Sitting Petty

Last month's decision by the Dade County Commission to reject an ordinance that would have guaranteed equal protection for gays may have been the most important vote that body has taken in years. It is doubtful, however, that commissioners realized the significance of their action. After all, it's hard to fit big-picture ideals into such narrow minds.

But the seven-to-five vote to kill the ordinance -- without even allowing members of the gay community to testify on its behalf -- was a watershed event: It will either mark the starting point in a campaign of political activism within the homosexual community or be recalled as the moment when gay men and women cemented the view that they are electorally irrelevant in South Florida and their concerns are easily dismissed.

To judge by the way gay activists handled the commission, things certainly can't get much worse. The greatest misinterpretation of this debacle was giving Dade's Christian Coalition the credit for striking down the proposed ordinance by marshaling hundreds of Bible-toting hooligans and sectarian crazies who virtually held the commission hostage, refusing to leave until the gay rights measure was defeated. "It failed because you had 600 people filling the chambers and flowing out into the lobby, and commissioners just got intimidated," offers Barbara Howard, a lobbyist hired by the gay community. "This was not a religious issue. This was supposed to be a civil rights issue, but the Christian Coalition just sort of beat the commissioners down."

That's an apt expression of the prevailing theory: The gay rights measure failed because a handful of commissioners -- most notably Dennis Moss and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla -- were intimidated and voted against it.

But that theory is wrong. It wasn't cowardice. It was pettiness.
The ordinance's failure is due more to personal rivalries on the commission dais than to the brand of religious terrorism practiced by the far right. In fact, the gay community's biggest hurdle -- and one it failed to recognize -- wasn't the ordinance's opponents but its sponsor, Commissioner Bruce Kaplan.

On a commission filled with, er, colorful characters, Bruce Kaplan is the jumbo box of Crayola crayons. "I'm a maverick," Kaplan jokes. Actually, he's a political schizophrenic. His district stretches from the conservative neighborhoods of Little Havana, through a patch of Overtown, and across the bay to the southern half of Miami Beach. He was once a Democrat, he's now a Republican. He's Jewish, fluent in Spanish, and makes his living as an attorney. He is probably one of the brightest commissioners, but he rarely uses that intelligence to prepare for meetings or properly research issues.

Kaplan was first elected to the commission in a 1993 race against Conchy Bretos in which he managed to distinguish himself by running one of the dirtiest campaigns in Dade history (no small feat). In the four years since, he has been investigated numerous times by the Dade State Attorney's Office for a litany of questionable deeds, though he has never been criminally charged with any wrongdoing. In 1995 he admitted violating the state's Sunshine Law and paid a $500 civil fine.

For these reasons and others, Kaplan is viewed warily by his fellow commissioners, who are always searching for ulterior motives in his actions. And so it was when he introduced the gay rights ordinance. When news of his intentions first surfaced several months ago, the immediate suspicion was that he was attempting to endear himself to Miami Beach's gay community, with an eye toward running for mayor of that city this fall. Although Kaplan has repeatedly publicly denied such a plan, as the ordinance was being drafted he was privately exploring that very possibility and had consulted with advisers and friends about his chances of winning and whether it was worth the risk, given that he'd have to resign from the commission in order to run.

In recent months Commissioner Kaplan has made other gambits designed to raise his profile on the Beach. He attempted, for instance, to introduce an ordinance that would have restricted the flight path of jets taking off from and landing at Miami International Airport, so as to limit the noise on Miami Beach. (That measure crashed as well, presumably because commissioners saw it for what it was -- political grandstanding.)

Even the gay community was caught off-guard by Kaplan's decision to champion a gay rights bill. Jorge Mursuli, a member of the executive board of SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), says Kaplan had contacted his group several months earlier asking for information about gay rights laws across the nation. "We put some material together for him and then we didn't hear anything from him, until all of a sudden we heard it was going to be introduced," Mursuli recounts. "Kaplan had put the draft of the ordinance into the county attorney's office [for review] before he had a chance to call us to let us know what was happening."

Kaplan rejects the idea that his sponsorship of the measure in any way affected the outcome ("I think that is just nonsense") and contends that an article in the Miami Herald "outed" his ordinance before he had time to line up the necessary support.

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."

Agrees Damian Pardo, SAVE's chairman: "This was not about Commissioner Bruce Kaplan. This was about

human rights for a large segment of the people of this county. It is a wake-up call for gays to become more active. For the first time in a long time, we know that we have seven people who we have to work against at the next election, and we have five people who we have to work for. We know what we have to do. Our choices have never been clearer.

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