Gay Democrat Bob Poe Changed the LGBT Political Landscape in Orlando
Spring is fundraising season—particularly during an election year—and that’s when I first heard about Bob Poe. By March, at least a dozen people had asked if I’d met him. And as I learned more, he acquired an almost mythic quality.
He was the former chair of the Florida Democratic Party. He’d been successful in business, moved to California, and recently returned to Orlando as an out gay man. His award-winning photography adorned the walls of a penthouse condo at The Vue, where he lived with his handsome African-American partner, Ken Brown. And most impressively, he was the Central Florida Finance Chair for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
During the next several months, Poe hosted fundraisers for Obama, and also for Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, Florida U.S. House candidate Alan Grayson and Florida House candidate Joe Saunders. They all won, and Poe and Brown celebrated these and other Democratic victories with the President and First Lady at the White House Christmas Party last week. Poe was also nominated to serve on the Board of Directors of The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the nationwide organization dedicated to electing worthy LGBT candidates to public office.
Throughout 2012, Poe connected Orlando’s LGBT community to political machinery in ways previously unattainable.
“Bob is a superstar in politics,” said good friend and fellow Democratic rainmaker John Morgan. “Throughout the state and the nation, he is wired at the highest level.”
I finally met Poe in April, and our paths crossed many times throughout the year. I liked him and yearned to know his back story, so I jumped at the chance when he agreed to a profile. But the story he told—filled with highs and lows—was wholly unexpected.
“My life has always had this appearance of being a magic carpet ride,” he said. “But there are other elements… I’ve seen depths. What amazes me is that my story is not uncommon.”
We sat on Poe’s rooftop deck at The Vue, eating pizza and sharing Orlando’s night skyline with a half-moon so low it felt like we could reach up and adjust the brightness. A satellite station played the classic rock Poe has loved since his days in FM radio. It was background music, but I tuned in to Led Zepellin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven.”
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
There’s still time to change the road your on.
And so a remarkable personal history unfolded.
Poe was born in Long Island, but his family moved to Sarasota when he was just eight. He liked to hang out at his father’s convenience store, but quickly gravitated to the local Democratic Party headquarters across the street, where he passed out campaign literature and greeted visiting candidates. The other campaign workers, mostly “blue-haired ladies,” fawned over the handsome and precocious boy with the shock of wavy blonde hair.
“I was going to Young Democrats meetings before I was old enough to be a Young Democrat,” Poe laughed.
Sarasota introduced Poe to politics, but also to more ominous adult behavior when he was molested. He told his parents, who reported it to local law enforcement and “never discussed it again.”
“There was a lot of shame,” Poe said. “It wasn’t until years later in therapy that I realized the imprint of that experience, and how it conflicted and confused my sexuality.”
In 1969 the family moved to Orlando, where his father had been recruited by Coca Cola to help build a plant that would serve the huge theme park under construction to the south. Poe attended Evans High School, and the summer before his senior year he was hired as part of the original character group at Disney World. He played Geppetto, Br’er Fox and Pluto, but mostly Tigger, the mischievous playmate of Winnie the Pooh.
“It was a great experience,” he said.
And it was Poe’s first exposure to openly gay people. In fact, the character department at Walt Disney World was one of the few places in the world where it was safe to be gay in the 70s.
“It was shocking to me, but also intriguing,” Poe recalled. “I’d been told that being gay was wrong—on all sorts of levels—and here were these great people.”
Until that time Poe had dated only women, to whom he was very much attracted. In fact, at Evans he dated one of only four African-American girls enrolled back then.
“I’ve never been afraid to defy convention,” he said. “I’m a contrarian, and if society says ‘no’ to something I instinctively question that.”
But volunteering at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, Poe met a Humphrey campaign official—a “Marlboro Man type”—and fell in love. Poe celebrated his 18th birthday in Washington D.C., surrounded by party big wigs.
“It was a fling for him,” he said. “It was my first real experience with a man, and he broke my heart.”
Humphrey lost. Nixon won. And back at Disney, in one of those “magic carpet” moments that dot his life, Poe volunteered to shuttle a Nixon administration official to the airport. They got into a political discussion, the impressed official wrote a flattering letter to a Disney VP, and Poe was yanked from his Tigger costume to host visiting VIPs.
Poe escorted the likes of Julie Andrews and Cary Grant, but comedian Mimi Hines gave him his next opportunity. After a riotous ride from airport in a suitcase-filled Lincoln Town Car, Hines offered Poe a job as her tour manager. In 1973 he moved to California, but his career in show business was cut short when his mother developed cancer. Poe moved back to Orlando in 1976 and landed a job with radio talk show host Gene Burns.
Highs and lows
In 12 years at WKIS, Poe rose from producing to sales all the way to station manager. He nurtured talents like Clive Thomas, and convinced Jim Philips to move from news to talk. He also met and fell in love with the striking blonde to whom he remained married for more than 30 years.
In 1980 Poe was humbled in a run for state senate, but he walked away with some valuable lessons.
“I thought all you needed to do was raise money and run a good ad campaign,” he said. “I learned the importance of field work… a ground game.”
Around that time Poe also began engaging in occasional and furtive out-of-town same-sex encounters… which created guilt… which fueled a growing problem with alcohol.
“When I started drinking, I really got wrapped around the axle of it,” Poe said.
But he remained productive. Poe was part of the management team that brought the Magic to Orlando, and he helped get FM rock station WMMO on the air.
And when his wife got pregnant, Poe recommitted to his marriage. “I didn’t want a child coming into the world without two parents and a healthy environment,” he said.
Daughter Virginia (named after her mom) was born in 1988. But sobriety eluded Poe until he sought out Alcoholics Anonymous in 1994.
“I had to have a drink and I couldn’t have a drink, all at the same moment,” he said. “Things were out of control, so I got involved in AA and I haven’t wanted to take a drink since.”
In 2000, Poe was hand-picked to chair a Florida Democratic Party in disarray. He helped the party back on its feet through two election cycles, and then in 2003 he founded a company that provides “reverse 911” communications systems for city and county governments. Poe sold his share of the business last year and is now comfortably retired.
But to provide the growing company with a national footprint, it was necessary for Poe to spend much of his time in California. On the other side of the continent, he felt free to experiment and got swept up in the heady gay party culture in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. According to daughter Ginni, it was a scary time for the family.
“He pretty much fell off the map for a year or two,” she said.
It was a “bad, bad time” Poe says. He describes the period as “a horrible, guilt-ridden dual existence,” with one life as a father and businessman, and another immersed in a party scene he characterizes as “exhilarating but not joyful, and ultimately depressing.”
All that changed in 2008, when he met Brown.
Home, but not alone
“I wasn’t looking for a relationship,” Poe said. “I was still out there just playing. But when I met Ken the attraction was immediate and it very quickly became something more. I realized that if I wanted to have a relationship with this remarkable man, I needed to do something about the tornado that was my life.”
Their backgrounds were different. Brown grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and worked in a steel mill for 27 years. His passion is children’s theater, not politics. But like Poe, Brown was in recovery—21 years. He’d helped raise a daughter, now 17. And both were drawn to a spiritual side.
“From the start, Bob just seemed like the right person,” Brown said. “He was that one person that could understand me and accept me for who I am.”
Poe decided it was time to make some changes. He asked his wife for the divorce they’d postponed indefinitely; a difficult but mutually supportive process that was completed last year. He came out to his surprised business partner, who said, “That sure connects a lot of dots!” And he shared his truth with his daughter.
“I knew,” Ginni said. “But even if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have had a problem. It’s about his happiness… that’s all it’s ever been about.”
With a gentle push Poe also decided to return to Orlando, where Obama campaign manager Jim Messina felt he could make a real difference fundraising in both the LGBT and mainstream community. Poe embraced the move as an opportunity to make his transformation complete. He also knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be interesting,’” Poe said. “Not only am I coming back to Orlando as a gay man, I’m coming back with a black man.”
Taking a cue from a friend who’d also come out late in life, Poe decided to throw a series of small gatherings at his new condo at The Vue. There would be no announcements, but the relationship would be obvious and acceptance by old friends organic. At least that was the plan.
“It was intimidating at first,” said Brown. “But I was honored that a man of his stature would want to introduce me to the people he’d grown up and worked with. And it turned out way better than we both thought.”
Close friend John Morgan—who has known Poe since their Disney days in the early 70s—got a private audience.
“When he left my office I thought, ‘A lot of people are going to be as shocked as I was by this one,’” Morgan said. “But I took it as a great compliment [that he confided in me]. My feeling was that God knows what she is doing, and now Bob has a peace that had eluded him. I love him very much.”
Daughter Ginni, who is Finance Director for Rep. Alan Grayson’s campaign, says she and her dad have never been closer.
“The last couple years have been fantastic,” she said. “The life he was living was not normal, and now it feels like we’re creating a normal life. He’s the smartest person I know, and I value his opinion more than anyone.”
Poe says he continues to live his amends to his daughter and ex-wife. He’s thrilled to be in a relationship where he can “be vulnerable and feel safe.” And he’s glad to be back in Orlando.
“Coming back was healthier for me than I ever anticipated,” he said. “Hiding was destructive for me, and for the people around me. Now I know I can be totally out, totally authentic.”
With the 2012 campaign over, Poe says he and Brown are mulling options. They’ll likely divide their time between Orlando and a home in Los Angeles. They’re considering tapping into Brown’s background to create a children’s theater in Central Florida. And of course, Poe will remain active in politics
“The next gubernatorial race is of interest to me,” he says with a grin.