Young and fired up, Justin Flippen is rearing to make history. He’s the vice mayor of Wilton Manors. He’s gay.And come November, he might be packing his bags for Tallahassee to represent District 92—which includes the Manors and swaths of Deerfield Beach, Oakland Park, Fort Lauderdale, and more—in Florida’s House of Representatives.
If he wins, he’ll be Florida’s first gay legislator.
Flippen is taking on an incumbent: Demo- cratic State Rep. Gwyndolen “Gwyn” Clarke-Reed, an African-American retired educator who’s wrapping up her first term. Their contest has been heating up—it’s so hot, as the Sun-Sentinel reported on July 21, that Democratic strategists worry Flippen’s primary challenge could split the party’s local black and gay voting blocs.
The Equality Florida Action PAC alleged on July 27 that Clarke-Reed took thousands of dollars from Rich DeVos, a Republican billionaire, Bush family friend, and a main bankroller of the anti-gay marriage push in Florida.
Indeed, on a 2010 Dolphin Democrats questionnaire, Clarke-Reed stated she backs the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. She opposes educational programs about homosexuality in public schools and state funding for embryonic stem-cell research. But she supports gay civil unions.
Born in Hollywood, Florida, Flippen was raised around Coconut Creek in a fundamentalist household. As a kid, he remembers shopping with his grandmother along Wilton Drive at long-gone Christian stores. When he came out at age 18, his mother and step-father were “dismayed,” he said, so Flippen went willingly into reparative therapy for gays with Exodus International.
“After almost two years of doing that, I realized that this isn’t something I have to struggle with,” he said.
Today, Flippen has a partner, his family is accepting, and he says that he’s reconciled his moderate Christian religiosity with his homosexuality. A graduate of Broward Community College and Florida Atlantic University, he started earning his political chops early on in student government, and then as an intern for Senator Bob Graham.
“That is probably where my passion for public service and the political process began,” he said, calling Graham one of his favorite statesmen.
“I finished law school and decided that private practice was not going to fulfill my life’s calling,” he said.“I had a very strong passion to be involved in public service.”
So he took a position in the Florida House working for State Representative Irving Slosberg.There, he was able to help draft legislation. “I learned a great deal” about the legislative process, Flippen said.Then he forged out to work for a time behind-the-scenes at the Broward County Commission, where he helped oust former homophobic mayor Jim Naugle from the tourism board.
Now, fresh-faced at age 32, Flippen has enough credentials to intimidate even a veteran of local politics.
He was elected to the Wilton Manors City Commission in 2008, and shortly thereafter, by unanimous vote, became the vice mayor under Mayor Gary Resnick. The same year, he served as president of the Dolphin Democrats, and attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver as a delegate.
“I came home from Denver on fire –‘fired up, ready to go,’ as Obama would say – and the fire hasn’t gone out, and nor will I let it,” he said.
Flippen’s homosexuality could come in handy as he vies for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. Flippen says his opponent Clarke-Reed has been lukewarm on gay rights. He accuses her of only recently, and opportunistically, taking up issues of import to her LGBT constituents. “I’ve been sorely disappointed that in her first year in office she didn’t sponsor LGBT-issue legislation, she didn’t touch the adoption bill,” he said.“She decided to co-sponsor it once she caught wind that she might be getting an opponent this year.”
But where does Flippen stand on the issues? Predictably, he supports gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws, and promises to address gay rights head-on–because they’re his rights, too.
In an hour-long interview with SFGN, however, Flippen seemed at first caught off guard when asked about the crisis of the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), which supplies life-saving medication to people with HIV/AIDS.“The ADAP?” he asked blankly. “I’m not familiar, so...” A few seconds later, Flippen realized what was being asked about. “I hadn’t heard it referred to as that, but I’m familiar with what you’re talking about.”
Budget shortfalls are preventing the state from dispersing free HIV meds to everyone who needs them. Waiting lists have sprung up, making news in The New York Times, which featured a recent story about the crisis in Fort Lauderdale on its front page. Lives could be at stake.
“No program, particularly for vulnerable populations, should be cut,” Flippen said. “Something I would advocate and fight for, particularly with budget measures, would be to properly fund so there aren’t the waiting lists.”
But Flippen admitted that he hadn’t familiarized himself fully with the details. He prevaricated when asked whether he could promise to try to fix the problem inTallahassee by introducing his own bill. When pressed, though, he made a pledge to SFGN to draft a bill to mend the shortfall and end the waiting lists.
He suggested raising new revenue for ADAP by closing special tax exemptions in the state’s tax code—loopholes that have been poked by lobbyists over the years and cover items like crab nets.
Flippen’s wider platform, he said, can be summed up as the “Four Es:” the economy, the environment, education and equality. He’s passionate about the environment and vows to oppose any proposal to start offshore drilling on Florida’s coasts.And he wants to give tax incentives and funding to companies on the forefront of alternative energy.
When it comes to LGBT equality, Flippen, himself an adopted child, is especially galled by the state’s ban on gay adoptions.
“That issue hits very, very close to home for me,” he said.
Broward County government is pervaded by corruption, but Flippen said that he’s always been careful to avoid conflicts of interests. Asked if he’s ever personally witnessed corruption in government, Flippen answered, “I wouldn’t say directly.”
District 92 is so reliably Democratic that Republicans look unlikely to run a candidate for state representative. Thus, Flippen’s fate could be determined by the Democratic primary results on August 24.
For more info on Flippen, visit Justinflippen.com