Sue Carlton: Duking it out in the name of diversity

Published May 17, 2013

If you are forming a panel to empower minorities, should a racist get a seat at the table?

Does a man who believes women are inferior belong in a women's rights group?

Does tolerance mean tolerating bigots — who are, by definition, intolerant?

And does Terry Kemple — conservative Christian activist and Hillsborough School Board candidate who speaks out against gay rights — belong on a board that's supposed to be about diversity?

You almost felt sorry for the Hillsborough County Commission this week, twisting itself in a pretzel over this puzzle. Though it did make for intriguing political theater, with twists nobody expected, and a surprising end.

Kemple, if you are unfamiliar, has campaigned long and loud against progress for gay people here. He's also made a crusade against the Council on American-Islamic Relations speaking in local schools.

Still, he was one of 19 people recommended out of 91 applicants for a panel to explore ways Hillsborough County can be a better place for people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations and abilities. (Insert snorting noise about his appropriateness here.)

Don't take my word — Kemple made himself clear when he explained to members of his Christian advocacy group in an email why he applied: "Whenever you hear the word 'diversity' in relationship to our culture, it is code for some effort to forward the homosexual agenda." (Why can I never find a copy of that agenda?) He suggested they, too, apply, lest commissioners be influenced by a panel lacking "any concern for the thoughts of God or the Judeo-Christian values upon which this great country was founded." (Does Kemple have a monopoly on those?) He also said this wasn't the kind of "important work" the commission should do.

Kevin Beckner, the openly gay commissioner who proposed the panel, put it this way: "Why would you want to serve on a board you don't believe should be in existence?"

The National Diversity Council, which screened the applicants, was asked if the person who wrote this email should serve and opined: No. (It did not say: You're kidding, right?)

So Kemple was out. Which led to one fired-up discussion between Beckner and Commissioner Victor Crist, who with three other Republicans voted to bring Kemple back.

It's an interesting argument: Couldn't others on the panel learn something from how this guy thinks? Except it's hardly a mystery, Kemple having once compared CAIR to a men's pedophilia group.

So it looked to be a runaway train with him on it — until Commissioner Les Miller whipped out a surprise procedural roadblock called laying the matter on the table. And that wasn't even the final twist: Commissioner Ken Hagan, whose earlier vote helped get Kemple back in, then vaulted over to the other side and voted to table it indefinitely!

Pure theater. And even with Hagan's motive unclear, maybe a tiny sign of progress in a county not known for it.

Speaking of which, Beckner also has plans to try to undo a ban on county support for anything involving gay pride, a leftover from the bad old days of Ronda Storms.

Which would be just plain amazing, not to mention progressive, if it had a prayer. And please, pass the popcorn.