Miami Beach’s gay community is buzzing with talk that, for the first time in Florida history, an openly gay state legislator could winoffice and sit in the state House.
The promise of a first-ever gay lawmaker became a real possibility last week when Rep. Richard Steinberg resigned Friday amid a scandalinvolving inappropriate sex-text messages he sent to a female federal prosecutor.
At the same time, the Legislature has signed off on new legislative maps that rejigger the boundaries of Steinberg’s District 106, whichhas all of the gay “mecca” of Miami Beach, said CJ Ortuno, executive director of Save Dade.
The new district is among the most liberal and Democratic in the state.
“We have never had the opportunity that this new district presents for the LGBT community,” said Ortuno, using the shorthand for the lesbian,gay, bisexual and transgender community. “We are going to be contacting people in the community,” he said, “planting the seed andwatch for a reaction.”
Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Gongora, who is openly gay, said he may run for Steinberg’s seat.
“It would be a historic moment for the state of Florida and an important step towards breaking down the glass ceiling in regards to LGBT candidates,” he said.
Gongora said he is also thinking about running for Miami Beach mayor in 2013, when the current term-limited mayor must step down. He’swaiting for Gov. Rick Scott to set a special election date to replace Rep. Steinberg, but both political parties seem in no rush to fill his seat. The primary could take place along with the others in the state on Aug. 14.
Gongora isn’t the only Miami Beach commissioner interested in the newly reconfigured district.
Commissioner Jonah Wolfson said he is filing papers Wednesday to run for Steinberg’s seat.
If both commissioners run, that would create a political free-for-all in Miami Beach due to Florida’s resign-to-run law.
Ortuno said Save Dade, which raises about $300,000 annually from donors, has about 50,000 members and gay-community contacts – about10,000 of whom live in Miami Beach.
Paradoxically, an openly gay lawmaker who advocates for the LGBT community could also help conservatives because gay issues can bedivisive in the Democratic caucus. One of the bases of the Democratic party, African-Americans, have a tendency to oppose such issues as gaymarriage. In 2008, for instance, Florida exit polls showed that black voters were the most-supportive of a constitutional gay-marriage ban.
“There can be some division here,” said Bill Bunkley, head lobbyist and chief executive officer of the conservative Florida Ethics &Religious Liberty Commission, which is connected to the Florida Baptist Convention.
“What I’ve seen in the African-American community is that many of their representatives practice their faith,” he said, “and aren’tinclined to be supportive of homosexual issues and that lifestyle.”
Bunkley said religious conservatives oppose legislation geared toward helping gays because the Bible speaks against homosexuals as well asfornicators and adulterers – the latter two of which don’t have lobbies.
Ortuno acknowledged that there could be some discomfort with a gay legislator who advocates for equality. He said Florida’s civil rightslaw, for instance, doesn’t protect employees, bank customers or renters from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
“It’s not the worst thing to remind people of both parties that this is a human rights issue,’ Ortuno said.
Miami Herald reporter David Smiley contributed to this story.