Jim Naugle was once viewed as virtually invincible.
He was a 24-hour mayor for Fort Lauderdale who fixed potholes when people complained and championed such popular causes as fighting overdevelopment. Polls showed his approval ratings topped 70 percent — despite his penchant for shoot-from-the-hip comments that left parts of the community feeling alienated and abused.
Times may have changed in the wake of Naugle's recent statements about homosexuality, according to political insiders and campaign experts. He ignited a firestorm when he charged the city has a problem with gay sex in public restrooms, said gays are unhappy and contended the gay Stonewall Library should not be housed in a city building because its collection contained pornography.
In an unprecedented repudiation, more than 800 people, including key members of Broward County's political power structure and business community, rallied in front of City Hall last week. Organizers said they would not try to recall Naugle because it would be difficult and expensive. Still, they would like the county and city commissions to censure him and say they will closely monitor not only his comments but those who seek to follow him.
"It's a new era and the citizens have taken control. Enough was enough. People were tired of it," said Michael Albetta, a former president of the gay Dolphin Democratic Club.
Naugle declined to be interviewed, but social conservatives argue they should not be underestimated nor should their support for Naugle. Although they acknowledge being slow to come to Naugle's defense in the past few weeks, they said they are now discussing a counter-rally.
"The pro-family forces are a slumbering giant just beginning to wake up to this," said Jerry Newcombe, senior producer of the weekly Coral Ridge Hour national television broadcast out of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. "There is a silent majority out there that are just trying to take their kids to the baseball games and live their lives."
Analysts predict that when Naugle leaves office in 2009 because of term limits, his successor will have to appeal to each segment of an increasingly diverse city. No one has announced plans to run, but observers think polarizing stands would marginalize a candidate and be quickly targeted by opponents.
"The path that Naugle now follows is not one that wins elections," said Jim Kane, a local pollster and editor of the Florida Voter newsletter. "The world has changed and Fort Lauderdale has changed along with it."
Naugle's views about homosexuality have been known for years. But gay activists and other community leaders said he hit the tipping point that warranted a strong rebuke.
Although gay residents have long been a force in local politics, the rally was the largest in more than a decade. More people were at City Hall than came out in the 1990s for the County Commission's landmark votes creating a domestic partnership registry and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Adding to the unprecedented nature of the Naugle protest was the presence of public officials who had long worked with him. Politicians are usually loathe to publicly rebuke each other, but the rally included two of Naugle's colleagues on the City Commission, three county commissioners, Property Appraiser Lori Parrish and other officials from nearby cities.
The last local elected officer to face such a challenge was former Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant in 2003. With her, the reproach built slowly over months after a series of election problems, investigations and office controversies.
Those challenging Naugle said they decided he had gone too far in his rhetoric.
"People are truly embarrassed that we are in the 21st century and a politician would make these hateful comments," Parrish said. "This isn't a small, backwater town."
One question remaining after last week is just how much political clout remains in old Fort Lauderdale. After all, the city was once a socially conservative Southern town.
That side of Fort Lauderdale has been dealt a string of setbacks.
Clay Shaw, a former mayor and longtime congressman, lost his re-election bid, and the Rev. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian has been slowly recovering from cardiac arrest in December. A relatively modest two dozen Naugle supporters gathered across the street from the hundreds protesting him Tuesday, and no public official has come to Naugle's defense.
Earlier fights with the gay community in recent years also ended in failure, including efforts to overturn the county's anti-discrimination ordinance. The last came during the fight over whether the Boy Scouts should receive public funding in light of its ban on gays.
Local conservative radio talk show host Janet Folger of Faith2Action has encouraged people to rally behind Naugle. She featured him on her show several days ago and presented him the "Protector of the Family Award."
"He's been consistent with his beliefs," Folger said. "The guy's not backed down at any point along the way. That's why I admire him."
Some in the gay community worry last week's momentum could be short-lived.
"The gay community is so fickle," said Jim Palmer while at a Wilton Manors coffee shop last week. "We always find something to fight about amongst ourselves."
Staff Writer Elizabeth Baier contributed to this report.