TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - There was a catch in Nan Rich's voice as she spoke to one gay-rights group about another.
"Many of you are aware I did not receive the endorsement of Equality Florida," she told the Capital City GLBTA Democratic Caucus. "To me, that's pretty unusual, to say the least, with my record. But ... I'm going to work hard to get the votes of the LGBT community."
Rich was speaking to about 20 people at the caucus' meeting in Tallahassee on Thursday. She was giving her gubernatorial campaign speech, on education, the environment, seniors, child welfare and women?s rights --- all issues she championed during her 12-year record as a legislator and Senate minority leader.
She had also, she noted, sponsored a bill to legalize gay adoption that failed seven years in a row.
"And you know what? I knew it would never pass --- because of the composition of our Legislature and who was our governor four of those years," Rich said. "Someone who opposed that bill, who now says he's fine with gay adoption. But the four years I could have used some help and leadership from a governor, I didn't have that."
She was referring to then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is now her rival for the Democratic nomination.
After decades as a Broward civic leader, Rich was elected to the Florida House in 2000 and to the Senate in 2004. The first woman ever to lead the Senate Democrats, she left office due to term limits in 2012 and has been running for governor ever since.
Crist is outraising her by millions of dollars, refuses to debate her and has collected endorsements from groups Rich has worked with for years: the Florida Education Association, the AFL-CIO, Equality Florida.
"That?s because they know that Charlie Crist as governor fought for the middle class, and that as governor he'll fight for them again," said Crist spokesman Kevin Cate.
Rich originally filed her gay adoption bill when she was in the House, she told the Capital City GLBTA. The first press conference she did on it drew one other lawmaker, a Republican with a gay son.
"By the time I (sponsored the bill) seven years later, there were 23 legislators standing with me," Rich said. "And that?s why I continued to file it, because it was an education process."
She's brought the same doggedness to her campaign, and will not listen when people tell her she can't win. And there have been plenty of them.
"We made a contribution to her exploratory committee to see if there's a basis for supporting her," said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford. "What we've seen is anemic fund-raising, and her name recognition is still low. She did great things in the Senate for education and women's issues, but it's just not translating into a gubernatorial campaign that has a pathway to victory."
"I have the greatest respect for Senator Rich," said Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who's one of two openly gay lawmakers finishing their first terms. "And she has always been really good for Democratic values. But I want to win, and I don't think today, in 2014, the people of the state of Florida are going to elect a Democrat who is as far left as Nan Rich is. And I say that with no disrespect to her."
During her time in the Legislature, Rich was considered one of its most liberal voices: an advocate for children, the elderly, people with disabilities and the poor. Before being elected, she was president of the National Council of Jewish Women and chaired the Children's Services Board of Broward County and the Broward County School Readiness Coalition.
Children's advocate Karen Woodall, who worked with Rich before she was elected, said she's frustrated that more people the candidate helped in the past aren't helping her now.
"She's a fighter," Woodall said. "And to have the entities or individuals who she stood with and fought for kind of turn their back on her at this point in time has got to be not only frustrating but hurtful."
Richardson said his top issues include education, the environment and the economy. LGBT issues are important, too, he said, but either Rich or Crist would be the first Florida governor to support same-sex marriage and gay adoption.
Stratton Pollitzer, chairman of Equality Florida Action PAC, gave a vigorous defense of Crist's record on LGBT issues in a statement accompanying the group's June 12 endorsement.
"He has apologized for votes that aligned him with his former party's platform, which went against his own conscience, and has made good on promises to be an unyielding voice for full equality under the law for the LGBT community," Pollitzer said. "Even while serving as a Republican, Crist was widely despised by far-right extremists who viewed him as too moderate, and he was known to break with his party on a variety of issues."
The endorsement struck a nerve. Activists demanded to know why Equality Florida couldn't have waited until after the primary to endorse a Democrat. Blogger Leslie Wimes wrote a passionate entry titled "Equality Florida, Get Your Head Out of the Sand! Charlie Crist Doesn?t TRULY Support You!" She posted an old video clip of Charlie saying he didn't believe gay adoption was appropriate.
"I don't doubt that Charlie has changed his mind," said Capital City GLBTA president Andy Janacek, whose group is not endorsing until the general election. "But I would like to see more from him than a few press releases. ... I would like to see him be more visible in our community, as Nan has been."
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