Joe Saunders: Activist to Push for Arts Education, Business Fairness, and LGBT Rights
Around the State
Birthplace: Fort Lauderdale
Education: University of Central Florida - BA, Political Science; Legal and Women's Studies, minor - 2005
Occupation: Community organizer, nonprofit consultant
Previous Public Office: None.
Did you know? Hobbies include community theatre and the arts -- in particular, tap dancing.
Joe Saunders has spent the last several years of his young life as a “gay rights” activist, and his priorities for the upcoming session include arts education, enforcement of the state’s Internet sales tax, and covering members of the “LGBT community” under state nondiscrimination laws.
“As a legislator, I have some pretty ambitious goals, a lot of things I want to work on,” Saunders, who represents northeast Orange County’s District 49, tells Sunshine State News. “Those things have been shaped by my conversations with constituents. They tell me they’re concerned about jobs, getting their children a good education, and fairness.
“People tell me, ‘If I’m willing to work hard, put in the time, put in the hours I’m supposed to, that I’m going to get a fair shot.’ Everything I’m going to be doing will relate to those three things.”
Saunders’ electoral victory last November was something of a milestone for those who identify as members of the “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community,” as he, along with fellow freshman Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, is one of the first openly “gay” members of the Florida Legislature.
But Saunders, a longtime activist with the political advocacy group Equality Florida, tells the News he hopes observers and constituents will see his LGBT advocacy as just one piece of a bigger legislative picture.
“Will there be times when people focus on my work on LGBT issues? Certainly,” he acknowledges. “But what I hope is that people watch all the other things I’ll be doing. It’s a patchwork here. When you affect one of those issues [jobs, education, and fairness], you affect all three of them.”
Saunders sits on the Education Committee and the Choice and Innovation and Education and Workforce Subcommittees – all of which he requested from House Speaker Will Weatherford – and on the Health Quality Subcommittee.
One of the pieces of legislation Saunders will be introducing will be a “Competitive Workforce Act,” which would update Florida’s nondiscrimination laws to include members of the LGBT community, but his commitment to fairness will also manifest itself in another issue being raised by other lawmakers and by public advocacy groups: collection of an Internet sales tax.
Florida already imposes such a tax, but it is seldom enforced on transactions between Floridians and online businesses that are not headquartered in the Sunshine State. Saunders says that’s unfair to more traditional businesses.
"Our brick-and-mortar companies are at a competitive disadvantage against online companies like Expedia or Orbitz, because the way that those companies pay their taxes is different," he says. “I think that hurts small brick-and-mortar businesses that are looking to get into the tour industry. It hurts them from wanting to come [to Florida].”
Saunders also suggests that Florida’s current nondiscrimination policy, by not including LGBT persons, might be hurting the state’s economy.
“Our ability to recruit companies and to retain a talented workforce and to keep people who are living here staying here has a lot to do with our ability to prove to them that when they come here they’ll be treated fairly,” he insists.
He’s working on two other bills, of as-yet unspecified content. One would take steps to “ensure that students in K-12 have access to quality arts education in every grade level,” and another – which he is working on with Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando – would provide some sort of protection to foreclosed homeowners against deficiency judgments.
Having worked full-time as Equality Florida’s state field director prior to his election to the House, Saunders’ job was to advocate for LGBT-friendly legislation at the local level, often in “perceptually hostile environments” (i.e., Republican-heavy government bodies and chambers of commerce).
“I got real good at it,” he says. In 2010 he worked with the Republican-dominated Orange County Board of County Commissioners (with its Republican mayor, Teresa Jacobs) to pass a county-level “human rights ordinance” that banned discrimination against Hispanics, blacks, and gays. The year before, he successfully lobbied the Republican-led Kissimmee City Council and its Republican mayor, Jim Swan, to enact a domestic partnership benefits policy for city employees. And in 2008, he helped get an anti-bullying law passed by the GOP-majority Florida Legislature, and signed by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.
Saunders hopes to effect that same cross-partisan movement from his new position in the state House of Representatives.
What does Rep. Saunders do when he’s not legislating or politicking?
“You can tell folks I’ve got a little tap dancing in me,” he chuckles. “I know that’s not going to help me not being seen as a 'big ol’ gay legislator,' I’m sure, but theater is what I do. It’s what keeps me sane.”
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at (954) 235-9116.