KEY LARGO -- Just 10 years ago, Bernadette Restivo was a stalwart in northwestern Ohio Republican circles.
She chaired the Republican Party of Toledo's Lucas County from 2002 to 2004. She was a delegate for former President George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican Convention and chair of that year's Bush-Cheney election campaign in northwest Ohio. The ex-president even had a pet name for Restivo, who then went by the married surname of Noe. "Bernie," she says he called her.
So with such strong Republican credentials, Restivo might seem like an unlikely candidate to have become the lead attorney for Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, the Key West couple who last Thursday won a historic ruling against Florida's gay marriage ban from Chief Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia.
But more than simply taking the Huntsman case, the 54-year-old Restivo says it is the pinnacle of her career to date.
"It's the reason you go to law school," she said last Wednesday at her Key Largo office, one day before Garcia ruled that Florida's ban against same-sex marriage violates the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians to equal protection under the law.
Dressed casually in a white T-shirt sporting the rally cry, "Love is Love," Restivo spoke with conviction of the fascination she has had with constitutional law ever since her time at the University of Toledo College of Law in the late 1990s.
"You dream of getting a case of such grave importance that you're able to represent real people and affect their lives," she said.
The Huntsman suit is one of two gay marriage cases heard in the South Florida courts. Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel presided over a challenge on July 2 that was brought by six same-sex couples. She had yet to issue a ruling as of press time.
Restivo, among many others, expects that the two cases could be consolidated upon appeal. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed an immediate appeal to put Garcia's order on hold. Ultimately, the matter could well end up in front of Florida's Supreme Court. A U.S. Supreme Court hearing is also not out of the question.
Even though she is a former Republican Party leader, Restivo said it has been easy to take on a cause that the GOP stands against. Since moving to the Upper Keys in 2005, she's given up her Republican affiliation, though not for partisan reasons. She registered as a Democrat to vote for Catherine Vogel in a 2012 primary against then-State Attorney Dennis Ward.
"I think I'm completely over party labels," Restivo said.
She added that even while running the Lucas County Republicans a decade ago her political beliefs were hard to pigeon hole. She still considers herself a strong fiscal conservative, and though she is a self-described "devout" Catholic and an abortion opponent, she never regarded herself as a conventional social conservative. In fact, until marrying Tom Noe, then an influential Toledo Republican, in 1992, Restivo was a registered Democrat.
She said that during her run as chair of the Lucas County Republicans she sought to build bridges with the LGBT community, especially the Log Cabin Republicans.
"I was the first chairman of the party to come out to their meetings," Restivo said.
Now she's at the van-guard of the push in Florida to overturn the state constitution's ban on gay marriage.
"Maybe it's coming full circle," Restivo said. "I was a real liberal in my late teens and early twenties."