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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.

Can You Imagine If…

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had come home early from a scheduled trip with allies abroad because she was “tired?” That’s the excuse that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave for skipping an important meeting. He had been to Asia and arrangements had been made for him to go on to Europe, but he ducked out because he was, in his staff’s words, “fatigued” and “tired.” This got hardly any media attention -- but can you imagine the outrage if Hillary had done this? He also recently told State Department employees not to speak to or make eye contact with him. Again, if Hillary???

Can you imagine how different terrorist attacks could be if we had any real gun control? That’s another point our media missed with the recent car/knife fatalities at England’s Parliament. I heard on BBC radio a member of the House of Lords do that imagining. Actually, I suppose “lord” isn’t exactly proper here, as the commentator was a baroness. She saw the attack from a window and soon afterwards, told the radio interviewer that she thought about how many more deaths there would have been if guns were as easily obtainable in England as they are in America. Imagine, please.

Can you imagine Florida legislators behaving as if they were not at war with each other? Although Republicans control everything in Tallahassee these days, the House and Senate are billions of dollars apart on their proposed expenditures, especially on higher education, and they are fighting about it. Back when Hubby and I lobbied the legislature in the 1970s, Democrats controlled everything, and now it’s the opposite with both parties and chambers. Back then the Senate absolutely was ruled by conservative Dempsey Barron, a Democrat in name only, and it was the niggardly body; the House, led by more liberal men such as Tampa’s Lee Moffitt, was more willing to invest in the future. And can you imagine how many cancer patients have survived because of Lee’s foresight?

If I Could Afford It…

I’d go to everything at the Straz Center. Sadly, I’m not even on the mailing list for Opera Tampa, so I didn’t know about the 100th birthday party that organization recently held for opera impresario Anton Coppola. According to the newspaper (the only daily we have now), he not only attended, but also conducted the three-hour concert. The paper showed a photograph of him with his nephew, famed film director and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola. It also pictured Judy Lisi, the very successful president of the performing arts center.

But if there was mention of this being a return trip for Anton Coppola, I missed it. Well, I missed his 2001 visit, too, I’m sorry to say – but I know that he was here for the world premiere of his opera, Sacco and Vanzetti. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in Massachusetts in 1927 for reasons that probably were more political than criminal, and their cause attracted worldwide attention, especially among Italians.

Tampa was a good setting for this opera premiere, as we have lots of Italians. The analogy to Sacco and Vanzetti especially was appropriate because back in 1910, some of our city’s finest lynched men named Albano and Ficarrotta for alleged anarchism. Think about that when you drive past the intersection of Kennedy and Armenia – it was woods then, and they were hanged from a tree. You can see the photo and read more about this and other crimes committed by upstanding members of the Board of Trade in Urban Vigilantes in the New South by my old friend Bob Ingalls.

But back to Anton Coppola in 2001. According to news articles at the time, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center was packed for the premiere of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the nationally circulated Opera News gave it a rave review. The important point, though, is that Coppola dedicated the opera to the memory of Tampan Norma Tina Russo. We put a statue of her on the Riverwalk near the Straz last December, and I wrote about her then – but just to review: New York’s Metropolitan Opera recruited her in 1923 on the recommendation of superstar Enrico Caruso.

I saw the contract, written in Italian, but easy enough to figure out. The Met paid her $12,000 before she and her husband left Italy and guaranteed her 60 performances at $400 each. She got pregnant three times in nine years, however, and as the Great Depression settled in, her contract was not renewed. Her jerk of a husband – I don’t think anyone will be offended if I say that now – brought her and his young children on a pretended vacation to Tampa in 1932, and he abandoned them here.

She had no money and spoke little English (didn’t need it in the opera world), but she supported the kids by teaching music under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration, an agency created by the era’s Democratic Congress. She managed to eke by, bring up her children, and go on to produce the best opera in Florida. Several times, she mortgaged her Seminole Heights home for production money. Her crowning achievement may have been in 1962, when she hired young Placido Domingo for Madame Butterfly: it was only his second appearance in the United States.

Norma Tina Russo died in 1977, after being blinded by a burglar who beat her and stole her valuable musical artifacts. But Anton Coppola remembered her with his 2001 opera, and we should, too.

Following Up on Last Week – Women on the County Commission

Last week I wrote some county history for Women’s History Month. Here’s a chronology of women on the Board of County Commissioners, by the year of their first election:

1972 – Betty Castor

1974 – Fran Davin

1978 – Jan Platt

1985 – Pam Iorio (special election due to redistricting)

1986 – Haven Poe

1988 – Phyllis Busansky (first Jewish woman; now deceased)

1990 – Sylvia Rodriguez Kimbell (first African American; now deceased)

1990 – Lydia Miller (first Republican; lost reelection)

1994 – Sandra Wilson (appointed by Governor Chiles when Sylvia Kimbell died; Wilson also is now deceased)

1994 – Dottie Berger (defeated Miller; as Dottie Berger MacKinnon, she also is now deceased)

1998 – Pat Frank (now Clerk of Circuit Court)

1998 – Ronda Storms (defeated fellow Republican Dottie Berger)

2002 – Kathy Castor

2010 – Sandy Murman

2016 – Pat Kemp

That’s three women in the 1970s; three in the 1980s; five in the 1990s (when Bill Clinton was president); and three in the first seventeen years of the new millennium. We’re sliding down the mountain, not climbing higher. The highpoint, in fact, was 1988. Four women – Jan Platt, Pam Iorio, Phyllis Busansky, and Sylvia Kimbell, all Democrats, formed a majority of the seven-member BOCC. That precedent has not been expanded, and during most of the next 28 years – from 1988 to 2016 – women have been appreciably fewer than half of the decision-makers for our county.

There’s another message in this data. The first three women – Betty, Fran, and Jan – were elected in countywide races, before the system changed to include some single-member districts. Political scientists agree that single-member districts are helpful for women and minority candidates, who frequently lack the money to compete in more costly countywide races. Those first three women won when our population was much smaller and campaigns were less expensive – and the results under our current charter demonstrate the political science maxim that the smaller the district, the more likely women are to win.

On their initial elections, Pam Iorio represented Lutz/Temple Terrace; Haven Poe won South Tampa; Phyllis Busansky was Carrollwood; Sylvia Kimbell was Thonotosassa/East Tampa; and Lydia Miller (a native of Algeria) was from South County. She lost the next Republican primary there to Dottie Berger, who in turn lost to Ronda Storms. Kathy Castor represented the South Tampa district on the BOCC, as does Sandy Murman now.

A careful analysis shows that of the whole list since 1978 (when everyone ran county-wide), only Pat Kemp and Pat Frank have won countywide seats their first time out – and Pat Frank had been winning other elections since God was a boy. Pat Kemp’s victory last year is a genuine historical milestone, and she merits congratulations. I hope some other good women follow her next year.


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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