Domestic partner registry fails to pass in Hillsborough County
TAMPA - A deflated Mark Sharpe hung his head Thursday after seeing his effort to create a domestic partner registry for unmarried couples go down to defeat at the hands of his fellow Republicans on the Hillsborough County Commission. The board voted 3-4 against the registry that would have allowed individuals in unmarried, domestic relationships to make certain legal decisions for their partners. Republicans Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman, Victor Crist and Al Higginbotham voted against the measure. Democrats Kevin Beckner and Les Miller supported Sharpe’s measure. Again, as if he was still on the commission dais arguing for the measure, Sharpe repeated the mantra that he wasn’t trying to redefine marriage or promote a gay agenda. A domestic partner registry would have been available to all unmarried couples, regardless of sexual orientation."I was hoping the board would have collectively agreed that all citizens should be afforded basic rights no matter who they are," Sharpe said. "This in no way promoted any agenda other than the taxpayers’ agenda." But social and religious conservatives united in a mass e-mail and telephone avalanche aimed at Republican commissioners. Led by Terry Kemple of the Community Issues Council and David Caton of the Florida Family Association, opponents accused Sharpe of trying to undermine the Defense of Marriage amendment. Passed by Florida voters in 2008, the amendment defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Opponents also appealed to two pillars of conservative ideology: distaste for bigger government and personal responsibility. They argued that the rights conferred by a domestic registry, such as making medical and end-of-life decisions for a partner, can be obtained by filling out forms from the Internet or by hiring a lawyer. Travis Smith, who spoke to commission before the vote, called the registries "a sham" and "not necessary." "I have found whether I have a marriage certificate or not, I had to do the legally responsible thing," Smith said, "and that is seek a lawyer who makes sure all my papers were in order to make sure my wife and children are empowered to make medical decisions for me." Crist and Murman echoed Smith’s arguments in voting against the measure. Crist said he once had power of attorney to make legal decisions for several elderly women who were friends of his mother. He now has the same power to make legal decisions for his 91-year-old stepfather. "I looked at my life and the three elderly people I had to provide leadership and care for," Crist said. "You know what we had to do: take the personal responsibility to take care of business." For Higginbotham, his decision was a matter of staying true to his Christian faith, which defines marriage as one-man, one-woman. Though he opposed the measure, Higginbotham said he felt great "empathy" for unmarried couples who wanted the same rights in their relationships as married people. "However, my Christian faith, my recognition of thousands of years of societal precedent, and my understanding of our nation’s laws prevent me from supporting an expansion of that unique and special status, privileges and responsibilities to those outside a marriage relationship," Higginbotham said. Hagan did not speak on the issue. Thursday’s vote was the latest in a years-long history of commission actions that have alienated gays and lesbians. Seventeen years ago, commissioners voted to strip gay rights protections out of the county’s human rights ordinance. In 2005, a majority of commissioners, including Sharpe, voted to prohibit the county from acknowledging, promoting or participating in gay pride events. Hagan wasn’t there for that vote, but he did vote with the majority later to stipulate that the policy could only be repealed by a supermajority vote. In one of his first acts as a rookie commissioner, Beckner pushed to extend health care coverage to domestic partners of county employees in 2009. The measure failed 5-2. Such a record can tarnish a county’s reputation, painting it as a backwater whose leaders are out of step with the times, supporters of the measure said. That hurts the county’s efforts to recruit industry and attract the young, highly educated workers that local business leaders say they need to expand. "Hillsborough County has not always been a champion of inclusion and acceptance and its brand has suffered as a result," said Nick Kouris, director of business development for the healthcare insurance company, Florida Blue. Pinellas County earlier this month approved a similar registry, and several Pinellas cities, and the city of Tampa, also have such registries. Beckner, the only openly gay elected official in Hillsborough, said after the meeting that his Republican colleagues voted no because they fear primary challenges from the conservative wing of their party. In an effort to counter that fear, Beckner showed commissioners the results of a poll paid for by his campaign and conducted by The Kitchens Group. It showed that 67 percent of those polled favored giving domestic partners, either of the same or opposite sex, some of the same rights, responsibilities and protections as married couples. These included making healthcare decisions for each other, the ability to see one’s partner in the hospital or in jail, making funeral arrangements for a partner and being notified in an emergency Among Republicans surveyed for the poll, 58 percent supported giving those rights, 38 percent were opposed and 4 percent were unsure. Beckner said the Republican commissioners’ vote against the domestic registry was indicative of a larger problem that contributed to the party’s defeats in the November elections. "It is evident by the vote today that a majority of my colleagues are out of touch with Hillsborough County voters and remain shackled by the unbendable ideology of their political masters," Beckner said.