ORLANDO, Fla. – In 2000, and at 38 years old, Patty Sheehan was elected commissioner for District 4 of Orlando and became the first openly gay city commissioner.
“I tell people you follow your heart and your own moral compass and you’ll do well,” Sheehan said from her home in Orlando. ”I never, ever thought I would end up in politics.”
But life had other plans for Sheehan. After being laid off from a job, Sheehan was offered an administrative position with the Florida Department of Agriculture.
“I fell in love with it, with government. I never thought I would but when someone called me and needed help, I’d say, you know, well let’s try to figure it out,” Sheehan said.
The Ohio native, who moved with her parents when she was 10 years old, recalled the start of a career in public service—a journey that’s lasted over two decades so far. Sheehan advocates for the LGBTQ+ community, for women’s equality and pedestrian safety, among other significant projects like helping businesses thrive in downtown Orlando.
“I’m willing to take a chance and that’s what I say to people. Don’t warm a chair if you’re gonna be in local government. If you’re gonna do something, make a difference,” the 60-year-old said.
The biggest difference Sheehan says she’s made was uniting the community after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub.
“I felt that my role at that time was to say, ‘We need to do this right. We don’t need to make this about ourselves, we don’t need to make this look like a political commercial. We need to be there to serve these families, these kids, these young people that are suffering,’” Sheehan recalled.
Sheehan has been recognized multiple times as best elected official in the area, was featured in Orlando Life Magazine as one of the city’s top 25 influential women, and was awarded the Chuck Hummer Visionary Award from the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida.
“You know she’s got that light force... when you meet her, it’s an energy... that you can just feel because of her positivity,” said Lisa Barr, executive director for Hope and Help center in Central Florida. “We need people like her to stand strong and to help support those that may not have a voice and those are the folks living with HIV. She’s the champion of the underdog and those living with HIV are the underdogs. Because it is so stigmatized still.”
The health center provides free HIV testing and other resources and services. Sheehan is not just an advocate for local organizations; she also has a passion for painting. Sheehan is the artist behind several painted city dumpsters and electrical boxes. She also enjoys creating art with glass.
As we honor the women who have paved the way in different roles, Sheehan has this message:
“We can each make our impact in our own unique ways; you don’t have to be a politician. I say to women, ‘Don’t be afraid to let your light shine and you do matter. And don’t let them get you down,’” she said.