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Pugnacious Fort Lauderdale mayor won't back down, friends say
Born here, raised here, schooled here. James Thomas Naugle, the 53-year-old mayor of Fort Lauderdale, is a product of this city.
He brags about Fort Lauderdale to outsiders; he speaks of Fort Lauderdale's history like he's reading it from a book; he tells voters he loves this town. But that doesn't mean he wants everyone to get along.
Supporters, onlookers and family members say they're not surprised by the recent controversy over comments Naugle has made about the gay community. It's just like Naugle to speak his mind, they say, and it would be anathema to Naugle to back down.
"When he first came into politics, they called him a maverick," said Naugle's brother, John, 57. "He's outspoken."
Naugle, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has a long history of bucking political correctness, and of making enemies. He described his mayor's seat in one interview as a "bully pulpit," and he's used it to jab political opponents and advance his ideology about everything from homosexuality to housing.
Those who know him said he's comfortable in the role of the outsider and the fighter.
"One thing I've noticed about Jim is he is not a consensus builder," said former Mayor Rob Dressler, who's known Naugle since his first run for office 25 years ago. "He tends to be more of a divider than a person that brings people together. He definitely enjoys the outsider role."
Naugle's late father, Bill, a hunter, fisherman, boater and owner of a popular downtown paint store, was a big influence on him, and many of the mayor's supporters first met him at Lauderdale Paint.
"Everybody loved the whole family," remembers 75-year-old Curtis Berry, a longtime city resident and Naugle supporter.
But Naugle's modern-day mentors aren't local. He said he learns a lot from President Bush and conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
Though he's registered as a Democrat, he consistently supports Republicans.
"It must be so lonely for [President Bush] sometimes," Naugle told a national Faith2Action radio audience two weeks ago, "but he has his beliefs, and he follows them and I really admire that man. So when times get tough and everybody's saying, 'Jim, why are you saying these things? Your life's going to be very hard,' ... it really becomes easier because you know just to follow your beliefs."
He listens to Limbaugh's radio program more regularly than he attends church.
Thought by some to be a right-wing Christian, Naugle belongs to First Presbyterian Church downtown, where his parents got married. His wife, Broward Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips, is Jewish and they're exposing daughter Rachel to both religions.
A graduate of Stranahan High School, he earned his bachelor's degree in business administration at Florida Atlantic University, and has been a real estate professional for more than 30 years.
As Naugle approaches his final year as mayor, before term limits end his tenure in 2009, he's even freer to speak his mind.
"There are a lot of folks out there who want to please everyone, and then you end up pleasing no one," he said on Janet Folger's Faith2Action radio show.
Naugle is facing perhaps the most vociferous opposition of his career, with hundreds of gay and straight activists and local politicians and leaders denouncing him.
He started the fight last month when he claimed in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that public restrooms in his city are common sex-cruising grounds for gay men, and said he uses the term "homosexuals" rather than "gay" because "most of them aren't gay. They're unhappy."
The anger was deep. Opponents called for his resignation and began a "Flush Naugle" campaign with a Web site. They held rallies and they flew banners across the sky. Naugle's supporters rallied, too, in smaller numbers. The stir went national; Naugle was asked to appear on a CNN show. He spoke on national radio.
"He's integrated himself into a healthy, vibrant, diverse community and yet he's retained these Neanderthal opinions," complained his longtime friend, Norman Kent, publisher of nationalgaynews .com.
Some politicians would try to put a controversy like that to rest. Not Naugle.
Naugle piled on, calling a news conference to announce he was sorry he underestimated the severity of the problem of gay sex in public bathrooms, and during which he highlighted the growing number of HIV infections in Broward County.
Some people were shocked by his lack of diplomacy. But a lot of people weren't.
"Jim's a very honest person who tells things the way he believes them to be," said his older sister, Cindy Naugle, who said she's very close to him. "He's always been that way."
Naugle often pushed himself into the spotlight with independent moves.
When he got on the commission years ago, he refused an office at first to save taxpayer money.
He quickly became known for voting against what his colleagues supported. When his daughter was born, he brought her to work with him every day, and held meetings while sitting in a makeshift playpen on the floor.
As unconventional as he's been, his life bears all the hallmarks now of an upper-middle class yuppie.
In 1993, he married Phillips, 44, a lawyer, who has since been appointed judge.
They live in a million-dollar house on the New River, with daughter Rachel and a dog, Jack.
They send Rachel to Pine Crest School, where annual elementary tuition is more than $16,000 a year. For her recent ninth birthday, they bought her a small boat.
They're members of Lauderdale Yacht Club. They have a vacation home in Bimini. And Naugle now has a large office in City Hall.
Still, many of Naugle's supporters are old-Fort Lauderdale families who harken to the days of Lauderdale Paint, and believe that Naugle's true love is his city.
"The one thing I've always said about Jim is that despite some of the things that he says that people disagree with, he does care about the city of Fort Lauderdale," said Tam English, 51, a lifelong resident and executive director of Fort Lauderdale's Housing Authority.
"We might not agree with him but it's what he thinks is best."
Brittany Wallman can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4541.