R. Zeke Fread, a Tampa Bay LGBT activist, walks with a limp and uses a cane. He does so because Fread was in a terrible car accident. According to the Tampa Bay Times, just before the Hillsborough County Commission voted on a proposed domestic partnership registry, Fread told the story of that accident and how his long term partner was denied the ability to make medical decisions on Fread’s behalf. The proposed domestic partnership registry assured registered domestic partners that they could visit their loved one in the hospital, make medical decisions, and make funeral arrangements. The proposed registry applied to both straight and LGBT couples.
Nevertheless, the Hillsborough County Commission voted four to three to reject the measure. The Times reported that the opposing Commissioners, all Republicans, cited differing reasons for their votes. One declared that unmarried couples should take responsibility for themselves and hire a lawyer to draft papers to accomplish the same goals, rather than counting on the government to do that for them. More in line with opponents of the measure who spoke before the vote, one Commissioner based his no vote on his Christian faith and that the marriage of a man and woman gives them a “unique and special status.”
The Hillsborough vote went against a strong trend among Tampa Bay governmental bodies establishing domestic partnership registries. In 2012 the City of Tampa, and Pinellas County municipalities of Gulfport, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater all approved registries. With the support of Largo and Dunedin, the newly reconstituted Pinellas County Commission made establishing a registry one of its first actions in 2013.
The Times article quoted Commissioner Kevin Beckner, the first openly gay official elected in Hillsborough County, saying his colleagues are out of touch with County voters. A poll he commissioned showed that 67 percent of likely voters supported the registry. Other elected officials are also speaking out against the Hillsborough vote. In an interview with television station WFLA, St. Petersburg City Councilman Steve Kornell characterized the vote as showing no courage at all. “This is about treating all your residents fairly." Kornell predicted that Hillsborough will pay a price for the vote with dissatisfied businesses and he is inviting them to consider a move to Pinellas County. Congresswoman Kathy Castor expressed similar concerns, telling a local newspaper, Creative Loafing, that businesses recognize and respect same-sex relationships and urging the Hillsborough Commission to “come into the modern era, into this century.” Creative Loafing also reported that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn declared there are economic reasons for such a registry and its rejection makes the area less competitive.
A town hall type meeting sponsored by several organizations, including the ACLU and Equality Florida, is scheduled for Feb. 5th at 6p.m. in Ybor City. At that meeting, sponsoring groups hope to develop an organized response to the Commission’s stance. Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida, declares in a message to supporters, “This is not over.”