TAMPA — After a nearly four-month delay, Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday to seat a 22-member diversity advisory council that includes religious conservative activist Terry Kemple.
Kemple’s candidacy for a seat on the council has drawn opposition because he has been outspoken in his opposition to homosexuality. In May, Commissioner Les Miller, the board’s only black member, blocked a vote on Kemple’s candidacy using an obscure parliamentary maneuver.
Since that time, Miller’s fellow Democrat on the commission, Kevin Beckner, dropped his opposition to Kemple, saying the work of the council was too important to let one person’s candidacy delay it.
Beckner, who is openly gay, had previously worked to undermine Kemple’s bid for the council by forwarding one of the activist’s more inflammatory e-mails to the National Diversity Council, a group chosen to vet nominees to the local council.
In the e-mail, Kemple questioned the need for a local diversity council, saying it would be a vehicle to promote homosexuality. The National Diversity Council responded by recommending against naming Kemple to the local panel.
Wednesday, Beckner explained his change of heart, saying it was inspired by Pope Francis, leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope was asked in an interview what he thought of homosexuality, and replied, “Who am I to judge?”
“I continue to ask myself that question and when it comes back to this particular issue, I did indeed judge Mr. Kemple’s by his actions, not by him as an individual person,” Beckner said. “But it is not for me to judge his intentions on wanting to serve on this board.”
Beckner, who is not Catholic, said he hoped Kemple would be a “productive” member of the new council. He expressed hope that Kemple and his followers would also ask themselves, “Who am I to judge?” when they consider gays, Muslims or other minority groups.
Kemple, a candidate for the county school board, has actively opposed Muslim speakers in public schools.
When Miller saw he didn’t have the votes to block Kemple, he reluctantly voted with the other commissioners to adopt the whole slate of 22 council members. Before he did, however, he gave Kemple a tongue lashing.
“But Mr. Kemple, let me tell you this: I don’t agree with you on anything you say ... I don’t know what your problem is with certain people in this community; I don’t know how you can sit on at diversity committee with the type of inflammatory attitudes you have in your e-mails, I really don’t,” Miller said.
After the meeting, Kemple said he was happy to be on the board, but questioned whether Beckner and Miller had offered him an olive branch or a thorn bush.
“I think Commissioner Beckner realized it would not be good for his position as an advocate for diversity to want to exclude someone because their opinion doesn’t match his,” Kemple said.
As for Miller, Kemple said he thought they had reached an understanding when they had previously met in the commissioner’s office and discussed the meaning of diversity. Kemple said they parted with a smile and a handshake, agreeing to disagree.
“When I walked out of that room, I thought I had met his concerns about what diversity was,” Kemple said. “I was totally taken by surprise when he said what he said.”
“You come across like you have done in the past I’ll do anything I can to dissolve that council or get you off,” Miller said.