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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.

I’m Going to Try to Emulate Joe O’Neill

He gets away with writing short paragraphs, and I hope to do the same in this column. You may remember I said recently that my friend Susan MacManus stole my thunder by writing about Tampa’s ethnic pioneers in government in her new book, Florida’s Minority Trailblazers. Because I can’t write about Representative Elvin Martinez et al, I intend to introduce some non-Tampans from this book, which is based on Dr. MacManus’ interviews with precedent setters. Hence:

Tidbits that Taught Me Something

• Joseph Hatchett, who became the first African American on the Florida Supreme Court in 1975, said that when he began practicing law in 1959, no African-American lawyers worked for the US Department of Justice anywhere in the South. He didn’t spell it out, but that hiring began after the 1960 election of Democrat John F. Kennedy.

• In Dr. MacManus’ interview with the first Haitian-American in the legislature, I learned that Boston’s Suffolk University Law School was created in 1906 by Harvard law professors who wanted to create an opportunity for working-class students.

• According to the first chapter, which examines our changing demographics: “Florida is one of 10 states with the largest American-Indian and Alaska-Native population… The Seminoles and Miccosukees are Florida’s federally recognized tribes” -- and they grew 38 per cent between 2000 and 2010.

• Husband and wife Edward and Larcenia Bullard served in the legislature together in the early 2000s. She was in the upper chamber, and he in the lower. They represented a poor part of Miami and “started each morning and ended each evening with prayer.” A native of the Bahamas, he acknowledged that she was the more activist and added that having a wife who was a senator was an advantage: “You always have a Senate sponsor.”

Recurring Theme # 1: Gender and Race

Ever since the early 1970s, when New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said it first, most minority women have agreed that being a woman is a bigger barrier than being a racial minority. The validity of this premise again was demonstrated in 2008, when the Democratic nominee was an African-American man, Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton. And I think that in 2016, subconscious misogyny (yes, even among women) was the main reason that a completely unqualified man became president. But we aren’t getting into that again – instead, a couple of quotes from women who understand this phenomenon:

• When asked if she encountered discrimination, Susan Bucher, a Mexican-American, said: “Probably not as a Hispanic, but as a female… That attitude still is very predominant… It was always a contention with the leadership on the Republican side… They gave most women education and health care [committees]…and I came in doing economic development and transportation… It’s still a boy’s club.”

• Rosemary Barkett, the first woman on the Florida Supreme Court, is a former nun whose Syrian parents immigrated via Mexico – and a longtime friend. I’ve written about her elsewhere, so just a quick quote here. Speaking of sexual harassment, she said: “Legitimate lawsuits were being rejected because the concept of a sexually hostile environment was hard for many judges – who had never experienced one – to understand. It’s hard to convey what a woman may suffer… [as] the butt of sexual jokes and comments and innuendoes that men do not have to be subject to.”

Recurring Theme # 2: Term Limits

• Representative Yolly Roberson, the first Haitian woman in the Florida House, not only agreed that the legislature is “like a fraternity,” but also said that term limits have increased the power of unelected staff. They “really run the show,” she said, adding “most of the House staff have been at the helm for more than 30 years… The complete lack of diversity of the [Tallahassee-based] staff does not serve Florida’s diverse population well.”

• It was Republicans who pushed the adoption of term limits, but now some leading Republicans are re-thinking. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American who currently is in Congress, called term limits “highly disruptive.” He said of his eight years in Tallahassee: “I started coming into my own really in my sixth year. That is when I started to realize, ‘OK, yeah, got it. I know the players now, I know what their issues are… I know who I can trust.” Term limits, he said, “empowered the lobbyists who are…the only ones who have the institutional memory.” Elected lawmakers “are now the inexperienced ones who have very little time to learn.”

And one Bio: Leander Shaw, Jr., The First African-American Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court

I want to do at least one detailed report among the dozens of people in the 640-page book. I chose Leander Shaw in part because he used real language in his interview, not jargon, and in part because he is somewhat related to our area: Sean Shaw, his son, now represents East Tampa in the Florida House.

The family is so stable that Leander Shaw, Jr. can trace his heritage back six generations, when his great-great-great-grandmother was a slave in Virginia. Both of his parents were educators, and after serving in the Korean War, he earned a law degree from Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1957. Florida’s civil rights movement was just beginning with young people in the Jacksonville area, and Shaw quickly became the go-to lawyer for protestors. Direct quote:

“I went over to St. Augustine to file some papers to get some kids out of jail. The person at the desk told me, ‘You can’t file no papers...’ If you can’t file papers, a lawyer’s cut off at the pass… I don’t know what to do…so I called the Supreme Court of Florida and happened to get Judge Adkins,…[who said], ‘Go back in about 10 minutes. They might have a change of heart…’ Years later when Shaw was appointed to the Supreme Court, he asked his then-fellow Justice Adkins about the incident. Adkins said, ‘I called the [St. Augustine] judge and told him, ‘You can’t stop a lawyer from filing papers. Are you out of your mind?’”

Shaw intended to continue in private practice, but State Attorney Ed Austin made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. (I remember Ed Austin from the 1970s, when Hubby and I lobbied in Tallahassee. I admired him, but avoided shaking hands because his grip was so strong I worried for my fingers.) When Austin was elected as Jacksonville’s prosecutor, he talked Shaw into heading his Capital Crimes Division. This was a first in the entire South -- and occurred despite objections that “white women would be uncomfortable” discussing rape cases with Shaw. He proved the doubters wrong, and when he returned to private practice, had a record of 42 wins and one loss.

Democratic Governor Bob Graham appointed Shaw to the Florida Supreme Court in 1983, and in the 1990 election, he was one of three justices that conservatives targeted for defeat. The others were a Jewish man, Raymond Ehrlich, and the court’s only woman, Rosemary Barkett.

The three were forced to raise money and campaign at public events – something that not only lowers the status of the highest court, but also can be personally dangerous. I did some campaigning with Justice Barkett and was pleased when Floridians proved sensible enough to retain these minorities. Such negative campaigning at the highest judicial level never has been repeated.

Final story from Justice Shaw. Speaking of the early 1990s, he said: The Legislature passed an austerity program [for] state agencies… I took the position that the court system is not an agency… It’s one of three branches of government… I told them the reality of it… It’ll take five years to get a civil case to trial… In criminal cases, you’ve got to do certain things in certain time frames [because] the Constitution mandates that…You don’t have to do that on the civil side, so that’s what’s going to suffer.’”

Legislators -- many of whom also are lawyers with business clients who would be unhappy about their cases postponed for years -- got the message, and the judiciary was exempted from the budget cuts. This insider story is just one of many revelations in the book, and I’ll doubtless be returning to it in the future. Thank you, Dr. MacManus!


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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