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."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede