Interview with Representative Geraldine Thompson – candidate for Senate District 12
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: July 11, 2012
WONO: Rep. Thompson, you have served two terms in the Florida House. What was that experience like? What were some of the highlights…. and low lights — over that period?
Rep. Thompson: Well, when I was elected in 2006 the economy took a downturn; the entire United States went into a recession and Florida went into a recession, as well. It’s been a very challenging time because we have been faced with decisions in Tallahassee regarding funding programs and services that the people of Florida really need. During that six year period of time some of the major cuts have been made in the areas such as education, which is very troubling for me, because I know, first hand, how important an education is. I am the oldest child of a woman born in 1921, in rural Mississippi who earned a two year teachers certificate and taught school in Mississippi. My mother was one of fifteen children and many of her siblings, particularly the men, were not allowed to go to school; they had to work in the fields. As her first born, she really poured a lot of her learning into me, and when I was four or five years old I knew how to read and write, before I went to school. Before I went and sat in anyone’s classroom I was skilled at reading and writing. I became the scribe for our very large family and would read correspondence that came to them. Furthermore, I would draft responses for them and I saw first-hand the damage that had been done to their lives, because they did not have access to education. It troubled me during the six years that I have been in the Florida House, that we were cutting funding for education, and particularly, public education. Of course, many other areas were cut too. So, it has been very, very challenging, trying to find the revenues to continue to make Florida what we would like it to be – a leader in the nation.
WONO: Gov. Rick Scott in his first budget cut education funding by well over $1 billion. In his second budget he restored a $1 billion. Is it enough? Are you satisfied that education is getting the priority it deserves and if not, where will the additional funds come from?
Rep. Thompson: I’m not satisfied, because, even though Gov. Scott put a billion dollars into education this last legislative session, he cut $1.35 billion dollars the year before. So, it doesn’t even bring us back to where we were previously. Quite frankly, we are further behind than where we were with funding education five years ago. I don’t think that education has been a priority. We have been cutting taxes and giving tax breaks to big corporations, while we were cutting teachers’ pay and cutting teachers’ salaries and closing schools. If we did not give away so much to the big, multi-national corporations, we would have the funding needed to fully fund education.
WONO: Do you anticipate, going forward, that the funding for education will be restored?
Rep. Thompson: As the economy improves, I believe the funding for education will increase. I believe that Gov. Scott now understands the connection between education and business. He wants to attract businesses to come to Florida to operate here, but, when they come if they don’t have an educated, capable, well-trained workforce, then they are going to end up bringing people from outside of the state to take the jobs that we are creating here in the State of Florida. We can’t short-change education, and I believe the Governor and members of the legislature are beginning to realize that.
WONO: As you have campaigned, you have placed a lot of emphasis on job creation, particularly on the West Side. You have talked of alternative energy, for example, development of a Photovoltaic Plant. Are you concerned that the requisite skills generally, may not in place for the unemployed to take advantage of new job openings? And if so, what can be done about this?
Rep. Thompson: We all know that the jobs of the future are going to be in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine fields– STEM areas. But, we have not had a lot of emphases on those areas in West Orange County, and among our population. We are going to have to educate individuals so that they are prepared for those jobs that are going to be in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine. The photovoltaic plant that I talked about certainly, will require training in technology and in engineering. There will be need for job training. Also, I would add, for a long time we have focused on the academic tract, at the expense of the vocational tract and I think we need to get back to that too.
WONO: The U.S. Supreme Court just upheld the Affordable Care Act as constitutional. Yet, Gov. Scott has said he will not implement the optional aspects of the law– setting up insurances exchanges and expanding Medicaid. Do you agree with him? Why haven’t the Florida Democratic Party and the Democrats been more vocal on this issue?
Rep. Thompson: I think the governor needs to get ready to implement the Affordable Healthcare Act. We in Florida have seen a lot of tax payer money wasted and spent to fight the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act. Now that the United States Supreme Court has decided that it is constitutional, that the President did have the authority, and the prerogative, to implement this law, I think that the State of Florida should get ready to implement it.
I envision that there will be a number of special sessions, of the Legislature to deal with implementing the Affordable Healthcare Act. We, as tax payers, are already paying for healthcare for those people who don’t have insurance. I served on the board of Health Central Hospital for years. It became the primary point of entry for people seeking healthcare who did not have insurance. They would notice that they were not well but did not go to seek help when it was not critical, and, they ended up in the emergency rooms in critical condition. That is a very expensive form of healthcare, because doctors are going to be paid and the hospital has overhead that has to be covered. You cannot refuse to treat these patients. But, where is that money coming from? It is coming from the tax payer. We have what we call the low income pool that funds hospitals that treat indigent patients. We are subsidizing people who don’t have insurance. The Affordable Healthcare Act will make it affordable, so that people will get insurance, they will seek treatment before they are critically ill and, therefore, it will be less expensive for us to have a healthy population, here, in Florida.
I am a breast cancer survivor, and noticed tenderness in my right breast and went to the physician to see what was the problem. Because we found it early, after surgery, after chemotherapy, after radiation, I am here, almost five years later, as a living witness that early detection and treatment makes a difference. The Affordable Healthcare Act will allow thousands, hundreds of thousands of people in the State of Florida to have that same access at an early stage, when they can prevent a critical illness or death.
WONO: There are several lawsuits surrounding the voter purge in Florida — the state and the Feds and by certain groups against the state. What’s your reaction to all that’s going on? Do you believe that the voter roll purge is a deliberate attempt to suppress the vote?
Rep. Thompson: I think it is very deliberate, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is known as “ALEC,” came up with legislation, boiler plate templates that many legislators went back to their states and then introduced and got passed. Representative Dennis Baxley, who is a member of “ALEC” and sponsored the “Stand Your Ground” law, also sponsored House Bill 1355, which I call the voters suppression bill. But there are 30 other states in the nation that have similar bills. Florida was the most repressive, the most restrictive, and I think it is deliberate.
At the national level, we have heard national leaders say that their objective is to make sure that President Barack Obama is a one-term President. How do you accomplish that objective? You prevent people from registering to vote, if you can; you prevent them from actually exercising their right to vote and you purge them from the voter rolls, if you can. We have a situation here in Florida where you cannot change your name, you cannot change your address, at the polls on Election Day. In 2008, in Leon County, the Supervisor of Elections changed 3,500 addresses, and those were for students who were registered at Florida State University, Florida A&M University and Tallahassee Community College. Those students, overwhelmingly, in 2008, voted for President Barack Obama. If you can prevent that population from voting, then you can affect the outcome of the election in November of 2012.
The courts have ruled that you can no longer require that, if you register a person to vote, you have to have to turn in that form in 48 hours. The League of Women Voters was one of the groups that brought a law suit. They have registered people for 72 years. This particular requirement was so restrictive, because if I came to you and registered you to vote, you signed and dated the form, I had a mere 48 hours to submit it to the Supervisor of Elections, or I would be fined $50.00 per form, per day. So, I think it was a very deliberate attempt to suppress the vote.
The League of Women Voters and others who joined them prevailed in that law suit. The courts have ruled that you cannot purge voters from the roles within 90 days of an election. We have a primary election coming up, August 14th, so the purges have stopped and Supervisors of Elections throughout the State of Florida are saying they are not going to follow the Governors orders, in terms of the purging the voter roles.
WONO: Recently, you asked very piercing questions when you testified before the ‘Stand Your Ground’ Committee chaired by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carol. You have also expressed great concern over the Committee’s composition. What do you expect will come out of the work of the Committee? Do you think that the Law will be amended or repealed?
Rep. Thompson: My hope is that the law is going to be amended. The law is very vague, is very broad, and when I testified before that task force I asked for three things; I asked, first, for clarity with regard to when you can use deadly force. The example that I used, “If I make a fist, and I shake my fist at someone and they reasonably believe they are in imminent danger, are they allowed to shoot and kill me?” The law says, right now, if you reasonably believe you are in imminent danger you can use force, including deadly force. If I lunge at someone and they reasonably believe they are in imminent danger, are they allowed to kill me? And so, I think we need clarity with regard to when you can use deadly force.
The other thing I asked for was, clarity regarding when an aggressor can claim self-defense under the “Stand Your Ground” law. If I decide that I am going to pursue someone — I am following the individual and confront the person and an altercation results from that. If it weren’t for my action there would be no problem. So, if I am the aggressor, can I shoot someone, kill that person, and claim “Stand Your Ground”? The law needs to be very clear in that regard.
The final thing that I asked of the task force is to make sure that there is clarity with regard to when an arrest should be made. If I shoot and kill someone, should I be able to just go home, and go to bed, while that person lies in the morgue? Later, if there are 911 tapes that, very clearly, show my state of mind, a negative attitude toward the victim, should there be an arrest? All of these things need to be addressed.
The composition of the task force does concern me, because every legislator who serves on the task force, who was appointed by Governor Rick Scott, is someone who voted for the law. If they were there, in 2005, they voted for the law. Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll, who chairs the task force, voted for the law. Senator Gary Siplin, who was in the Senate in 2005, voted for the law. Representative Dennis Baxley sponsored the law; he is a room-mate of Senator David Simmons, who was in the House at the time, who voted for the law, co-sponsored the law, and just recently did an opinion piece for the Orlando Sentinel saying that he stands behind the law. The only Legislator on that task force who did not vote for the law was one who was not there in 2005, and that’s Representative Jason Brotor, who sponsored a bill prohibiting physicians from asking parents if they have guns in their homes. Now, physicians can ask parents if they have a swimming pool to protect the life and safety of children, but they can’t ask them about guns! So, you see, you have some people who, in my opinion, are wedded to the status-quo, and want to justify the votes that they took. I don’t know that they can be objective. I hope that because we have people like Sheriff Jerry Demings, on that task force, that there will be some objectivity, that people will speak up, and will point out some of the flaws in the law. I’m hoping that the law will be amended. As a member of the Florida Senate, that would be one of my first priorities – to amend the “Stand Your Ground” law.
WONO: In Orange County there are thousands of homeless and hungry children. What’s been done to attenuate this situation? Are you satisfied that enough is being done?
Rep. Thompson: Well, for many years when people thought of the homeless population, they envisioned or they visualized an older person who, for whatever reason, did not fit in with society; they were people who had mental health issues. Very few people visualized that homeless people were children. I think the documentary that 60 Minutes did, shows people that we have many children who are homeless. More is being done, I don’t know that it is enough, but it is a beginning in an effort to address the problem. I worked with a group called “Feed America,” and provided backpacks to children who could take those backpacks home. The backpacks were filled with food. The kind that has pop-off lids. Many children who get free and reduced lunch have no other meal during the day, and on the weekend, they have no meal at all. I provided the backpacks so that the children could take them home, over the weekend, and they would have a meal. I think programs like that are beginning to expand. We see, this summer, that there is a summer break program at many of our Churches, many of our community centers, where people can go and can get food. We are beginning to appreciate, more than we ever did before, that many of the homeless are children.
WONO: How is your campaign going? You face a primary challenger — what separates you from your opponent?
Rep. Thompson: There are a number of things; first of all is, my experience. I have had six years of legislative experience, direct experience, not experience being near someone or close to someone who was a legislator, but actually being the legislator. Before being elected to office I had experience in the education field – 24 years as an administrator at Valencia and 6 years in the classroom in Orange County Public Schools. I also felt that, as African Americans, we needed to know more about our background, our history, our culture, so that we would have greater self-confidence – that people, like us, have achieved great things and, therefore, we could know we could achieve, as well. So, I am the founder of the Wells Built Museum of African American History. So, I think my experience sets me apart and distinguishes me from my opponent with regard to this election.
My preparation also is another thing that distinguishes me. I have three degrees, beyond high school. In the Legislature, it is necessary to read a lot of proposed legislation. Last year we had a bill to expand gambling in Florida, and the bill was over 150 pages long. So, you have to have the academic preparation to be able to read, to understand, and then to articulate your opinion, your position on various issues.
The other thing that sets me apart is that I am a true Democrat. My opponent is registered as a Democrat, and is running as a Democrat, but who owns a company, called Ushindi which was paid money by the Tea Party and Republican groups to fight against other Democrats, to fight against the election of more Democrats in the State of Florida. When the whole “Fair Districts” amendments were being considered that would have stopped gerrymandering, allowing more Democrats to be elected, Ushindi was being paid money by the Republican Party, by the Tea Party, to fight against that. So I am a true Democrat, I am a person who, not only says that I am for the community, but I have shown, I have worked in the community. I think those are the things that distinguish me from my opponent.
WONO: Quick follow-up, Rep. Thompson -you have put a lot of store on academic preparation. Does your opponent have the academic preparation?
Rep. Thompson: My opponent has a high school diploma and some community college courses.
WONO: If elected to serve in the Senate, what would be your top priorities going forward?
Rep. Thompson: Education would be one of my top priorities. I am very concerned about the trend that I see in the State of Florida to move public dollars into private educational facilities, without any kind of accountability for those dollars. I think that one size does not fit all. I think there is room for some alternatives, but, there ought to be accountability. If you say that the FCAT is the assessment that is required for students in the public education system, why would it not be required in private schools? And it isn’t. So, there is a discrepancy there. So, I am not in favor of moving public tax dollars into private schools where there is no accountability. I have similar concerns for some of the charter schools, where the teachers are note required to have the kind of credentials that teachers must have in public schools. Some of it ends up really being glorified babysitting. So, one of the things that I would continue to work for, is the preservation and the enhancement of public education in the State of Florida.
The second priority would be, and I think these two things go hand-in-hand, would be job creation. As we discussed earlier, if you don’t have the skills, the technical skills, to get the jobs then you still are no further ahead. I would want to work for job creation to see a photovoltaic plant in West Orange County, where people could learn to make those panels, install those panels and decrease our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels. We would then be solving the energy problem by capturing and harnessing the power of the sun. I’d like to see us use more of our agricultural products for bio-fuel. Just as how we have Ethanol as a certain percentage of our gasoline, we could expand that and we could use agricultural products to create fuel for our cars. Those are two of the priorities that I would have as a member of the Florida Senate.
WONO: Final question. Tell us why voters should vote for Geraldine Thompson?
Rep. Thompson: Voters should vote for me because they need someone who will advocate for them, someone who will show up and speak up. I interviewed recently with the Orlando Sentinel editorial board and they wanted to interview both candidates for Senate 12 together. I was the only one to show up. So, I show up, I speak up, I advocate for this community. It’s not about keeping a job, or keeping a paycheck going to a family, it’s about all the other families It’s not just a job for that family, but, what about all the other families in Senate District 12. What are the needs of the people in District 12 and who is the best person to advocate for their needs and to help them get to the position where they want to go? I am that person and that’s why voters in Senate District 12 should vote for me – State Representative Geraldine Thompson.
WONO: Rep. Thompson, thank you.
Rep. Thompson: Thank you, too.