The first LGBTQ lawmaker ever sworn into the Florida Legislature could soon make a return to the statehouse. Former Rep. Joe Saunders announced on Monday he will run for Florida House District 106.
More than a decade after becoming one of Florida’s first openly gay lawmakers, Saunders sees a greater need to return to Tallahassee. Calling the Florida Legislature “out of balance” with the state’s moderate mindset, he called out lawmakers who bow down to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“I don't believe that every Republican lawmaker in this Capitol is a homophobic monster,” Saunders told The Advocate. “But I do believe that they are all terrified of a governor that is willing to punish those who disagree with him. This whole body is held hostage right now by the politics of Gov. DeSantis and his ambitions to be president.”
If not everybody is a monster, is DeSantis?
“Unquestionably,” Saunders said without hesitation. “Let me correct that. He's a homophobic and transphobic monster who is willing to punch down at any marginalized community that he thinks is too weak to fight back.”
The former lawmaker is currently the senior political director of the LGBTQ+ rights group Equality Florida.
Saunders needs a seat in the Legislature before taking on DeSantis head-on. First, he’s challenging Florida state Rep. Fabian Basabe, a Republican elected last year by just a 242-vote margin.
While Basabe ran as a moderate and won during a year when Republicans over-performed at the ballot box, he has since faced calls for his resignation from LGBTQ+ leaders in South Beach. That’s because in the Legislature, he has supported an array of socially conservative bills including a book ban and a bill dropping Florida’s concealed carry permit to bring guns into public spaces.
At a recent Miami Beach Pride event, thousands chanted “Resign!” at the Republican lawmaker, as reported by the Miami New Times. Basabe is also no stranger to scandal. The former reality show star ran as a “gay Republican” for a Miami Beach city commission seat as recently as 2021, but amplified his conservative values in his 2022 campaign, including frequently showing pictures of himself with the wife of 15 years.
Saunders believes 2022 was an anomaly, a year so bad for Florida Democrats that a Republican could win the election to represent South Beach. The House district where Saunders is challenging Basabe was carried by President Joe Biden in 2020 by 10 percentage points, and also was won in 2018 by Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate who lost the Governor’s race to DeSantis that year.
Saunders won’t focus only on LGBTQ issues. He sees Republican supermajorities in the Legislature passing a wide array of anti-LGBTQ bills. Just this week, lawmakers are expected to pass a bathroom bill, a right-to-discriminate bill, a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, an expansion of Florida’s "don’t say gay bill" and a gutting of diversity initiatives in Florida universities.
Of note, Saunders serves as senior political director for Equality Florida and will spend the week in Tallahassee trying to convince lawmakers not to send those bills to DeSantis to sign.
“Any one of these bills would have shut down the economy of another state,” Saunders said. He alluded to boycotts that crippled tourism in Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, and Texas years ago.
But while discouraged at what’s happening in Tallahassee, Saunders feels he can curb the rhetoric from inside the Legislature. He recalls the growing support for LGBTQ worker protections while he served in the House, including from Republicans. Democrats just need enough representation to fight for equality and find allies on both sides of the aisle.
“Democrats and progressives understand they must win in order to break the supermajority that Republicans have in the House,” he said. “I think that's why I've been recruited into this race.”