Queer Eye for the Mayoral Guy

If you want to be Miami-Dade's next mayor, you'd better lock up the gay vote

And they're off! It may be more than a year away, but the 2004 election campaign is in full swing: swanky fundraisers, fist-pumping stump speeches, and that hallmark of American politics, the smoky backroom meeting.

We're not talking about 2004's presidential aspirants, but instead a contest with just as much intrigue -- next year's Miami-Dade mayoral battle to succeed Alex Penelas. In anticipation of that August 31, 2004 election, a slew of well-known figures have already tossed their hats into the ring or appear set to formally announce, including Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, Radio Unica president José Cancela, former county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, current county Commissioner Jimmy Morales, and school board member Marta Perez.

Among all the resultant jockeying for position, though, one topic looms large: What on earth is Miguel Diaz de la Portilla thinking?

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla is smart enough to know he needs gay supporters, but finding them could be tricky
Steve Satterwhite
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla is smart enough to know he needs gay supporters, but finding them could be tricky

That's certainly been the blunt question du jour among Miami's gay activists as word spread last week of Diaz de la Portilla's private tête-à-tête with Jorge Mursuli, Florida chapter president of liberal advocacy group People for the American Way and former executive director of SAVE Dade, the county's chief gay political organization.

Indeed in many gay circles it's hard to imagine a more reviled mayoral hopeful than Diaz de la Portilla. As a county commissioner in 1998, he voted against Miami-Dade's gay-rights amendment, solidifying his reputation as one of the Christian Coalition's strongest allies on the dais -- even receiving an award of appreciation earlier that year from the outfit's founder, Pat Robertson.

After the gay-rights amendment passed -- barely, by a vote of 7-6 -- it was the local Christian Coalition chapter that spearheaded an effort to repeal it via a ballot referendum. Meanwhile Diaz de la Portilla seemed to take his distaste for not only gay rights but anything that even hinted at homosexuality, to a bizarre extreme. In a Herald profile published during his disastrous 2000 county mayoral run, he phoned his interviewer an hour after she left him.

"Make my favorite author Shakespeare, not Oscar Wilde," he pleaded to Herald reporter Meg Laughlin as she prepared to write her story. "I don't need the hassle." Diaz de la Portilla may have been a fan of Wilde's prose, but that nineteenth-century poet and playwright was gay -- and jailed by British authorities because of it. Heaven forbid Diaz de la Portilla's supporters discovered that he enjoyed reading the works of a -- gasp -- gay writer. "I really admire him and felt bad about what happened to him," he explained to Laughlin, "but why get into it?"

Imagine the surprise, then, at opening up a recent edition of the Sun-Sentinel and reading a headline announcing that the same pol who once held gays (even dead ones) at arm's length now "courts gay community." Or turning on Telemundo's nightly news broadcast to discover that the Pat Robertson honoree had not only broken bread with Jorge Mursuli but had received his mayoral endorsement. Just what is Diaz de la Portilla up to?

"I meet with anybody in Miami-Dade who has a desire to move the county forward, whether it's Jorge Mursuli or anybody else," Diaz de la Portilla explains carefully. Driving through North Carolina on a family vacation while taking questions from Kulchur via cell phone probably isn't his idea of rest and relaxation. Still, he's game.

What exactly did you and Jorge talk about?

"We talked about county issues ..."

Gay county issues?

"We talked about a lot of issues," Diaz de la Portilla counters wryly. "I'll leave it at that."

So are we about to see a revamped, gay-friendly Diaz de la Portilla? Perhaps even an appearance shaking hands and pressing the flesh amid the shirtless throngs at the White Party?

Um, no. If he had to do it all over again, Diaz de la Portilla says he'd vote exactly the same way he did in 1998. "It's unnecessary legislation," he insists of the gay-rights amendment. And, he adds, "it's proven very much to be divisive. It's a 1998 issue, and the debate -- and its divisiveness -- has continued since."

So divisive issues shouldn't be addressed? What if folks found passing laws against racial discrimination too divisive?

"There isn't any disparity study that would show there is discrimination against gays, or denial of access to employment or housing, as has been demonstrated with disparity studies in respect to ethnicity or race." Perhaps sensing he's being awfully clinical about such a hot-button concern, he changes tack: "This is an issue of the past, and elections are about the future." But was he sorry to see last year's repeal effort fail? And how does he feel about the Christian Coalition's renewed petition drive for another repeal vote?

"The result is what the result is," he answers matter-of-factly. "The public has spoken on the issue -- it's time to move forward."

Besides, he's quick to remind Kulchur, this election is about more than gay rights: "It's about accomplishing the greatness Miami-Dade has been poised to achieve for many years. I don't think the gay community cares any less about economic development, cares any less about education, or cares any less about the future of Miami-Dade County than any other community."

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