Florida: The Color Purple

A gay law professor and politician discusses why Florida voters banned marriage equality the same year they elected Obama.

by Camille Beredjick

In the past 10 presidential elections, Florida voters chose Democrats just three times – including in 2008, the year they also passed Amendment 2, banning legal unions for same-sex couples.

How will LGBT issues sway voters in this conflicted swing state? Camille Beredjick talks with Anthony Niedwiecki, associate professor of law and director of lawyering skills at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago and a former commissioner and vice-mayor of Oakland Park, Fla. After taking in a teenage foster son in Florida in 2005, Niedwiecki, 45, and his husband, journalist and activist Waymon Hudson, lobbied the state Senate to overturn its ban on adoption by gay couples. Excerpts:

MEDILL EQUAL MEDIA PROJECT: IN 2008 FLORIDA VOTERS OUTLAWED MARRIAGE EQUALITY, BUT TWO YEARS LATER COURTS LIFTED THE STATE BAN ON LGBT ADOPTION. HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THE STATE’S MIXED MESSAGES?

Anthony Niedwiecki: It was really the court that found [the ban] unconstitutional, and then the governor at the time, Charlie Crist, decided not to pursue it any further in the courts, just to stop enforcing it. Now any governor can come back and start enforcing it again, because there’s never been a statutory repeal of it. Your domestic partnerships are really just coming out of more metropolitan areas and more gay-friendly [areas], like in Broward County, Palm Beach County, Miami-Dade, Monroe County, so south Florida, southeast Florida. You go to southwest Florida, and it’s not so gay-friendly.

BUT IN 2008, FLORIDA WAS ULTIMATELY A BLUE STATE. WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT VOTERS THERE?

To win statewide office in Florida, you have to get a large number of Democrats to vote in Broward County, you’ve got to have a pretty good percentage in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County, and you have to have a good percentage in that I4 corridor [from Tampa to Orlando]. And that’s what Obama was essentially able to do. The state is truly a purple state, and you have to really see what’s going on in Tampa and Orlando to see where the election will ultimately go.

WHAT HAS CHANGED FOR FLORIDA’S LGBT PEOPLE SINCE AMENDMENT 2 PASSED?

Because Amendment 2 passed, more people [are] going to those localities to try to pass domestic partnership benefits and doing domestic partnership registries. They just can’t do it on the state level, so they decided to take that local approach. And you’ve got your first and only elected gay person to the state legislature. Hopefully, the more people that do [run for office as openly gay or allied], the more likely that people can challenge when awful things are said on the floor of the House or the floor of the Senate.

WOULD YOU SAY VOTERS CHOSE STATE REPRESENTATIVE DAVID RICHARDSON, THE ONLY GAY ELECTED OFFICIAL, AS A RESULT OF AMENDMENT 2?

No. Amendment 2 just forced people to really think more on a local level as opposed to a statewide level. People felt a little bit empowered after Charlie Crist decided to stop with the adoption ban. But, you know, that was big in Florida, but it was the only state in the country to have a statutory ban on gay people being able to adopt. It’s not like it was a big advance. You’re digging them out of the hole, but they haven’t advanced in any way that’s comparable to other places.

IN TERMS OF LGBT ISSUES, WHAT’S THE TOP PRIORITY FOR FLORIDA VOTERS NOW?

They would like to get a [statewide] employment nondiscrimination law passed. The argument is that an overwhelming number of people in the state are already covered by local ordinances, so what’s the danger of making it a statewide rule?

MITT ROMNEY AND BARACK OBAMA HAVE VERY DIFFERENT POSITIONS WHEN IT COMES TO LGBT ISSUES. WILL THAT BE A BIG FACTOR IN THE ELECTION?

No, not really. When it comes to Florida, the No. 1 thing to them is really the economy and the housing problem. It’s going to depend on whether or not they think that they’re on the right track with Obama or whether or not they think they need to have somebody else come in and do something different.

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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