Two steps forward, one step back. That’s how you could characterize Florida’s strides to elect openly gay men and women to public office. Just as the tally kept by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute was nearing two dozen, the number moved back again.
Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe, a Democrat first elected in 2010, suffered a bruising loss this month in a run-off election for his second term. Former City Commissioner Ed Braddy, a Republican, defeated him by almost 10 percent of the vote.
In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of more than two to one, it’s worth looking at why this happened.
Less than a month before the election, Lowe was arrested at 2:30 a.m. for drunk driving after he crashed his car into a pole in Alachua County. Though his blood alcohol level was within Florida’s legal limit, after spending a night in jail Lowe returned to work without comment.
Gainesville might be a forgiving town. After all, the Princeton Review routinely ranks the University of Florida among its Top Ten Party Schools. Braddy was arrested for DUI in 2006 when he was a Gainesville city commissioner. Instead, the Gainesville Sun criticized Lowe by saying he reinforced an ongoing impression of arrogance by refusing to openly discuss his arrest and own up to his mistakes. It wasn’t the only time the campaign was sidetracked from a discussion of the issues.
Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus members spoke out against Lowe when he twice missed candidate debates sponsored by the chapter. The second time, Lowe attended a fundraiser hosted by the local NAACP president — an event he said had already been scheduled. Braddy spoke to the caucus for an hour next to an empty chair.
Gainesville’s elections are nonpartisan, but party affiliation provides insight into a candidate’s policy views. As a city commissioner, Braddy voted against the creation of a citywide domestic partnership registry and the inclusion of gender identity and expression in the city nondiscrimination law. He led the failed attempt in 2009 to repeal nondiscrimination protections for Gainesville’s LGBT community.
Despite Gainesville’s relatively small size, with about 125,000 residents, the national LGBT magazine The Advocate ranked Gainesville the 11th gayest city in the United States. Yet despite everything Lowe had going for him, it wasn’t enough to overcome the negative. It is worth noting that he narrowly won his first election by 42 votes.
Gainesville can rest assured its municipal decisions will remain progressive. The mayor is one of seven votes on the City Commission, with no more decision-making power than any other member. After the new mayor takes office, five of the seven votes will be cast by Democrats. Under Gainesville’s weak mayor system, the city manager and general manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities run city government.
With a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population estimated at more than 600,000 people, second in size only to California, Florida will continue to elect more openly gay men and women. Just last fall state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, became the first openly gay state lawmaker, followed closely by state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando. The future election of additional LGBT candidates will provide for much-needed diversity of thought among our public officials and we should look forward to it.
Formerly a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and Orlando Sentinel, Susan Clary is a freelance writer living in Winter Park.