After getting caught on tape at Pensacola political meeting laughing at the suggestion that gay men should face the Biblical punishment of being put to death, Republican state Rep. Mike Hill apologized last week, saying “I deeply regret how the tone of my response to a constituent was received at this event.”
The controversial exchange began when a constituent asked Hill why a legislative colleague at the statehouse, Florida Rep. Alex Andrade, was among more than a dozen House Republicans co-sponsoring a piece of legislation called the Florida Competitive Workforce Act. The bill would add LGBTQ people to the list of protected groups statewide who cannot legally be discriminated against.
It’s illegal in Florida to discriminate in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of race, sex, religion, age, national origin, handicap, pregnancy or marital status.
But it’s not illegal to discriminate in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of someone being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in Florida.
Civil rights advocates have been trying for a decade to get legislation passed to change that. This year, once again, the bill went nowhere in the Republican-majority state legislature.
Shortly after Hill’s exchange about killing gays went public, several House Republicans took to social media to criticize Hill.
Pasco County Republican state Rep. Amber Mariano said in a tweet that “this is the perfect example of why we need to pass the Competitive Workforce Act – so that hate like this won’t impact the environment, housing, etc. of our LGBT community.”
While many are calling for Hill to step down or for party leadership to remove him from legislative committees, others say this is a teachable moment, and that the controversy should spur GOP leadership to finally get behind the Competitive Workforce Act.
This year, the bill had more than 70 co-sponsors in the 160-member Legislature. The bill also has the support of a coalition of more than 450 businesses calling itself Florida Competes. Garry Sasso is president and CEO with the law firm of Carlton Fields, a coalition member.
“Amending our existing civil rights legislation to include these new categories is long overdue and will put us in good stead with all of those weighing where they want to invest their money and talent,” he told the Phoenix. “It’s the right thing to do for many reasons.”
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat representing Orange County, says the Hill incident shows exactly why it’s important that LGBTQ people have protections in state law.
“People like Mike Hill and his constituent who suggested that we stone gay people to death are employers, they are business owners and they are landlords who discriminate against LGBTQ people daily, and they’re allowed to do that legally because the Legislature hasn’t taken action to pass the Florida Competitive Workforce Act. I can’t think of another way to prove our point.”
While the legislation has languished at the state Capitol, Florida’s local governments have been taking action. So far, more than 40 local governments have voted to include LGBTQ protections in human rights ordinances.
“We know that the idea of making the economy stronger is something that Republicans could get behind,” says Tony Lima, executive director with SAVE, a South Florida LGBTQ advocacy organization.
Lima and other South Florida activists have been working with elected officials (such as former Miami Beach Democratic state Rep. David Richardson) in the past couple of years to create an alternative to the languishing Florida Competitive Workforce Act. Their idea is to move forward incrementally, with separate bills banning discrimination against the LGBTQ community, beginning with employment, then moving to housing and ultimately to public accommodations.
But when they tried the first part of that plan this spring – a bill to prevent discrimination in employment – a political fight doomed the effort. The bill’s chances looked good when a politically powerful lawmaker – state Rep. Joe Gruters, who serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida – agreed to sponsor it.
“LGBTQ anti-discrimination should not be tolerated whether in the workplace, access to housing or public accommodations,” Gruters announced when he introduced the legislation.
Things went quickly south when the effort drew fire from both the political left and right.
Conservative Florida Family Policy Council lobbyist John Stemberger called for a “grassroots campaign” to unseat Gruters as Republican party chairman. Gruters reportedly received thousands of angry emails (he did not return a request for comment).
Equality Florida, the statewide LGBTQ organization, also opposed it, saying the legislation didn’t go far enough.
“The problem with an employment-only bill is that it only affords LGBTQ people one-third the protection that everybody else is afforded, and I just personally don’t believe that LGBTQ folks in this state are one-third of anything,” says Brandon Wolf of Equality Florida. “We’re not one-third people, and so we don’t deserve the one-third of the same protections of everybody else.”
In the end, Gruters’ bill didn’t even get a hearing.
St. Petersburg-based political strategist Barry Edwards, who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans, believes that a good deal of Republicans in the Legislature support legal protections for LGBTQ people, but says Republican politicians are skittish because they fear they will be challenged by social conservatives in primary elections.
“I think what they’re going to have to do is use a legitimate pollster to show that … primary Republican voters would support them,” Edwards said. “I think it would sail through.”
One key political figure determining whether workplace protections for LGBTQ people pass the Legislature next year is the conservative Florida House Speaker, Jose Oliva of Miami.
Oliva and Republican Rules Committee Chair Chris Sprowls issued a statement taking Rep. Hill to task after the Pensacola recording went public. The two powerful Republicans called on Hill to apologize, but Oliva hasn’t formally censured Hill or removed him from any committees. Moments before Hill had his infamous recorded exchange with the Pensacola constituent, Hill was chiding state Rep. Alex Andrade for co-sponsoring the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, saying that “it’s not the value of northwest Florida.”
But Andrade disagrees. He says he is proud to co-sponsor the bill and says that Republicans of his generation (he’s 29 and represents Pensacola) have a different perspective on gay rights than the older generation. He also says it’s simply the right thing to add the LGBTQ community to the list of people who can’t get fired in the workplace or be refused admission to a hotel or restaurant simply because of who they love.
Pasco County Republican Rep. Amber Mariano is 23 and the Legislature’s youngest member.
“I don’t think it’s a partisan issue,” she says. “I think it’s a generational issue. When I’m talking with my peers, it’s not even on the table for discussion. It’s just a given.”
While the Legislature remains stuck on the issue, Florida’s only Democrat on the Cabinet, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, made a strong statement against discrimination in the workplace just a week into taking office, when she said that her department’s policy would include legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. She then followed up by hiring attorney Nik Harris to serve as the department’s first ever LGBTQ consumer advocate.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis chose a different path. Just hours after he was sworn in as governor, he issued an executive order stating that it is the policy of his administration to prohibit discrimination in employment based on sex, age, race, color, religion, national origin, marital status or disability.
Missing from the list: any legal protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.