Sitting Petty

Assuming that's the case, Kaplan's relationship with his colleagues was all the more crucial. Regardless of who sponsored such a measure, commissioners Katy Sorenson, Gwen Margolis, Jimmy Morales, and Barbara Carey would likely have voted in its favor; during their campaigns they had all publicly stated their positions in support of gay rights. Add Kaplan's name and that made five votes -- just two shy of the seven needed to pass. Although Commissioner Betty Ferguson had come under intense pressure from religious groups to oppose the ordinance, gay rights advocates say she had told them in the final days that she'd support it. One vote to go.

The two commissioners gay activists were hoping to sway were Dennis Moss and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, both of whom have fairly progressive voting records and have advocated treating people fairly and with compassion.

Neither, however, is a fan of Bruce Kaplan.
For months Kaplan has tried, without success, to have the director of the county's Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, Donald Manning, removed for incompetence, going so far as to personally conduct surprise raids on inmates in the county's troubled house-arrest program in an effort to embarrass Manning. Moss -- who, like Manning, is black -- has repeatedly come to Manning's defense and has been openly hostile toward Kaplan over his maneuvers. Diaz de la Portilla has likewise been scornful of what he considers Kaplan's attempts to showboat in the media.

In the week leading up to the June 17 gay rights vote, Moss's and Diaz de la Portilla's offices were swamped with calls from ordinance opponents. The Christian Coalition is solidly entrenched in Diaz de la Portilla's district; the black clergy in Moss's constituency possesses an even larger cudgel. For both, a vote in favor of the ordinance may have invited a long and protracted fight for their political lives. And neither was willing to make that sacrifice for an ordinance sponsored by a man they disliked and whose motives they distrusted.

Moss refused to be interviewed for this story. Diaz de la Portilla initially agreed, then later failed to return phone calls seeking his comment. But he did make his feelings known in a letter to Kaplan after the vote. (Kaplan had written to each commissioner, thanking those who had supported the ordinance and asking those who opposed it to "reconsider your position and defend the rights of all of your constituents.")

The only commissioner to respond to Kaplan's gesture, Diaz de la Portilla wrote that he would not reconsider "[because] the ordinance appears to be more political than substantive," after opening his missive with a sarcastic thank-you to Kaplan for his "heartfelt letter."

Of course, Javier Souto, Pedro Reboredo, Natacha Millan, James Burke, and Miriam Alonso also voted against the ordinance. But had someone other than Kaplan sponsored it, the outcome might have been different. If, for instance, the initiative had been announced by Mayor Alex Penelas, then Burke, Alonso, or Millan might well have simply walked off the dais when the vote was taken, thereby giving supporters of the measure a greater chance of winning. Instead they stayed and shoved it down Kaplan's throat.

Political consultant Ric Katz agrees that Kaplan's sponsorship of the ordinance may have helped doom it. "I'm sure that was part of it," says Katz. "Petty personal feuds may have had something to do with killing this measure. But that wasn't the only reason it died."

He's right. Personalities would never have prevailed if the gay community in Dade County weren't so powerless. "The gay community continues to be in a weak position when it goes begging, hat in hand, for rights that should be ours anyway," Katz asserts. "It is our responsibility to become more politically active. It's not that we've dropped the ball; we haven't even started to play the game."

Dade's gay population is seen as a coastal community, he goes on: "You can use the interstate as a dividing line. We have some measure of influence east of Interstate 95 but none west of it. Until we make our presence felt in Hialeah, Kendall, and Westchester, we shouldn't expect to win these sorts of fights."

Diaz de la Portilla's vote illustrates the point. His staffers say he received dozens of phone calls from constituents opposed to the ordinance and not one single call from anyone in support of it. "This thing was so totally lopsided in Miguel's district that we shouldn't have expected him to vote for it," says Katz. "We've got homework to do, and so far we haven't done it. But we are certainly capable of doing it."

Greg Baldwin, who helped found SAVE as well as Dade Action PAC, is also optimistic. "If you want to see discrimination and bigotry in its ugly form, then take a look at the faces of the seven commissioners who voted against us," says Baldwin, an attorney at Holland & Knight. "They would not even afford us the right to speak. I live in Reboredo's district. And his vote against this measure did more to organize the gay community in his district than anything I have done in the last fifteen years."

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