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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Passing of a Tampa Mother

The obituary was so small that I – an obsessive reader of obits – didn’t even see it. I would not have known about the death of Catherine Barja, age 85, if LaGaceta hadn’t called me. Patrick learned about it in time to add her to his column last week, and I had a long talk with Gene later in the day, but there’s more I want to say.

In 1971, Catherine Barja was the first woman elected to Tampa City Council. Only two Hillsborough women preceded her: Elizabeth Himes was first, winning election to the no-longer extant Hospital and Welfare Board in 1964; and Cecile Essrig, who was elected to the School Board in 1967. I am profoundly grateful that I had the chance to know all three of these outstanding women. They set the local precedent for women in government, courageously standing up against prejudices and always insisting on honesty.

Yet Cathy, as I called her, never quite fit with the image of other female pioneers. Betty Castor, the first woman on the county commission in 1972, lived in Carrollwood and originally was from New Jersey; Fran Davin, the second in 1974, was from Massachusetts and then was a resident of Brandon; Helen Gordon Davis, the first in the legislature, had lived on Davis Island for a long time, but her artistic roots in New York City remained real. Cathy was much less sophisticated. She represented a poor part of north Tampa; her husband ran an auto body repair shop and she had a wig store. Her apparel was eccentric, and she often turned up at meetings wearing a bouffant wig of indeterminate color. People -- especially women, I’m sorry to say -- laughed behind her back.

The heart of her district was Sulphur Springs, which was permanently scarred by Interstate 275. When she was elected, it hadn’t seen any prosperity in decades, ever since the Roaring Twenties’ popularity of the springs began to fade. Despite a beautiful setting on the Hillsborough River and despite a modern greyhound track – or maybe because of it – the area remains impoverished. Cathy cared about that neighborhood and about poor people everywhere. After she lost her 1978 race for the county commission to another good woman, the late Jan Platt, one of my friends who then was a high-ranking county executive defined the difference: “Jan,” she said, “thinks with her head; Cathy thinks with her heart.”

The really important thing about Catherine Barja, though, was that she was legally blind. She never made a point of that and perhaps didn’t understand that her unfocused gaze sometimes might be interpreted as inattention or a lack of intelligence. Using a magnifying glass, she almost had to put her nose to a paper to see the words, and she had her children read the council agenda to her until she memorized it. Unable to drive, she took the bus to the endless meetings required of civic leaders. She didn’t make a point of that, either, but the limits of public transportation added many more hours to her duties. How wrong it is that we ignored her expertise with HART!

Thinking of Transportation

Makes me think of traffic during spring break. I never associated Easter with snowbirds as strongly as this year. I was happy to see the date arrive, and I think I perceive a quick decline now that our March madness of vacationers is winding down. I’m glad to have the visitors, but we are not prepared to be good hosts! And the addition of more than a hundred million guests upsets our own household.

Traffic was so bad even at Disney, the top expert of crowd management, that it took Hubby’s brother most of an hour to get out of a parking lot he mistakenly entered. Even though he comes from Silicon Valley and is accustomed to traffic, he was astonished and appalled. Hubby and I reacted similarly when I gave a speech in Delray Beach in late March; we expected dangerously crowded roads, but we did not foresee having to drive all the way to Okeechobee to get a motel room that cost less than $200.

Meanwhile our governor loves to go north – in his private plane – and urge more people to “Visit Florida.” I think of him with anger every time I’m stopped in the permanent traffic jams at Malfunction Junction and the intersection of I-4 and I-75. There’s a big grassy median, and trains could be running down it. Ditto in Pinellas, where spring breakers would find it fun to take a monorail to the beach and avoid the search for an expensive parking place. And wouldn’t it be nice for us if they could drink without driving?

Instead, Rick Scott turned down the money we could have used for this because Barack Obama would have gotten credit. Scott said it was because he didn’t want to add to federal debt – but don’t we Floridians deserve our share of federal taxes? The interstates are federal highways – and have been since Republican President Eisenhower began them in the 1950s – and as Florida grows, we need the money here instead of Wyoming or some other remote red state.

If you think about major interstate numbers, it’s clear that the pattern of shafting Florida goes back a long time: I-85 ends in Georgia and does not go on to run between I-75 and I-95. Those two are our only north-south interstates, and other than I-10 in far north Florida, I-4 is the only east-west one. We Floridians paid for the other major roads that run between our coasts: State Road 60, Alligator Alley, and the Tamiami Trail. Yes, my environmentalist friends, I understand that we don’t want more paving of swamps, but what about trains or fast-lane buses alongside the overcrowded roads that are already there? Let’s take that money from Uncle Sam, and let’s vote against a governor who wants to go to the US Senate to continue starving us.

What Could Have Been, and A Slap in the Face

If the Constitutional Revision Commission, which meets only once every twenty years, really had any thoughtful goals in mind, we could have considered electing a secretary of transportation who might see the need for trains. Maybe we could elect a secretary for the environment, or return to an elected commissioner of education, which we had until Jeb. And we could abolish that special interest office, the secretary of agriculture. I’m not saying we necessarily should do these things, but it would be good to talk about what offices we elect and don’t elect.

This is especially important for educational issues. The current Republican-dominated legislature so greatly resents teachers that they are out to kill the Florida Education Association, which has been the leading advocate for public education since the 1880s. (Full disclosure here: Hubby, a former university professor with a doctorate from Harvard, has held elected office with both FEA and FEA Retired.)

The legislature’s latest attempt to silence teachers is to mandate that any bargaining agent for an educational institution be able to demonstrate that more than half of the beneficiaries pay dues to the organization bargaining for them. Up until now, freeloaders could ride free, getting the benefits without paying union dues – but the legislature didn’t intend to correct that injustice. Instead, it wagered that fewer than half of teachers would be willing to pay dues and FEA would go bankrupt.

We should note, too, the discrimination in that this rule will not apply to other unions such as police and firefighters. Lawmakers are aiming their animosity exclusively at public-school teachers. As one smart educator pointed out, legislators do not necessarily get elected by more than 50% of their constituents, and compared with FEA dues payers, legislators certainly have far fewer people willing to put their money where their mouth is. Moreover, the new rules negate the bargaining rights of school board members – and there are thousands of them in our 67 counties, all of them elected. Their voices are ignored, while Tallahassee issues endless dicta.

The good news so far is that it appears the big boys again have misjudged, and in response to the new impositions, union membership is going up, not down. It worked that way once before, as I recall Hubby saying Jeb Bush was the best recruiter that United Faculty of Florida ever had. The flash-in-the-pan guys who run the legislature don’t know any institutional history, however, and therefore repeat mistakes. Age and experience do matter, and I’m very pleased that our longtime legislator from East Hillsborough sees through his colleagues’ ploy.

According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Republican Senator Tom Lee of Thonotosassa voted no -- and dubbed the anti-teacher amendment “mean-spirited.” He continued with a candid sentence that merits a huge shout-out: “We do a lousy job of representing working class people and we should be ashamed of ourselves.” Unfortunately, Senator Lee – a former Senate president – accepted the ruling of the current kindergarten kids and concluded, “We have to accept this poison pill and slap the teachers of Florida in the face.”

No, we don’t have to accept, Senator. We can rail and rage and not give in, and we can form new parties. Political affiliation is not carved in stone or written in blood, and you could return to the Democratic Party of your father. The ghost of Catherine Barja will welcome you.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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