Interview with State Senator Geraldine Thompson – Candidate for re-election in District 12
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: June 17, 2014.
WONO: Senator Thompson, you were elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2006 and to the Senate in 2012. Now, you are running for re-election. What is it like in the Senate and is your experience different from the House? And how would you access your two years in the Senate?
Geraldine Thompson: In the Senate, you are one of 40 people who makes decisions about Florida’s budget. We also make decisions about laws by which all Floridians have to abide. It is easier to get to know 39 other people, as opposed to 119 people. In the Senate your particular vote makes much more of a difference, you have a greater impact because you are one of 40, rather than one of 120 members that comprise the House. The two years that I have spent in the Senate have been very productive. I have been able to pass several laws that I think would be beneficial to individuals and the community and to get appropriations in the State Budget that were not vetoed by the governor, which will benefit programs and organizations locally here in Central Florida.
WONO: One of your priorities is ensuring that monies are invested in education, at all levels. Senate Bill 850 is a contentious piece of legislation, which redirects public school funds to private schools. What’s your view on this and should Gov. Scott sign this bill?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, I have a problem with the fact that you don’t have the same kind of accountability in private schools, as you have in public schools. If everything was equal and you had a requirement that teachers are certified the way they have to be in public schools, then I would have no problems with private schools. If students were required to pass the same kind of FCAT test in private schools as they are required to do in public schools, I would have no problem with the bill. If there was oversight in terms of funding and how monies are spent in the private schools as there is in the public schools, I would not have a problem. But we all know about the situation with North Star, a failing school in Orange County. It failed after three or four years and closed, and its principal was given a separation package of over $300,000.
WONO: When did this happen?
Geraldine Thompson: Last year. The husband of the principal was on the Board. In fact, he appointed her to be the principal. He got a separation package of about $300,000 and she got $400,000. So, you are talking about almost $700,000 of tax payers’ money that went to a failing school because of the lack of accountability.
There’s also the Imani School that operated in Pine Hills where $900,000 was unaccounted for. To add to that, students didn’t have books and there wasn’t even a library. So, those are my problems with taking money from the public schools and putting it into the private settings.
WONO: You are a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development. Tourism is huge – about 59 million tourists visit Orlando/Orange County annually. Yet many minorities don’t feel the impact of those tourist dollars. How do we correct this?
Geraldine Thompson: I’ve been working with Visit Florida to make the same case that, even though tourism is the number one industry in the State of Florida, it does not benefit African Americans to the extent that it does other segments of our population. So, I’ve been saying to Visit Florida that they need to highlight more of the cultural assets in the State, they need to highlight cultural events that occur in African American communities.
I’m the founder of the Wells’ Built Museum of African American History, and I’ve been saying to Visit Florida who gets about $60 million in terms of appropriations from the State, that we are missing out big time. When you go to places like Memphis, Tennessee – and I have visited – that state has invested millions of dollars to refurbish the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was killed. And since opening, they have attracted almost four million visitors, domestic visitors as well as, international travelers. There is also now a Civil Rights Museum, a national Civil Rights Museum that is there. Also, in Atlanta, there has been investment along Auburn Avenue and the home where Dr. King grew up, and Ebenezer Baptist Church and if you visit the area, you will observe daily tours. Florida has neglected to do that and therefore, failed to expand tourism and capitalize on people who are interested in that kind of experience.
WONO: I want to follow-up on that, you mentioned the importance of highlighting the cultural assets. Now I know you had a bill that failed – the Black Cultural Tourism Enhancement Commission. What was that intended to do?
Geraldine Thompson: It was intended to bring people from all over the State who would know what Florida’s cultural assets are and who could then advise Visit Florida on how we could enhance tourism, particularly, Black Cultural Tourism. The members of the Commission would be appointed by the Governor, Speaker of the House, President of the Senate and by the Black Caucus. These are people who may live in Key West and they know where the Black cultural sites are there. They may be from Pensacola and they know where the cultural sites are in Pensacola. So the bill was meant to create a Commission that would work with Visit Florida to promote and market Black Culture.
WONO: Why did the bill fail?
Geraldine Thompson: It was heard in one committee and I think it failed because some of my colleagues didn’t see the value in focusing specifically on Black visitors, or people interested in Black culture. We passed bills this year and last, to provide funding to promote Eco Tourism for people who are interested in ecology. We provided money for Space Tourism – tourists coming and maybe visiting the Space Center. We provided money for Agricultural Tourism – visitors who are interested in agriculture, and Florida has a lot of that where they go and pick fruits and vegetables. So we are promoting Eco Tourism, Space Tourism, Agriculture Tourism, so why not Black Culture? I think part of it is educating legislators in terms of why it’s important and how it could benefit the State of Florida.
As you known, when visitors come for our cultural tourism – and the Zora Neale Hurston Festival is a great example – some fly in and rent cars and there are taxes that will be collected on the rentals. They stay in hotels and again taxes are paid. They shop in the malls, they eat in the restaurants and they pay taxes there too. So, the money the State would invest comes back in terms of the taxes that the tourists would pay.
Then too, some people just have issues when you say Black. They question why we are doing this specifically – Black Culture – and they don’t understand. So, it’s a process of educating my colleagues.
WONO: Do you intend to bring the bill back again?
Geraldine Thompson: Oh, absolutely. What I’m going to do, as I have done in the past, is provide examples where this is being done quite effectively in other states, much like what I’ve just shared with you. I should also add, there’s the Old Slave Mart and Museum located on the historic old streets of Charleston, a place where many visit to learn about this significant time in history and is now a tourist attraction. Also, the Alabama Civil Rights Trail that has become a major international destination. So, why is it that Florida has not done this? No one likes to recall our nation’s history of slavery and the same goes for racial discrimination. It is too painful. But these things happened and I suspect this is also part of the problem in Florida. But I will continue to educate my colleges and demonstrate why it is important, as other states have done.
WONO: Another priority is increasing Florida’s minimum wage currently $7.93 to $10.10 per hour. Now I know that the Democrats brought bills to the Legislature which didn’t get very far. Do you see any appetite on the part of the GOP for raising the minimum wage? Will those bills be brought back next legislative session?
Geraldine Thompson: They will come back, but I don’t think that my colleagues who are more pro-business than pro-people are interested in raising the minimum wage. We have people who work every day who live near poverty or below the poverty line. Orange County has one of the lowest minimum wages in the nation. I don’t think that people who work every day should be living in poverty. So, the minimum wage bills will come back. Right now there is a climate in Tallahassee that’s interested in giving tax breaks to big businesses and corporations, but doing very little for the working people who make these businesses profitable. You saw what happened with earned-sick-time, where the State passed legislation prohibiting county and city governments from passing ordinances requiring earned-sick-time. So, people will continue to come to work ill and contaminate others or can’t take a sick day to care for their ill child. And I should add, there is the refusal to expand Medicaid which will benefit just over one million low-income Floridians and we will likely lose out on $50 billion in federal grant funding over ten years. So, I think you have a climate where the Republicans are more interested in profits than people.
WONO: Is it just meanness on the part of these GOP legislators?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, they see raising the minimum wage as bad for business. They see businesses as having to pay more and they claim some will suffer and perhaps close. But in actuality, it’s just the opposite because, when you earn more, you spend more and when you spend more, it’s good for business.
WONO: The GOP has a commanding majority in Tallahassee. Were you able to get any bills of your own through the Senate? Are there any bills that you felt passionate about that just didn’t make it to the Governor?
Geraldine Thompson: One of my priority bills passed the last day of the legislative session, in the last hour of the legislative session and that was to amend Florida’s wrongful Incarceration Compensation Statute. Right now, our statute requires that if you have been falsely imprisoned you have to prove that you were innocent by providing DNA, and having a thorough review of all the evidence related to your case. Well, I had taken up the cause of a man in 2013 whose name is James Joseph Richardson.
Mr. Richardson spent about 22 years in Florida’s prisons for allegedly killing his seven children. He was a fruit picker. He and his wife would get up early to go to the groves and they would prepare food and leave it for their children and would ask neighbors to come by, warm it up and give it to the kids. They were in the fields one day and someone came to tell them their children were ill and they needed to get to the hospital. When they got to the hospital all seven children were dead. He was arrested because he had spoken to an insurance agent who came to his home to try to sell him an insurance policy. He wanted to insure his family, but never had the money to pay to activate the policy. Nonetheless, at trial, it was claimed that he killed his kids so he could get the insurance money. Now they knew he never paid to activate the policy and the insurance agent said he never paid, but this evidence was never introduced. Then you had the sheriff who perjured himself.
Mr. Richardson was found guilty and sentenced to death. He spent four years on death row. I had dinner with him one evening during which he talked about waking up remembering having the hair shaved from the back of his hands, to get him ready for the electric chair. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s Death Penalty, as it was administered then, was unconstitutional. That’s the only thing that saved his life and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Twenty-two years later a neighbor confessed that she did put poison in the kids’ food because, Mr. Richardson’s sister-in-law had come to visit him and his wife, and had befriended her husband. When the sister-in-law left to go back to Jacksonville, the husband left and never came back. So, she killed seven children.
Mr. Richardson was released from prison, but has never been compensated because, in 1968 the science surrounding DNA wasn’t as advanced as it is today. The evidence regarding his case has been lost, or destroyed and many of the people involved are deceased. I brought legislation which amends the statute to allow him to be eligible for compensation. He will be able to apply. The formula for wrongful incarceration is $50,000 for every year. So he can get in excess of $1 million. He is 78-years-old, has a heart condition and is very frail. While in prison he got no Social Security benefits because, he was not deemed to be employed. So he has nothing. He has no children.
In 2013, I introduced a claims bill for him but that didn’t go anywhere. And I introduced this bill this year, and I worked on it in the Senate, in the House, and it passed the last day.
WONO: Did legislators have a bit of conscience on the last day? What do you think?
Geraldine Thompson: I think people had some conscience, but the other part is, it passed the committees and the Senate and was ready to go to the Senate floor. And the Chairman of the bill that had to hear it wouldn’t even put it on the agenda to be heard. So, I went to members of the Black Caucus – 27 Black members of Florida’s Legislature – and I said, “this is a racial injustice that’s been done to this man. We need to insist that they hear this bill.” So I wrote a letter for the Chairman to sign and then every member of the Black Caucus signed-off. And the Bill was heard in the House. So, I think it was a combination of our determination that it was going to happen, and also 27 members from all over the State of Florida pointing out what happened with the Trayvon Martins and the Jordan Davis’ of the world. And here was an opportunity to do something right. So I think it was a combination of those things.
So when the Governor signs the bill – it’s on his desk now – and I expect that he will sign it. [Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 227 on June 20, 2014, removing the obstacles Mr. Richardson faced in his eligibility for up to $1.2 million in compensation by the state]. There is likely to be a joint ceremonial bill signing, after the governor inks the bill – the House sponsor, possibly the Governor and me. Hopefully too, we can get Mr. Richardson here. He lives in Kansas with his cardiologist, who wants to be close to him, because of his heart ailment.
So, to answer your question, although the environment is predominantly Republican, you can get things done.
WONO: Former Gov. Charlie Crist could well be re-elected governor again. But, Democrats will still be in the minority in the Legislature. What do you expect might be different and what would you do differently to get legislation passed?
Geraldine Thompson: If Gov. Crist is re-elected, I think, as a Democrat, we will have a governor who will understand what our priorities are. I think under Gov. Crist, he would understand Black Cultural Tourism. A lot of times, if the governor sends a signal that an issue is important, then the legislature sees it as such. Last year, I had a number of items included in the budget and they were vetoed by Gov. Scott. This year I’ve got items in the budget and he did not veto them. Of course, we know that this is an election year. So, I think, having a Democratic governor would make a tremendous difference.
WONO: Charlie Crist is well ahead in the polls and yet, there doesn’t appear to be a strategy by the Democrats to take advantage of this and run candidates in all Districts. Shouldn’t this be a motivating factor? And what’s the strategy here?
Geraldine Thompson: With limited resources you have to look at the races that you think you can win. We have a number of races throughout the State where we have people running, but we know they can’t win. So, do you make the decision to invest funds on a race that you know is not going to be fruitful, or do you save your resources to put into races that are winnable? I think the Democratic Party has chosen to direct its resources where we know we can win.
WONO: You saw the necessity of collecting oral histories and artifacts of the contributions of African Americans in Central Florida and founded the Wells’ Built Museum of African American History. Yet, it is the case that the urban core, some of your district, is changing and would look even more different in 10 years. Are you concerned that the history and culture of the area might be lost? How do you balance historical preservation with new growth and development of the area?
Geraldine Thompson: I am absolutely concerned. We sit here today in the Wells’ Built Museum that had over $500,000 worth of liens on the property for code violations, because it had not been maintained. If the past organization had not intervened and got the Wells building transferred to a ‘Public Use,’ it would have been destroyed. The owners could not afford to put $500,000 to bring it up to code, and let’s say they did put that kind of money in, who was going to buy it? We were told ten years ago when we opened up, it was going to be demolished. So I have been concerned with historic preservation.
Here’s another example. The City View apartments on Church Street was the location of the Black Chamber of Commerce that was called the Negro Chamber of Commerce. I wanted to have it preserved, even the facade, but it was demolished. I see so much of that happening. But, the truth is, there are not a whole lot of voices. I’m one of the few voices that is out there speaking up, adamant that we need to preserve some of the evidence of our existence in this town, because it’s being obliterated. In some cities there’s urban renewal and with that comes the total elimination of African American communities and neighborhoods and there’s no evidence that we were even there. I think there has to be a balance and that’s the message that I’m taking to City Hall, that’s the message that I’m taking to Tallahassee, or where ever I am.
WONO: Tinker Field, do you think that historic sports building and site will be saved?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, I think at the very least, we could save the facade, which is what we did with the Callahan Center that used to be Jones High School, before it was relocated to where it is now. So the facade was saved and inside was refurbished. I think at the very least that’s possible with Tinker Field. Then certainly we need Historical Markers that explain why it is historically significant.
WONO: Has any decision been taken on that?
Geraldine Thompson: No, not at this point.
WONO: Former State Senator Gary Siplin, termed out in 2012, has filed to run again in District 12. What do you say to the voters about this perennial campaigner? And is he a serious contender in the primary election?
Geraldine Thompson: I think there is an element of the community, for whatever reason, may support him. But Senate District 12 is a very, very different district than Senate District 19 that he once represented. Senate District 12 certainly includes some of the inner city – it includes portions of Parramore, Washington Shores, and Pine Hills, but it also includes portions of Windermere and also includes along I-Drive where the Rosen properties are located. It also includes Ocoee and Winter Garden.
I think that, even the people Mr. Siplin could have counted on at one time have seen how self-serving he was in the position. He has demonstrated that, if you support his effort or project, then he will do whatever you need done, regardless of whether it’s good for the community or not. I think you have to be strong enough to stand on your principles. In the past, he has gotten support from the Republican Party, from Republicans, but this time that’s not happening. We’ve reported our campaign donations through to the end of May, he jumped into the race in late April, but up to that point he had raised only $1,500, according to his treasurer’s report. I have raised over $100,000. I think the Republicans who used to contribute to his campaign are not doing that anymore because, they see that it wasn’t really about the community, it was all about him.
Mr. Siplin has said that the people want him to run. If that’s the case, then they would contribute the finances for him to get there, I would think. Where are the people in terms of helping to fund his campaign? I think the fact that I have been able to raise funds demonstrates people do have confidence in me and they are willing to invest in my campaign because, they know that it leads to good government.
The final point I will make on this relates to term limits. They exist for a reason. Mr. Siplin was there for 10 years years and was termed out. Now, in an effort to keep the seat, his wife contested the race in 2012. But that didn’t fool the voters. They knew that it was really Gary Siplin who was running though Victoria’s name was on the ballot. They figured out that a vote for Victoria was really a vote for Gary and the voters said no. I think that people are smarter than he has given them credit for.
So, the citizens of the State of Florida voted for term limits because it gives other people an opportunity to be involved. New people in the Legislature bring fresh ideas, new energy and that’s a good thing. When the same individual is perpetually in the Legislature, you get a kind of stale approach to government and governing.
WONO: How is your campaign going and why should voters re-elect Geraldine Thompson?
Geraldine Thompson: My campaign is going very, very well. I have been endorsed by the Central Florida Labor Council. Also, I’ve be endorsed by the AFL-CIO; the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association; Business Force, which is the Orlando Chamber of Commerce; Florida Professional Firefighters; Ruth’s List, the Progressive Majority, and just this morning I was endorsed by The Florida Alliance for Retired Americans. So I’m getting a lot of support.
I think if you want integrity in government, then voters should re-elect Geraldine Thompson. That’s one of the biggest reasons to re-elect me. Since I was elected in 2006, I have been very open and very transparent in terms of my dealings and my approach in the community. I think integrity is very important. You need someone who you can trust and you need someone who is interested in the betterment of the community, rather than the betterment of themselves.
The other reason to re-elect me is, I have demonstrated that I’m effective. During this Legislative Session, I was able to secure $5.7 million for various projects throughout Senate District 12. Just to give you a few examples – in the budget there’s an allocation of $350,000 to support moving Little Egypt from septic to sewer; $500,000 for South Apopka Adult Community Education Center; another $150,000 for Silver Star Road Walk/Bike Trail; $750,000 for the Bethune-Cookman University Entrepreneurship Institute and $685,000 for UCF-Evans Community School. As I said, to be precise, I was able to get $5.69 million approved for District 12 in this legislative session.
There is one other thing I would like to mention. I filed a bill to repeal the Florida Stand Your Ground Law. Currently, the Stand Your Ground Law allows people who believe that they are in jeopardy, or they’re in danger, to use deadly force. So, people are allowed to act on their fears rather than on the facts. When Gary Siplin was in the Legislature in 2005 he voted for the Stand Your Ground Law. Then he was handpicked and appointed by Gov. Scott to serve on the commission established to review the Stand Your Law, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, and to determine if changes were needed. Mr. Siplin, along with the commission, recommended no changes should be made. He had two bites at the apple to change the law that has resulted in the deaths of so many young men in our community, but he said no changes are needed. I am trying to repeal that law or at the very least, to amend that law.
So, voters should re-elect me because, I will always do what is right and fair and what’s in the best interest of the people whom I represent and serve.
Finally, building great relationships, which I have been able to do with other legislators who serve the same community, is so important. I’ve been able to work in tandem with Rep. Bruce Antone and Rep. Randolph Bracy and other representatives from this district to get things accomplished. On the contrary, when I was in the House and my current opponent was in the Senate, he stood in opposition to the things that I tried to do for the people in our community. So, I think it’s important to keep people in leadership who can work together for the betterment of the community. And that’s what I have done.
For all these reasons, I humbly ask District 12 voters to re-elect me to the Florida Senate.
WONO: Thank you, Senator Thompson.
Senator Thompson: Thank you, too.
MORE ON SENATOR GERALDINE THOMPSON
Geraldine F. Thompson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and grew up in the South Dade town of Perrine, Florida. She graduated from segregated Mays high school shortly after the Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States. She attended Miami Dade Community College and received a John F. Kennedy/Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship to attend the University of Miami in Coral Gable, Florida where she enrolled after that school ended racial segregation. In 1970, she received a bachelor’s degree and moved with her husband, Emerson, to Tallahassee where he attended law school and she worked for Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry, the first African American female to serve in the Florida House of Representatives. She learned from Representative Cherry that conditions could be changed and lives improved through enactment of legislation.
After working for several years, she sought a Master of Science degree in Communication from Florida State University, which she received in 1973. She and her husband moved to Orlando and immediately became active in the Central Florida community. She worked as a teacher in area public schools and Director of the Equal Opportunity Office and Assistant to the President at Valencia Community College where she served for 24 years. Among her many accomplishments at Valencia Community College, was the establishment of the “College Reach Out Program” which enabled thousands of low-income and disadvantaged students to fulfill their dream of going to college.
As a public historian, her passion for history led her to conduct research and compile documents which resulted in the publication of a book in 2003 entitled, “Black America Series: Orlando, Florida.” She is also credited with preserving one of Orlando’s unique landmarks, The Wells’ Built Hotel, which housed some of America’s most prominent citizens, including Justice Thurgood Marshall, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson and many more. She helped to secure funds to convert the hotel into a museum which is known today as The Wells’ Built Museum of African American History. In November of 2006, she was elected to serve as the first African American female to represent District 39 in the Florida House of Representatives. She was elected to the Florida Senate in November 2012 and serves on the following committees, Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government; Community Affairs; Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development; Children, Families, and Elder Affairs; Commerce and Tourism; Transportation and Joint Administrative Procedures Committee. In December of 2012, Senator Thompson was elected Chairman of the Orange County Legislative Delegation. She is the first female and African-American to hold the position of Chair.
Senator Thompson has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Florida Education Association’s Mary McLeod Bethune Humanitarian Award and most recently the National Education Association’s prestigious Mary Hatwood Futrell Award for her outstanding human rights work toward the advancement and education of women and girls. She is also a recipient of and the Executive Women Award, the Legislative Award from the American Cancer Society, the Martin Luther King Award from the Greater Orlando Alliance of Black School Education, and more recently Senator Thompson made history by becoming one of 50 distinguished local women leaders, selected by Congressman Alan Grayson, to be honored in Congress. Senator’s biography and accomplishments will be read into the U.S. Congressional Record. The Congressional Record is the official record of all the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress and is preserved throughout the course of U.S. History. She is the Florida Director of the National Foundation for Women Legislators, and an Executive Board Member of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. She enjoys every opportunity to give back such as arranging to have 40 students from Jones High School in Orlando attend the Inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013. She is married to the Honorable Emerson R. Thompson, Jr. and is the mother of three children (Laurise, Emerson III, and Elizabeth) and the proud grandmother of four.
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