Ft. Lauderdale mayor supports civil unions, no position on same sex marriage

As political figures ranging from mayors to U.S. senators to Hillary Clinton announce their support for gay marriage, a key Democrat in Florida’s most liberal county is notably absent: Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler.

Seiler, who is weighing a possible run for governor in 2014, has long been viewed as supportive of gay rights, beginning in the 1990s when he was a member of the Wilton Manors city council and later as a state representative and as mayor of Broward’s largest city, which is home to a vocal and visible gay population. But as polls nationwide have shown increased support for gay marriage, Seiler has not joined the list of politicians announcing they back same sex marriage.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Seiler, a married father of four children, said he has taken no position on same sex marriage but supports civil unions. When asked if it was fair to say he is against gay marriage Seiler said that’s “not fair at all. I support civil unions.”

As for gay marriage, Seiler said: “I don’t have any position on it. Right now it is outlawed in Florida. I haven’t bothered to spend any time on it. ... I don’t debate and discuss issues I can’t have a vote on. ... I don’t sit and discuss hypothetical issues. If an issue comes up and I have a chance to impact the outcome, I’ll take a position.”

“I have a 20-year track record of being extremely respectful of the gay community and trying to assist the gay community to further gay rights,” Seiler said.

Seiler, a graduate of Cardinal Gibbons High School who has deep roots in the city’s Catholic community, has a long record of being a consensus builder as a politician.

Barring a gubernatorial bid in 2014, Seiler is likely to be reelected as mayor in 2015. He has never lost at the polls and has a good reputation as mayor in a city where residents’ top concerns will likely remain taxes, spending and basic city services, such as parks and trash pickup.

Yet, same-sex marriage could become a campaign issue in a statewide or even local race, say pollsters and political observers.

Gay marriage will remain an issue in future elections but largely in partisan primaries, said Tom Jensen, of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling.

“You could get hit over the head for it — for not having had the courage because it is something so universally supported by the Democratic base...,” Jensen said. “I don’t know that people are going to be willing to accept that for an answer that you have no opinion.”

Public Policy Polling, which surveyed 500 Florida voters from March 15-18, found 75 percent in support of either gay marriage or civil unions. Among Democrats, 48 percent support gay marriage.

A poll released by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found 54 percent of Florida voters favor same-sex marriage.

Nationwide, a Washington Post-ABC poll found more than 80 percent of voters under 30 favor same-sex marriage.

Seiler has formed good relationships in the gay community and gets credit for his stances in the past on anti-bullying measures and establishing domestic partner benefits for city employees in Wilton Manors and Fort Lauderdale, say advocates, who say public support of same-sex marriage is the latest litmus test for politicians.

Seiler’s stance might have been more accepted a year ago, said Ed Leuchs, a member of Broward’s Dolphin Democrats, a gay political club.

“The issue has passed him by, the train is moving, he has to catch up and jump on the caboose or he is left behind,” Leuchs said. “His party is committed to this issue now.”

Leuchs said he met with Seiler last year to try to convince him to sign the national Mayors for Freedom to Marry petition. The petition was signed by Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober, Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis, Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower and Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs, along with other South Florida mayors.

Seiler says he doesn’t sign petitions unless he is the organizer and has control of position papers. (That’s why he also didn’t sign on to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.)

Statewide, politicians’ positions on same-sex marriage are increasingly in the spotlight.

Sen. Bill Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday that he has changed his position on gay marriage.

“Simply put, if The Lord made homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, why should I discriminate against their civil marriage? I shouldn’t, and I won’t,” he said. “So I will add my name to the petition of senators asking the Supreme Court to declare the law that prohibits gay marriage unconstitutional.”

Former state Sen. Nan Rich, who is running for governor in 2014, said she’s stronger on same-sex marriage. “I support marriage equality — I believe it’s an issue of fairness. ... It’s a core Democratic principle for me because it’s about fairness and equality.”

Julie Carson, vice president of the Dolphin Democrats and Wilton Manors vice mayor, said she wants Seiler to support same-sex marriage — if he believes in it.

“Mayor Seiler has always been friendly to our community. He has always appeared at various groups and organizations that are GLBT aligned,” she said. “Sometimes people come about things their own way and in their own time.”

Said Seiler: “I don’t take any position based on whether I’m running statewide or not,” he said. “I have a track record of supporting gays.”

Tampa Bay Times reporter Alex Leary contributed to this report.