In-Depth: Equality Florida’s Endorsements Under Scrutiny
Inconsistencies found in way state’s largest LGBT rights org backs candidates
By Jason Parsley, South Florida Gay News
March 25, 2015
(L to R) West Palm Beach Mayor Geraldine “Jeri” Muoio, Rand Hoch- President of Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, Allan Hendricks- Equality Florida’s Balm Beach County rep, Scott Herman- former State House candidate.
Few people would dispute that West Palm Beach Mayor Geraldine “Jeri” Muoio is a champion of LGBT rights.
As mayor, and long before, she stood with the LGBT community on issues like adding more health benefits to domestic partnerships; adding gender identity and expression to the city’s equal opportunity ordinance; extending family leave benefits to domestic partners; and attending LGBT pride events.
Compass, the LGBT community center of Palm Beach County, even honored the mayor with their Leadership Award in 2011 for her continuing efforts.
So when the Equality Florida Action PAC endorsed Muoio’s opponent, one of Palm Beach County’s leading LGBT rights activists, Rand Hoch, was perplexed.
And then outraged.
“We worked so closely, and so hard with Jeri that for them to totally ignore her and send out this list to their 20,000 subscribers in Palm Beach County was an insult,” said Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. “I just thought ‘I can’t believe we’re going through this again.'”
After examining Equality Florida’s endorsement process, SFGN found gaps and inconsistencies in the way it determines its candidates of choice, and that it relies too heavily on questionnaires, as well as a general failure to effectively work with local LGBT organizations.
This isn’t the first time Hoch has been upset with an Equality Florida endorsement. His beef with them dates back to at least 2004.
And over the years he’s repeatedly told them to “Stay the hell out of Palm Beach County.”
In the week leading up to an election, Hoch said, it’s his job to help elect those candidates PBCHRC endorsed. Because of Equality Florida’s oversight, he instead had to shift into damage control mode explaining to supporters and candidates why another LGBT group endorsed Muoio’s opponent.
Allan Hendricks, Equality Florida’s PBC representative, admits his organization made a mistake by sending out that email ignoring Muoio, but says, it was corrected within 24 hours and so there’s no harm, no foul done.
“It was a misstep. We shouldn’t have sent it out,” Hendricks admitted. “I don’t know why it went out that way. I know we were quick to fix it though. We jumped into solution mode within the hour. I don’t think we’ll make that mistake again in Palm Beach County.”
As for Hoch he added: “I don’t know how it spiraled out of control. We’ve been doing good for the past few years.”
Hendricks, along with Stratton Pollitzer, Deputy Director of Equality Florida, believe Hoch is just blowing the whole situation out of proportion – again.
“Rand Hoch is well known for voicing his opinions at full volume,” Pollitzer said.
Needless to say, Hoch doesn’t see it that way.
He believes Equality Florida’s endorsements are often counterproductive.
After Hoch sent a flurry of emails to Equality Florida’s leadership detailing Muoio’s accomplishments, the organization quietly changed their online voter guide while sending out a new e-blast endorsing Muoio.
“Thank you for sharing this information with us and for immediately bringing our attention to the deficits in our Palm Beach voting guide,” Stratton Pollitzer responded to Hoch in an email. “We have taken the Palm Beach guide off of our website and will be reissuing information once the PAC board has had the opportunity to review this additional information.”
Endorsements and Recommendations and Checkmarks…Oh My!
Equality Florida has three ways in which they endorse a candidate – even though two of them aren’t true endorsements.
Sometimes they officially endorse a candidate, such as they did with Muoio. Other times, Hendricks explained, they may recommend a candidate, or just post a candidate’s answers to their questionnaire online.
But you wouldn’t be able to tell these subtle differences on Equality Florida PAC’s online voter guide where it simply states:
“Equality Florida Action PAC is the largest organization in Florida devoted to electing pro-equality candidates to all levels of government. Each election cycle our endorsements are a valuable source for hundreds of thousands of voters statewide.”
Taking a closer look at the organization’s statewide endorsements revealed other gaps and deficiencies in its endorsement process. Only six or so – out of 67 – counties featured any endorsements at all. While it’s unclear how many elections, were or are taking place in those counties, two in particular stand out – Miami-Dade and Duval.
“The website purports to have all of this information that it doesn’t have,” said Jamie Foreman, a former board member of Equality Florida and a current member of PBCHRC.
As of press time, no endorsements have been made in Miami-Dade’s upcoming elections. The online Voter Guide only links to the county’s election website.
In Duval County though, Equality Florida did, however, recommend several candidates in the Jacksonville city council race, but you wouldn’t know it by looking online at their voter guide where none of those recommendations are even listed.
Instead it appears they were only sent out in e-blast saying “the following candidates support a fully inclusive HRO and are running highly competitive campaigns.”
In this email the word “endorsement” is not used.
The subtle differences between Equality Florida’s endorsements, recommendations and questionnaire’s may be lost on the average voter.
“When EqFL sends out notifications about elections and some candidates’ names are followed by a row of huge checkmarks in their signature green color – that makes a clear statement. Especially when other candidates’ names are only followed by barely visible dashes,” Hoch explained. “They can call it a recommendation, call it an endorsement, call it a penguin if they want to. It doesn’t make a difference. A picture speaks 1,000 words.”
Hendricks said a candidate will only get the organization’s “official” endorsement if they feel comfortable with their members giving money to that candidate.
In examining their endorsements in Broward County, two of the races had “endorsed candidates” – involving Dean Trantalis and Bryan Caletka. In three other races, only one candidate’s answers to their questionnaire are featured. It’s unclear if the other folks in the race did not fill out the survey on purpose, or it was an oversight on candidate’s part. But not filling it out doesn’t mean those people are anti-LGBT. Anything but. In fact in the case of Jeri Muoio it’s quite the opposite.
“Jeri is an outspoken advocate for us,” Hoch said.
And that is the inherent problem with a questionnaire-based endorsement process, as Hoch, and others point out.
Hendricks though defended his group’s reliance on questionnaires.
“This way we’ll have people on the record,” he said. “If they’re not willing to go on record they can tell you anything they want.”
As for the solution going forward there might not be one – at least in PBC.
Hoch’s solution is for Equality Florida to simply stay out of the county. Hendricks said that’s not going to happen.
“We’re not leaving Palm Beach County, that’s out of the question. It’s all way too connected to leave. It’s not the right thing to do. That would be harmful,” Hendricks said. “It would be disrespectful to our membership in Palm Beach County. The more information we put out there – the better. People want us to work together.”
In the past Hoch has been amenable to finding a way to work together.
But not anymore.
“We cannot rely on what they say they will do in the future. Years ago they said they would contact PBCHRC Voters Alliance before they sent out anything having to do with elections in our county. I think they did that in only one or two election cycles,” Hoch said. “They also said at one time they would provide a link to PBCHRCVA endorsements on the information they sent out. But again they stopped doing that.”
As for Equality Florida’s endorsement process Hendricks doesn’t think anything needs to change.
“I am completely comfortable with our process,” he said. “I think we have some really talented people on the [PAC] board.”
But sometimes, he admits, mistakes do happen as did with the case of the botched Muoio endorsement.
Pollitzer is also comfortable with the process.
“We put our candidates through a rigorous review process,” he said. “Equality Florida has over 20,000 members in Palm Beach County who count on us to be a trusted source of election information.”
But not everyone agrees. One candidate disputed Equality Florida’s “rigorous” process.
“No one interviewed me,” said Scott Herman, an openly gay Broward politician, who has run twice for the Florida State House. “Everything was based on a questionnaire.”
That wasn’t Herman’s only gripe with the process either.
He, along with James Eddy, a candidate for Jacksonville’s city council in this election cycle, were especially upset with Equality Florida’s fundraising requirement – they were told that unless they raised at least one-third of the highest candidate’s total dollars they would not be endorsed.
“We look at a lot of things, including the candidate’s ability to raise money,” Pollitzer said. “If the candidate hasn’t raised any money then we are not going to endorse them.”
Herman shot back: “They’re letting their community down and sending the wrong message. There have been plenty of races where money did not win the election.”
Herman added that Equality Florida has forgotten the principles they were founded on.
“Two decades ago they did not have the funding, but it didn’t stop them,” he said.
The first time Herman ran for office, in 2012, he raised little money and was not endorsed – neither was his opponent.
But Herman proudly filled out his questionnaire in that election, yet it still took a phone call for them to finally post it online. His opponent in the race, a long time supporter of LGBT rights, who eventually won the election, did not fill out a survey.
The second time he ran, in 2014, he infused his own cash into his campaign and received Equality Florida’s endorsement – yet still wasn’t happy.
“I was an LGBT democrat, who supported LGBT rights across the board, but the endorsement didn’t come until I funded my campaign, ” he said. “Plus they didn’t send out an e-blast or alert the community. Even after I funded my campaign I still had to call a couple of them to find out what was going on.”
A History of Complaints
PBCHRC isn’t the only organization Equality Florida has butted heads with over their endorsement process, and more generally speaking, their involvement on the county level.
These complaints date back years, with the most public of such, being in 2010 when several local groups across the state came together and signed on to a letter
asking Equality Florida to stay out areas that had a local LGBT group and instead focus their efforts on areas with no representation.
Those groups included SAVE (formerly known as SAVE Dade), Unity Coalition, Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, Broward County Council of Gay-Straight Alliances and the Leon County GSA Council.
SFGN reached out to most of the above organizations asking for an update on their relationship with Equality Florida.
The Unity Coalition sidestepped the question calling the point moot as they no longer endorse candidates. SAVE also did not comment directly on the situation, only saying they do not work with, or consult with, any outsides groups on their endorsements and were not contacted by Equality Florida about this election cycle.
However the founder of Broward County Council of Gay-Straight Alliances, Ryan Terrell, who now serves at the Florida Democratic LGBTA Caucus Region 1 Director, did have a few choice words.
“In terms of endorsements, Equality Florida for years now has been making political decisions out of the blue without consulting local activists on the ground,” he said.
Here’s a snippet of what the letter says: We are writing to again express our displeasure and frustration with Equality Florida’s endorsement process and unilateral engagement in local political races…win or lose on your endorsements, Equality Florida has the luxury of going home. For us, this is home. Since Equality Florida bills itself as a state organization, we’re not even certain why there is such a focus on local politics in our area. It would be a different matter, of course, if no local organization existed to review these important candidates and races. But this case, each of our local organizations is well established and respected.
[See end of article to read entire letter]
“Why not focus on other counties?” Jamie Foreman asked. “Develop those relationships there like PBCHRC has been doing for the past 20 years. Make a difference. Not just piggy back off of work that’s already been done. Equality Florida has the resources to replicate this model elsewhere and help new organizations get off the ground.”
When SFGN asked Hendricks if it might be a better use of Equality Florida’s statewide resources to focus on those areas Foreman mentions, he said no.
“The statewide organization needs to be a part of PBC and PBC needs to be a part of the state,” he said.
New LGBT Group in Northeast Florida Forms This year Carrington “Rusty” Mead, a Jacksonville attorney and LGBT rights activist, along with others, formed a political action committee – the Northeast Florida LGBT Leadership PAC.
Despite being such a new group they’ve already offered up a slew of endorsements in the Jacksonville area races.
“It wasn’t hard for us to do, as we all live here and are all familiar with the local politics. The board is made up of a group of very active individuals,” she said. “We just realized there wasn’t a local voice for our community or a consistent voice that could speak with knowledge and integrity. And provide a certain depth of knowledge about the candidates. We needed a more effective message to get out to folks.”
One such endorsement this cycle was James Eddy, a candidate who Equality Florida passed over, because he didn’t meet the fundraising requirement.
“He meets our definition of a qualified candidate,” Mead said. “He’s openly supportive of LGBT issues and has a willingness to advocate on our behalf. That was an easy endorsement.”
Eddy, who’s openly gay, was disappointed that he did receive an endorsement from Equality Florida.
Jacksonville does not have an LGBT-inclusive Human Rights Ordinance and so that has been a hot button issue in the city. That’s why Equality Florida’s e-blast recommendations highlighted the candidates who support an inclusive HRO and who are running – what they consider – a competitive race.
“I was definitely surprised since I work hand in hand with them. And I am on the front lines of LGBT issues,” Eddy said. “I have been fighting for the HRO since 2010.”
In 2012 one candidate who scored 100 percent on his questionnaire, Johnny Gaffney, a city councilman, later voted against the HRO.
Mallory Garner-Wells, Equality Florida’s public policy director, called it a fluke.
“We work really hard to ensure people stick to their commitment,” she told Watermark, the LGBT newspaper of Central Florida.
So who did Equality Florida choose this time around over Eddy? That would be Marc McCullough – whose history includes selling cocaine to an undercover detective, pleading guilty to motor vehicle theft, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
But, as mentioned above, these weren’t “official” endorsements anyway.
Eddy said he just didn’t raise enough money to meet Equality Florida’s threshold, even though when he spoke to SFGN, he had raised more than $6,000.
But Hendricks said the fundraising requirement isn’t actually set in stone.
“It’s not a requirement and it’s not the only thing we look at,” Hendricks said. “Do they have a ground game? What is their voting record? If there was a really big gap [in fundraising] we came up with a process where we would recommend and not endorse.
Hendricks said they also rely on information from local organizations when making their endorsements, pointing to groups such as PBCHRC and PBC National Organization for Women.
Despite Eddy’s lack of fundraising, the Northeast Florida LGBT Leadership PAC chose to endorse him.
When a pro-equality measure was up for a vote in Atlantic Beach, Mead said, Eddy “showed leadership” on the issue and was there to support the bill.
“Our endorsements aren’t based on a bank account or contributions,” she said. “The candidates have to leave us with a feeling that they’re being honest about their positions – Not just support us while they’re running.”
Nor will their endorsements be based on questionnaires.
“Checking the right box is not the way to go. We need to have an intense conversation with the candidate,” she said.
Mead added that it is important to build relationships with candidates even if they don’t get your endorsement the first time around.
Hoch agreed saying his organization builds relationships with candidates that spans years and even decades, so face-to-face interviews are an essential part of that process.
“We have a long time relationship with these people,” Foreman added. “We know their strategies. Some of these things are so nuanced you can’t really get that from a survey. This isn’t about who looks best on paper.”
Neither of the other two groups that SFGN spoke with, SAVE and PBCHRC, have a fundraising requirement.
“SAVE has a strong and transparent endorsement process that is driven by the community that includes sending questionnaires to candidates and then having panel interviews with them. Members of each endorsement panel live in the municipality that we are endorsing in. This process and methodology helps us ensure that the endorsements that we offer the community are authentic and representative of the LGBT voice in each municipality,” said Tony Lima, executive director of SAVE.
“We don’t rely on anyone else’s endorsement. Since our work is focused on the local community in South Florida, after we endorse, we continue to work with municipalities to be their resource and voice when it comes to LGBT issues. We’ve been doing this work for 22 years.”
SFGN News Editor John McDonald contributed to this report.
***A request of corrective action for the 2010 elections
We are writing to again express our displeasure and frustration with Equality Florida’s endorsement process and unilateral engagement in local political races.
As leaders of local lesbian and gay rights organizations, our membership and focus is often at the city or county level. Because of our local focus, we care deeply about who represents us in these offices and believe we have valuable experience, insights and history with many of the candidates or elected officials seeking local office.
Not for the first time, Equality Florida has issued formal endorsements in some local races in our communities without discussion or even notice, even after many of us specifically reached out Equality Florida to express the importance of your attention to certain local campaigns & candidates. In some cases, we learned of Equality Florida’s endorsements from the candidates themselves who, because they had support from Equality Florida, expected our default support. In many cases, our organizations had not even concluded our screening and support process.
In addition, we know in several cases where Equality Florida issued unilateral endorsements in local races, there was no process at all. Not all candidates for these local offices were even invited to seek Equality Florida’s support.
While Equality Florida may not see this as a problem, we have to deal with the consequences. Win or lose on your endorsements, Equality Florida has the luxury of going home. For us, this is home.
Since Equality Florida bills itself as a state organization, we’re not even certain why there is such a focus on local politics in our area. It would be a different matter, of course, if no local organization existed to review these important candidates and races. But this case, each of our local organizations is well established and respected.
In addition, when Equality Florida endorses a local candidate without collaboration or consultation it puts our organization in an impossible position. What are we to do when we reach a different conclusion than Equality Florida? Issuing our own, often more informed, endorsements will inevitably expose disagreements in our community and weaken our common purpose.
We know collaboration is possible. When national gay and lesbian organizations such as Victory Fund or HRC are considering even national endorsements in our area, they reach out to us and seek our opinion. And yet, even on local races, Equality Florida seems to reach out by press release.
To be clear, we fully support collaboration on races and political action where we have common purpose such as state legislative races in our areas. We are certain we have valuable information to share about these opportunities that we believe any thorough process would seek to include. This year, even in state legislative races, Equality Florida issued endorsements on its own exposing us to the consequences of disappointed, irate or confused candidates and office holders.
We clearly understand that Equality is not required to meet with any local group to give out endorsements, but collectively, we are again asking that Equality Florida actively seek our input on political actions and endorsements which impact us as residents and our organizations and where possible refrain entirely from issuing exclusive endorsements in local races.
With hope that Equality Florida can correct this action over the remainder of the 2010 elections and in the future, we look forward to being a continued partner in the fight for equality.
SAVE Dade Action PAC
Unity Coalition|Coalicion Unida
Palm Beach County
Human Rights Council Voters Alliance
Ryan Terrell, Founder
Broward County Council of Gay-Straight Alliances
Brandon Young, President
Leon County GSA Council