Florida's first openly gay state reps ready for session

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Florida Reps. Joe Saunders and David Richardson. - PHOTOS: Provided

At the first meeting of a new state House education subcommittee this month, a dramatic moment in Florida history passed virtually unnoticed.

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, saw that as a good sign.

When lawmakers were asked to introduce themselves and provide a little background, some mentioned careers as educators. Others talked of steering their kids through public schools.

When it was Saunders’ turn, he spoke about having lobbied for anti-bullying legislation, approved in 2008. He added, “My partner is also a high school drama teacher, so that helps in my perspective as well.”

Saunders, 29, is one of two openly gay Florida House members elected this year, the first in state history.

In a legislature where milestones passed in recent years include the election of the first Haitian-American lawmaker, and a Cuban-American House speaker, Saunders and Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, also see themselves as pioneers.

“You’ve got to be sitting at the table,” Richardson, 55, said of the importance of their election. “This is not my quote, but someone has said, ‘if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’”

With a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population estimated at more than 600,000 people, second in size only to California, Florida had been the nation’s largest state without any openly gay legislators, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Victory Fund, a political advocacy organization.

With the election of Richardson and Saunders, only 14 states now have no openly gay legislators, said Dennis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesman. “It is a very big step for Florida.”

Richardson and Saunders also take office at what could prove a pivotal time for LGBT Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider two cases on same-sex marriage.

A far-reaching ruling could cast aside bans on same-sex marriage nationwide, such as that carved by voters into the Florida Constitution in 2008. A split decision might clear the way for federal benefits to go to same-sex couples married in states that allow such unions, but could permit other states to bar gay and lesbian couples from marrying.

“I don’t think many people could predict how the landscape for many LGBT issues has changed over the past five years,” Dison said.

Richardson, an accountant, was elected in August, winning a Democratic primary over three rivals and facing no Republican opposition.

Saunders defeated a primary opponent and then went on to win over Marco Pena in November, defeating a Republican endorsed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in an Orlando-area district that includes most of the University of Central Florida.

Neither man said their sexual preference was cited directly by their opponents in the campaigns. Each, though, did run with the backing of gay advocacy organizations.

When he was sworn-in during the legislature’s November organizational session, Saunders was accompanied by his partner, Donald.

Saunders said the only real dark episode in his campaign occurred when a stealthy telephone poll was conducted in his district. It asked voters, “Would you support Joe Saunders if you knew he was a notorious homosexual activist?” Saunders recalled.

Saunders had been a field director for Equality Florida, a LGBT civil rights organization, which has promoted marriage equality, partnership benefits and anti-discrimination laws in the workplace.

“I’ve done work on civil rights for a long time,” Saunders said. “But in the campaign, my focus was mostly on jobs, education and fairness and opportunity.”

Saunders said that having been to Tallahassee as a lobbyist, he knows the value of having effective representation.

“I think it’s going to rock things a little,” Saunders said of having openly gay lawmakers at the Capitol. “I don’t know what that means from a policy perspective. But at a minimum, I think it’s challenging people’s assumptions.”

John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council, spearheaded the voter initiative that put Florida’s same-sex marriage ban in the state constitution. He said the personal lives of Saunders and Richardson are not his concern.

“But the danger would be if they try to promote the homosexual agenda in Florida,” Stemberger said.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a former chairman of the Christian Coalition of Florida, who also worked on the constitutional ban, said he respects that voters sent the two men to the Capitol.

“Elections are a reflection of our state and people will bring very different perspectives,” Baxley said. “Diversity means you’ve got to put up with some right-wingers like me, too.”

Saunders and Richardson, though, said they see themselves primarily as state legislators pursuing wide-ranging policy agendas.

The fact that they’re gay is part of the experience they bring to the Capitol. But it’s not the central issue they plan to build their political careers around, both lawmakers said.

“I think this says something about the world we live in – this 2012 moment,” Saunders said. “My commitment is to ensuring that no one is discriminated against in any way and that artificial barriers to success aren’t created or institutionalized.

“What’s really great about that message is that during the campaign, it resonated in communities that weren’t gay.”

Richardson, who worked for the U.S. Defense Department as a forensic auditor and continued that work in the private sector, examining government contracts, has been appointed to two House appropriations subcommittees and the Finance and Taxation Subcommittee.

For the legislature’s minority party, Richardson is likely to emerge as a point-man in budget and spending issues. “That’s what I want to do, is work on the numbers, then talk about it,” Richardson said.

Richardson said he realizes he plays a historic role. But he also wants to be best known for what he brings to the legislature and the voters in his Miami Beach district.

“Just by being here and working with my colleagues, I’ll make my statement in that way,” Richardson said. “I don’t want special treatment or different treatment, I just want equal treatment.”

He added, “”I’m not going to be a ‘gay legislator.’ I’m here to do a lot of work for my district and Floridians.”