.

"My colleagues are good people," says Kevin Beckner, the openly gay commissioner pushing this issue forward. "I know that their hearts are right. We'll see if their hearts are stronger than their politics."

A yes vote could even be unanimous — imagine — and the Storms spell finally faded at last. Hey, it could happen, even in Hillsborough County.