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Goodbye, Billy 

Some of Billy Manes' closest friends and colleagues bid farewell to an incomparable man

Page 5 of 8

click to enlarge Dave & Billy - PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett
  • Dave & Billy

Most people know Billy Manes ran for mayor of Orlando in 2005, but few remember how much this altered Orlando's political history and the direction of Billy's career.

On March 10, 2005, Mayor Buddy Dyer was indicted by a grand jury on arcane ballot-handling charges. He and three others were accused of breaking a law that had never before been enforced. Gov. Jeb Bush immediately removed him from office, triggering a special election to replace the mayor until he was convicted or exonerated. Whoever was elected "temporary mayor" could possibly serve for weeks, or even just a few days. If Dyer were convicted, another election would then be needed to replace him permanently.

This wacky, seven-week election attracted the attention of Orlando Weekly editor Bob Whitby and writer Jeff Billman, who urged Billy to consider running. Billy's husband, Alan, supported the idea, and I was recruited to serve as the campaign manager.

One week later, Billy was filing papers at City Hall and, in his own words, "trying to notarize affidavits that prove my legitimacy, even though I've not been on a lease for the past 10 years." With that, Orlando's best-known humorist and nightlife columnist entered the race for mayor. While nearly everyone predicted a joke campaign, Billy began preparing in earnest to run and win.

He had name recognition (as he approached Orlando Sentinel reporter Rich McKay for an interview at a downtown restaurant, a shirtless passerby screamed, "Billy Fucking Manes for fucking mayor!"), but he also had a mind for politics and a years-long list of civic grievances. Most of his writing had focused on pop music, celebrities and after-hours culture. But as he became more comfortable being a candidate, another side of him began to emerge.

Always political, always passionate to call out the routine injustices that cause suffering and inequality, Billy had been named "most likely to run for political office" by his classmates at Boca Raton High School, though openly gay public officials were rare in the early 1990s. He was also a functioning alcoholic with a past history of drug abuse, which he put out in the open, keeping very few secrets from his devoted readers. When a mysterious caller threatened to reveal his past driving citations to the media, Billy laughed nervously and published the details first.

Running for office gave Billy a platform, and a new confidence through which he could advocate for Orlando's most vulnerable residents. He began winning over crowds.

"Again, I'm at the podium. Again, I'm nervous. But this time, I actually know and believe what I'm talking about," Billy later wrote in a chronicle of the race in Orlando Weekly called "Citizen Manes."

"The feeling in the room is that I could actually win this. And I'm actually happy about it."

Two weeks before the special election was to take place, the charges against Dyer were dropped, ending the election. The celebration of Dyer's return to office was held in the very same hotel ballroom where Billy had done so well that morning. At the party, Dyer complimented Billy on his race, and his own campaign manager told Billy she would have voted for him.

The roller-coaster experience gained Mayor Dyer national attention and reignited his own career. He became noticeably healthier, and more open and accessible to the public. Once considered to be contentious with his critics, Dyer also befriended the blond-waif journalist who ran for his seat.

"Billy always tried to kiss me," Dyer told a gathering after Billy's death. It was true, and many officials tried to kiss him back. He was inexplicably loved by the very politicians he broiled alive with his words. U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson summarized Billy's career change in the 2014 Congressional Record, noting that the one-time "pop-cultural raconteur and nightlife columnist ... ran for Mayor of Orlando in a special election which was later cancelled. Nonetheless, Manes caught the political bug, and soon became a full-time news reporter for Orlando Weekly."

"Billy broke barriers," said U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy after his death. In a speech where she honored "the first openly gay mayoral candidate in Orlando's history," Murphy said "our nation lost a committed, passionate, and fierce advocate for equality."

For the rest of his too-brief life, Billy would write almost exclusively about local and state politics, gaining national attention for his insightful coverage of how public policy affects people's lives and health care.

"He wrote about PrEP, the disproportionate risk of syphilis among gay men, and health insurance," the Sentinel's Naseem S. Miller remembered. "One of his well-known pieces told the story of a 32-year-old mom with a heart condition who died because she didn't have access to medical care."

That is how, without a single ballot being cast, Orlando got to know the real Billy Manes and how much he loved the city that loved him back.

Dave Plotkin is the CEO of You Should Run, a progressive political communications strategy and media company. He has served members of Congress, the Florida Legislature, local governments, and more than 140 campaigns, though none as exciting as Billy Manes for Mayor. A former legislative aide in the Florida House of Representatives, Plotkin was Orlando Weekly's art director from 2011 to 2012, where he also wrote about politics and journalism.

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