Florida ACLU head Howard Simon on the police, same-sex marriage and restoration of ex-felon voting rights

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As always, Howard Simon is a very busy man.

The executive director of the ACLU of Florida for over 17 years was in Tampa early Friday morning as the featured guest speaker at the annual Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council awards breakfast at the DoubleTree Hotel in Westshore.

Simon said one of the chief reasons he accepted the invitation was learning that one of the honorees was former Tampa Democratic state legislator Helen Gordon Davis. “It’s a special honor,” he said about appearing on the program with Davis, 88, who attended the ceremony in a wheelchair. She was greeted throughout the morning by well-wishers who came to her table, where she was sitting next to former County Commissioner Jan Platt.

ACLU officials piled signature petitions on the dozens of tables assembled for the breakfast. They’re collecting signatures to try to get a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot calling for the automatic restoration of voting rights for individuals with past felony convictions upon completion of their sentence. The proposed constitutional amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. In addition to the ACLU, Faith in Florida and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition are also working on the proposal. They need to get well over 600,000 signatures turned in over the next year and a half to get a measure on the 2016 ballot, no easy task. But Simon says he’s confident the coalition can do it.

And he pushes back against what he calls “the mythology” that persists about who these new voters would be.

“For some reason people, have fomented the public atttidue is that all we’re dealing with is a whole bunch of black Democrats,” he told SaintPetersBlog moments before he addressed the audience. “The best research from both the state and national think tanks that study correction issues – and I know this is going to be shocking to the stererotype that too many people in florida have – there’s only about 39 percent of the former felon population in florida that are African-American…This is not a whole bunch of blacks – this is the insidious political mythology that has been created about this. Most former felons are not black.”

(When contacted to verify such a statistic, an ACLU spokesman said he was on the road and suggested we reach out to the Washington D.C. based Sentencing Project for more information. We have not heard back from that organization as of this posting).

The ACLU has also been very involved in the litigation regarding same-sex marriage in Florida this year.

Last week a panel of judges at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the State of Florida’s motion to extend the stay that has prevented a federal court’s decision striking down Florida’s ban on marriages for same-sex couples from going into effect.

On November 5th, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued an order stating that the stay would be lifted at the end of the day on January 5th, allowing his previous ruling striking down the marriage ban to go into effect on January 6th. The ruling striking down the marriage ban was the result of two cases — one of them brought by the ACLU of Florida on behalf of eight couples.

Simon joked about the case, saying, “Marriage may break out all across the state. The sky may fall out.”

“In our case, we represent people who have been married in other states, and in other countries,” he continued. “All the couples we represent will have their marriages recognized on 12:01 a.m. on January 6.”

That seems to be the prevailing sentiment amongst gay activists and legal experts. After the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last week, arch conservative John Stemberger was distraught, saying in a statement that, “Today, we grieve. We grieve for the children who now have no chance of growing up with both a mom and a dad. We mourn the loss of a culture and its ethical foundation. We mourn for a culture that continues to turn its back on timeless principles.” But he also said that he wasn’t throwing in the towel. “We may grieve today, but we will not despair,” he told his followers with the Florida Family Policy Council.

In his 12-minute speech at the breakfast, began on a somber note, saying that “We may be further from the goal of an egalitarian society than we were after the civil rights movement.” He earned cheers from the house when he talked about the high incident cases in Ferguson and StatenIsland.

We need accountability for police misconduct, not the charade of accountability.” He went on to say that while the ACLU still supports that body cameras on police officers is a must, “they will not be a panacea.

“The whole world saw the video of what looked to me like the killing of Eric Garner by chokehold, ” he said. “But no officer is likely to ever face criminal responsibility for that.”

After Simon’s speech, Mark Nash with the Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council seemed offender slightly, mentioning the need for equal time. “We have great police officers in Tampa,” he said, though Simon hadn’t said anything to the contrary.

When contacted afterwards, Nash said he totally supported Simon’s comments, but added about the Human Rights Council that, “We’re not agitating in anyway with law enforcement…and we are proud of the police dept. in Tampa. We have exceptional  leadership here.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.