Mark R. Howard
Art of the Deal
Like all cities, Jacksonville has plenty of problems, but two of the biggest hot-button issues facing Mayor Lenny Curry when he took office in 2015 were how to fix the city’s underfunded pension plan and whether the city needed to expand its human rights ordinance to protect its LGBTQ citizens from discrimination in jobs and housing.
Florida Trend’s Jason Garcia has written an illuminating profile of Curry for this issue that begins on page 68. For the purpose of this column, I want to focus on how Curry took on the LGBTQ-related issue and ask you to decide how you feel about his approach.
Curry is not, by any stretch, a “champion” of LGBTQ issues. He’s a rock-ribbed Republican, former chair of the state GOP and a friend and ally of Gov. Rick Scott. His religious beliefs tend conservative as well. During his mayoral campaign, he said he wouldn’t support changing the city’s human rights ordinance. The best that activists could get from him was a promise to hold “community conversations” about discrimination and other issues if he were elected.
So here’s what happened after he was elected, rendered in terms of the most basic facts:
Curry kept the promise to host the conversations.
There was no overt reference to LGBTQ when Curry’s office announced the topics of the conversations, which included “religious freedoms, thoughts and beliefs,” the “needs of families” and “understanding the law and its impact on business.”
After the meetings were over, Curry extended anti-discrimination protection to city employees and employees of the city’s vendors, which he could do without changing the law.
Curry announced he didn’t see any need to change the law itself to include protections for LGBTQ citizens. It “wouldn’t be prudent,” he said.
The city council passed a LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance.
Within minutes of the law’s passage, Curry announced he would let the ordinance become law.
Curry did not sign the ordinance.
How’s that for having it both ways?
And how, then, to view Curry’s leadership?
Seen one way, Curry handled the LGBTQ ordinance issue in a squirmy, weaselly fashion. He didn’t overtly champion anything — either LGBTQ rights or the value of the ordinance to the city’s business community. Seen another way, he instigated the “conversations” that kept the issue before the public and led to passage of the ordinance, he didn’t lobby against it, and when it passed, he made it clear quickly that he was OK with it becoming law (which the council members must have known when they voted).
Seen one way, Curry cravenly tried to have it both ways, not hurting his standing with either social conservatives who view LGBTQ people unfavorably or with the business community that considered the issue vital to the city’s economic future. Seen a different way, Curry got the deal done while taking everybody into account, staying true to his personal and political convictions — and not hurting himself in terms of being able to get more done later.
Extending human rights protections to LGBTQ citizens, by the way, won’t shatter Jacksonville’s social fabric. It just means LGBTQ people cannot be refused service at a business, a job or housing because they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. These are protections that the city already extends to nine other classes of citizens, including considerations involving race, gender and religion. And there are exceptions: Businesses with fewer than 15 employees, which make up 80% of all companies in Jacksonville, are exempt from the provisions relating to employment. There’s nothing in the bill about bathrooms.
At its most basic, the law means a group of people who are marginalized and often treated poorly because of whom they love or how they feel about their identities have a modicum of protection that puts them, at least nominally, on the same footing with the rest of us. Just as important, the city has taken off the table an issue that put it at a significant disadvantage in recruiting and growing the kinds of businesses it needs to function well in 21st-century America. And it helped Curry and the city move on other equally important issues.
I would submit that which view you have of Curry may say more about you than Curry. In these days of ultra-polarized politics, too many of us seem to want “pure” leaders — ultra-principled, flag-waving true believers to advance our cause or go down in flames trying. No compromise. Victory or death.
Maybe we should just want — and appreciate — politicians who have enough backbone and skill to actually get stuff done. And if they can have it both ways in the process, more power to them. Such people are the kind of politicians we used to admire.