A Day of Reckoning
Less than ten minutes after the county commission voted to pass the gay rights ordinance, a stunned Miriam Alonso rose from the dais, walked solemnly to her office, closed the door, and threw an old-fashioned, wall-rattling temper tantrum. She screamed. She ranted. She raved. According to several bystanders who walked by Alonso's office at the time, the commissioner could be heard shouting for several minutes. Miriam Alonso was once again a loser.
For more than a week leading up to last week's commission meeting, Alonso had positioned herself as the commissioner who would decide the ordinance's fate. She believed there were six votes in favor and six opposed, with only her vote remaining undecided. It was a position she loved because it made her relevant.
Since her election to the county commission two years ago, Alonso has struggled to find just such a position of relevance. It hasn't been easy. She's not particularly smart or articulate, and there isn't much about her that is likable. But with this ordinance, Alonso apparently thought she had stumbled upon an issue in which her views mattered. She would be the center of attention.
In the end, though, it was Alonso's pettiness that cost her the respect and attention she so craves. Many people close to her believe she favored the ordinance, which bars discrimination against homosexuals in housing and the workplace. Alonso decided, however, to oppose the measure out of a combination of political cynicism and personal spite. Thanks to her husband's constant prodding, she came to believe that the safest thing she could do politically was vote against the ordinance. Plus she couldn't get over the animosity she harbored toward some of the ordinance's supporters, me among them.
She was particularly angry at my report last month that she voted in favor of granting the ordinance a public hearing following a personal appeal from Mayor Alex Penelas. In the days leading up to the vote, Alonso told people my column made her seem like a puppet of the mayor. This time, she vowed, her vote would show everyone she was willing to stand up to Penelas.
In addition to demonstrating her independence, Alonso expected that she would be the deciding vote. Right? Wrong.
Alonso had assumed that Dennis Moss, who had voted against the ordinance in the past, would vote against it again. He didn't. As soon as he voted in favor, and the ordinance passed 7-6, the commission chambers erupted in celebration. Katy Sorenson, sponsor of the ordinance, leapt from her seat to thank Moss. Others in the crowd waved at the South Dade commissioner and applauded his decision. All around the dais, supporters of the ordinance hugged each other and wept for joy. And as the noise settled and the commission chambers cleared, Miriam Alonso slipped back into a well-earned position of insignificance.
As that realization sank in, she left the dais, walked back to her office, and lost it. Her chief of staff, Elba Morales, disputes reports of a hissy fit. She says she and her boss enjoyed a quiet lunch together. "Commissioner Alonso was not angry at anything," Morales claims.
Silly to deny it. But in any event, it will probably be one of the last times Alonso's voice will be heard.
Dennis Moss had spent the 48 hours prior to the commission vote in bed with a nasty flu. When he woke up December 1, he was running a 103-degree fever and felt sick to his stomach. "Unless I was in the hospital, I was going to be there," Moss recalls a few days later. "This was a major, major issue in this community, and I knew I had to be there to cast my vote. It was just important for me to do that."
As he drove to county hall, Moss says, he was still unsure how he was going to vote, but he was leaning in favor of the ordinance. Eighteen months ago, when the measure was first introduced by then-Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, Moss voted against the ordinance. Today he acknowledges that his opposition was based in part on his distrust of Kaplan. "When this issue first came up [in 1997]," he explains, "I wasn't so sure that it was a genuine effort on the part of the sponsor."
This time the ordinance was sponsored by Sorenson, a commissioner Moss likes and respects, and who shares many of his views on issues facing the county. Despite that, a month earlier Moss had voted against allowing a public hearing on the ordinance. He says he thought the public wasn't ready to deal with the issue. But once a public hearing was approved and scheduled for December 1, Moss requested that the county's Community Relations Board hold a series of town meetings so people could learn more about the ordinance. "I felt it was important to create some sort of community education process," he says. "Until that process actually occurred, I didn't feel I could support moving the ordinance forward."
As a result of those meetings, as well as media efforts to clarify that the ordinance had nothing to do with gay marriage or health care benefits for gay partners, Moss says he was able to see it for what it truly was -- a measure outlawing discrimination. "Unquestionably, in my mind," he says, "I know the gay community faces discrimination in this community and across this country."
During the commission meeting, each side was given about 90 minutes to present speakers. Based on a coin toss, members of the Christian Coalition went first. Every one of their speakers invoked religious doctrine to argue against the ordinance. They talked about gays as sinners and immoral people looking to corrupt children. One woman provided a graphic explanation of how "sodomy breaks down the muscles of the rectum, used basically for the discharge of bodily waste." Another rather serious fellow declared that he was not going to "swallow" the gay lifestyle, a comment that elicited snickers from a group of lobbyists prowling around the rear of the chambers.
The Christian Coalition's speakers were sanctimonious and hateful. "I was really unimpressed with their presentation," Moss says dismissively. "It was the same rhetoric I had heard before. But I was impressed with some of the people who came forward in support of the issue."
In contrast, SAVE Dade, the organization that worked to pass the ordinance, assembled a wide range of speakers. The one thing they had in common was their confidence that the choice between right and wrong was evident for anyone to see. Art Teitelbaum, Southern area director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, argued that gays are often the target of discrimination and that "such discrimination is a poison in the bloodstream of our community and as such threatens all of us."
He warned commissioners that if they voted against the ordinance, they would send a dangerous message. "Those who engage in discrimination always look for signs of acceptance," Teitelbaum said. "Once believing they have approval, their behavior inevitably spreads and accelerates. You have the opportunity to do the opposite today."
T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, said he regretted that his presence before the commission was even necessary. "I'm sorry I'm here," he said, "because it is unbecoming of the city I love so dearly to have to publicly debate about doing right." Later he added, "If we do not do what is right here today, then we undo all the things we have done that were right in the past. We cannot be neutral on this issue and we cannot be inconsistent about what is right for all citizens of this county."
Fair allowed that he was aware the commission often dealt with issues in a political context. But this was not about politics, he stressed: "When the final vote is cast, will you be able to look within your own souls once again and say, I have done what is right. Maybe not what is popular, but what is right. Maybe not what they thought I should have done, but what is right. I simply suggest to you that we have to do what is right."
Teitelbaum and Fair were followed by a stellar cast that included prominent attorneys H.T. Smith, George Knox, and Mikki Canton; Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin and Beach Commissioner Nancy Liebman; Adora Obi Nweze, president of the local NAACP; and Miami Herald chairman Dave Lawrence. As they spoke, plainly and persuasively, Moss made up his mind to vote in favor of the ordinance and began jotting down notes about what he would say.
When the public hearing finally concluded, several commissioners, including Barbara Carey and Jimmy Morales, spoke passionately in support of the measure. Sorenson attacked the Christian Coalition for their intolerance. "Oppression in the name of religion is a time-honored tradition," she declared. "What we have here today is not merely a philosophical difference in which reasonable people can disagree. Leadership demands that we transcend the superstitions, the hyperbole, the distortions based on religion, and consider the cancer of discrimination in our community."
Sorenson also had one of the best lines of the day when she chided those who claimed that sexual orientation was a choice or a lifestyle. "We have heard many people today say that homosexuality is not an immutable characteristic, that people chose to be gay," she said. "I can only ask those of you who consider yourself heterosexual, did you choose to be heterosexual? And if you had to choose it, are you sure you are heterosexual?"
Commission Chairwoman Gwen Margolis, another supporter of the ordinance, asked directly: "What is the big deal? What is the big deal?" Margolis then requested a roll-call vote.
The first name called, in alphabetical order, was Miriam Alonso. When she voted no, an audible gasp rose from the room; many ordinance supporters thought she was the swing vote. But a short time later, when the clerk called out Moss's name and he leaned forward in his chair to speak, the commission chambers fell silent.
"Let me just say," Moss began, "that discrimination is discrimination no matter where you find it. I want to put on the record that the experience of African-Americans is not the same experience as the gay community as it relates to discrimination, and I reject the comparisons that have been made. Certainly the gay community has not experienced the kind of insidious, inhuman, institutional racism and discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment that African-Americans have experienced. But having said that, I believe that discrimination is discrimination, no matter where it exists. This particular ordinance goes a long way toward addressing the issue. My vote is yes."
With Moss's support, the ordinance passed.
"It was one of the most difficult and one of the most significant votes I have been a part of on this commission," Moss offers. "But those are the types of major issues we have to face in this county, and as commissioners we are in leadership positions and we have to step up to the plate and make those types of decisions. I'm glad I made the decision I did because I feel it places a measure of protection for folks who have faced discrimination in this community for a long time. This isn't going to get rid of discrimination, but at least it will provide some remedies, and hopefully people will think twice now before they do discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation."
Moss is unfazed by talk of the Christian Coalition's vows to target him with a recall petition. "If they move forward with a [recall], it won't be a referendum on Commissioner Moss, it will be a referendum on the Christian Coalition," Moss says feistily. "And what it is going to do is open up the opportunity to talk about some of their positions all over this country in terms of opposing civil rights, opposing women's rights, trying to dismantle affirmative action, opposing the rights of immigrants, and on and on and on. So it's not going to be a referendum on me, it's going to be a referendum on the Christian Coalition. And when I look at the interests of the people of my district, a lot of the things the Christian Coalition opposes -- well, those are things that the people in my district support."
As the roll call commenced and Alonso voted against the ordinance, Katy Sorenson says her hopes did not sink. "Going into the vote I didn't have high expectations it was going to pass," she recalls. "I was actually feeling pretty Zen about the whole thing. Either it was going to happen or it wasn't."
But when it was Moss's turn to vote and he launched into his speech, Sorenson says her heart began pounding. "I thought to myself, He's going to vote yes!" she remembers. "I started tearing up. And then Gwen grabbed my hand and looked at me and she was smiling, and I could see she was about to cry, and then Barbara grabbed my other hand and there were tears in her eyes. The three of us just sat there clutching each other's hands. And finally Dennis voted yes. It was such a very powerful moment. I don't think I will ever forget it. I was just overwhelmed."
Sorenson describes the ordinance as the most important piece of legislation she has ever worked on. "This was why I went into public service," she says, "to change public policy and work on issues I really care about."
Perhaps the most telling aspect of last week's vote was the fact that the six commissioners who voted against the ordinance had nothing to say. Their positions, rooted in fear, ignorance, and bigotry, were so indefensible, so manifestly unjust, that those opposed became virtual mutes when it came time for the commissioners to debate the proposal's merits.
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who rarely passes up an opportunity to make a speech, kept his mouth shut. As did Natacha Millan, Javier Souto, and Alonso. Before he voted no, Dorrin Rolle mumbled something about how this ordinance seemed to convey "special rights" to gays. And Pedro Reboredo, making one of his rare appearances at a commission meeting, said he thought that if he voted in favor of the ordinance, he would incur God's wrath. "Someday we will have to answer not to the voters but to someone above the 29th floor," he said. "Because I'm afraid, I vote no."
Given that such a simple ordinance took years to approve and was passed by the narrowest of margins, we should all probably be a little afraid.
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