Double-dealing on rights

When voters re-elected Commissioner Vicki Vargo in March, they thought they were getting a principled member of the community who had shown flashes of independence in her two years in office. Vargo, a 48-year-old real-estate attorney, had earned a reputation as a neighborhood-friendly commissioner who often challenged Mayor Glenda Hood's administrators whenever Vargo felt they were backsliding in her northwest Orlando district. If she was short on tact and diplomacy, Vargo made up for it with a tenacity and a willingness to attend just about every public meeting she had time for.

As a political maverick, it didn't seem unusual for Vargo to be among the candidates to withhold support from a possibly contentious issue about to come before city government. The Human Relations Board is deliberating whether to add sexual orientation to the civil-rights code. The five-member board will then recommend to city commissioners whether to protect gay men and lesbians against housing and employment discrimination in the same way age, race and sex are now protected.

During a February forum, Orlando's gay community asked candidates to sign a campaign pledge obligating them to support the amendment. Vargo declined, saying she needed to determine whether the amendment was warranted. Nothing but cold, hard evidence of discrimination would persuade her to support the amendment. "I will have to refer to gay attorneys so I can make a decision," she said at the forum.

Somewhere between then and now, Vargo made up her mind, deciding not to support the amendment. In fact, she felt it was such a bad idea that she began campaigning against it, meeting with fellow commissioners and social conservatives without bothering to tell gay people of her new strategy.

"She made us believe she was open-minded and intelligent and that she would really look at whether there was a pattern of discrimination," says gay activist Debbie Simmons. Now, Simmons adds, "She is orchestrating the opposition and rallying the right wing."

Ironically, while Vargo has discussed the amendment with three commissioners, the mayor and a number of religious groups, she was unwilling to talk about the subject with Orlando Weekly. Through her aide Jeanne Rosenthal, Vargo declined to be interviewed.

Vargo has, however, left a paper trail that details her deep opposition to the gay-rights amendment. The information she has been spreading is inaccurate and attempts to pit the African-American community against the gay community.

On May 7, for instance, Vargo received an e-mail from a Lake Mary contractor named Steve Pinyot regarding Broward County's policy of "offering an advantage to those firms [seeking contracts with the county] who offered Ã?domestic-partner' benefits to their employees." Pinyot pasted a copy of the ordinance into his e-mail.

Broward County's policy has nothing to do with Orlando's proposed civil-rights amendment, which would provide for mediation in the event that sexual orientation is the reason someone is fired or is turned down for an apartment. Yet Vargo forwarded Pinyot's message to Commissioner Ernest Page several minutes after she received it, adding that she and Page "need to discuss the erosion of rights of the African-American community and other legitimate minorities in light of the proposed changes [to Orlando's ordinance]." Vargo then forwarded the same e-mail to Commissioner Betty Wyman, adding, "This is an example of how the city of Orlando can go down the slippery slope of diluting true minority rights."

Instead of forwarding the message to Page and Wyman, Vargo could have called Broward County administrators to check whether their county was so shortsighted that it was willing to send African Americans down a slippery slope. In fact, the rights of black people aren't being eroded in Broward County because African Americans receive no preference there. It is illegal in the U.S. to give preferences based on race.

Instead, Broward County gives preferences based on three criteria: whether a company is based in the local area; whether it offers domestic-partner benefits for (unmarried) straight and gay employees (regardless of race); and whether the company has a recycling program. Companies are only eligible for the preference if they are within one percent of the contract price of another company. Which means companies rarely win a contract based on domestic-partner benefits because contract bids are hardly ever within one percent of each other.

Vargo also forwarded Pinyot's e-mail to members of the First Baptist Church of Orlando, including Randall James, chief of staff to former Mayor Bill Frederick. "Randall," Vargo wrote, "If the business community is still nonchalant about the proposed changes to [the civil-rights ordinance], perhaps this information will stir them into action. Those firms doing business with the city of Orlando should take notice." The question is: Will those same companies be annoyed when they find out that Vargo has rallied them against an issue that won't even be in the ordinance?

In another e-mail, Vargo wrote to James about an increase in insurance rates, even though nothing about Orlando's civil-rights amendment involves insuring unmarried partners. "We also need to talk about the increased cost of our insurance if the city is required to insure domestic partners, which includes gays and heterosexuals living together. We need to focus on being able to provide reasonable-priced insurance to our existing employees in lower-paying jobs."

Again, Vargo was willing to pit groups of people against each other -- in this case rank-and-file employees versus domestic partners. Yet neither group needs to worry. The cost of adding domestic partners to the city's insurance coverage would be minimal, if and when the city decides to increase its coverage. Broward County's insurance costs did not go up even though that government added 93 domestic partners to its insurance policy, which covers 7,000 county employees.

Broward County domestic partners are also included on the county's COBRA policy, which allows them medical coverage in the event they lose their job. "I think we're a caring employer," says Karen Ruh, Broward County's employee-benefits manager. "We recognize that this is an accommodation we need for our employees. We are not unique in that."

The other thing that makes Vargo's opposition to the gay-rights amendment insidious is that she doesn't appear to be doing it for anything other than spite. She certainly can't claim that she opposes the amendment based on philosophical, religious or ethical reasons. She already conceded those points when she agreed to examine evidence of discrimination against gay people.

Some critics say that Vargo's opposition is nothing more than petty politics, that she harbors grievances against the gay community dating back to the February candidate forum. Vargo made headlines there when she was quoted as saying that gay people are "bright and creative" and that she'd like them to move into her neighborhoods. Many members of the gay community were appalled and lashed out at Vargo for stereotyping them. Some now say that Vargo's opposition to the gay-rights amendment was encouraged by social conservatives responding to the media coverage.

"She got so much wrath and so much press coverage that she began receiving support from people who were against us," says attorney and gay activist Marty Chapman. "She realizes how much power she can have by working against us."

There's also speculation that Vargo is paying back Commissioner Patty Sheehan, Orlando's first openly gay commissioner, who campaigned for Vargo's opponent, Roger Chapin, in the spring election. Sheehan is very sensitive to that suggestion. "This is not a Sheehan-Vargo thing," Sheehan says. " ... And I hope [the gay-rights amendment] is not something someone is opposing to hurt me." In fact, Vargo's tactics hurt the entire city.

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