Interview with State Rep. Geraldine Thompson – District 39, Orlando
Conducted by: West Orlando News
Date: February 5th 2010
WONO: Please introduce yourself? Who is Geraldine Thompson?
Geraldine Thompson: I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana but grew up in South Dade County, in Florida and lived in Perrine, Florida for 22 years. At that age, I had graduated from college and left and moved to Tallahassee, where my husband was attending law school at Florida State University. We were in Tallahassee for three years and moved to Orlando in 1973. So, we have been in Orlando now for the last 37 years, and I consider myself now an Orlandoan. I came to Florida at a very early age and so for all intent and purposes, I’m a Floridian. I’m a retired educator. I taught in the public schools here in Orange County for six years. I worked in administration at Valencia Community College for 24 years, where I served as Assistant to the President and Director of Equal Opportunity. I retired from that position in 2003, ran for office in 2004, was not successful with that effort. I ran again in 2006 and was elected out of a three-person field with 61% of the vote.
WONO: You are the first African-American female to represent Orlando in the Florida legislature and you have been serving there, I believe, since 2006. What has that experience been like?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, it has been very difficult. Shortly after my election, the economy began to decline. When I started my service in the Florida House of Representatives, we were working with a $70 billion budget to fund our schools, to keep our roads in good repair, to fund hospitals and clinics and other services that all of us use. So, in that year, we were talking about $70 billion. In fiscal year 2010, we are looking at a proposed budget of $66 billion. So, the budget is about $4 billion less in the three years that I’ve served and it has been difficult and very challenging to make some decisions about priorities. Everything in the community is important. The question is, what is most important and what do we fund and what do we cut? And so the exercise of having to go in and cut programs, either completely or partially has been difficult and very challenging for me. However, I do feel that I have made a good – a positive contribution to some of the things that I know are important. For example, intervention programs, after-school programs for young people that need funding, might have been cut were it not for interventions from people like me. And if we don’t fund those kind of programs, we end up putting more money into the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections for Prisons. So, even though we have not been able to bring the volume of funding into the communities that we would have liked, we have been able to stop some serious cuts that might have happened, had we not intervened.
WONO: You represent District 39 and I believe you began touching on some of what’s going on there. Expand a little bit more on how your district has changed and what you anticipate over the next two years or so?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, in the entire state we are moving from an economy that was focused almost exclusively on tourism and agriculture and we are moving to a knowledge-based economy. So, our young people would have to be educated beyond the high school level. And they would have to stay and finish high school and then go on to college. Florida has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation and in order for young folks in District 39 to be part of this new economy, we are going to have to put some things in place and help them understand the importance of finishing high school and then getting an education beyond high school.
WONO: You along with several Democratic colleagues wrote to the House Speaker calling for a more transparent and constructive budget exercise to be undertaken. What are your expectations and are you concerned about closing that more than $2 billion budget gap at a time when Floridians are under so much pressure?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, our objection to the way the budget is being developed right now is the fact that the Republican majority is putting the budget together without the input of the Democrats. And as I mentioned before, except for our voices, some things that other people may not know are important, will be cut and so we want to be involved totally in the process. We were asked as Democrats to indicate what we would like to see cut from the budget and what priorities should be kept in the budget. Well, first of all, you need to be open about the total amount that you have to spend, that is, revenues. Don’t ask me to cut something when I don’t know how much is available, the total amount that’s available. And so, we feel that we have not been an integral part of developing the budget for this particular fiscal year of 2010-2011. So, our expectations are that the Republican majority will begin to involve Democrats at every level in crafting the budget, not just come to us at the end of the process, asking what should be cut. We cannot make those decisions without knowing the totality of what’s available.
WONO: Is the budget exercise been conducted differently this year as opposed to previous years?
Geraldine Thompson: Not really. We have had to make a lot of noise and we have had to protest the way the budget has been done for the last couple of years and that’s the same position that we’re in this year and we are making the same objection.
WONO: Governor Charlie Crist proposed on January 25th, a budget of nearly $23 billion for education for the upcoming fiscal year. Are the resources there to fund education at this level?
Geraldine Thompson: I like Governor Crist’s budget, however, the resources are not there. I wish that they were there. He is depending on the Seminole Indian Gaming Compact, which he hopes will materialize during this session, but is not in place right now. So, you can’t spend money that you don’t have. The Governor’s budget also relies on some funds from the Federal government in terms of stimulus dollars. We have applied for a grant called ‘Race to the Top’ and we won’t know whether we will get that grant and already we are planning to spend the money. So, to answer your question directly, no the resources are not there, even though I think it’s an optimistic budget, thinking outside of the box, moving us where we need to be in terms of adequately funding education. In 1992, we said to the citizens of the State of Florida that, if you approve the establishment of a lottery in Florida, those dollars will complement funding already earmarked for education. But that has not happened. In fact, the opposite has happened. Rather than utilizing resources from our sales and property taxes to help fund education, we have removed those dollars, so that the lottery now almost completely has replaced what we would have put in and we are no further ahead. We are status quo, standing in the same position.
WONO: What are some of the challenges that you see to the education system in Florida?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, we know that Florida has for a long time been a bargain in terms of higher education through our colleges and universities. However, we can no longer afford to offer higher education at the tuition levels and the funding levels that we had in the past. So, we have been increasing the tuition at our colleges and universities and for people coming outside of Florida, we have out of state tuition as well. And so, one of the challenges is to continue some of the programs we have like the Bright Futures scholarship, which is based exclusively on academic performance and a certain grade point average–offering a free ride or total scholarship to go to a university or college in Florida. Well, we can no longer afford to do that and we’re now proposing that students with Bright Futures scholarships pay for their books, if they register for courses and don’t finish them or drop them after a certain point; they are going to have to reimburse the State. So, one of the challenges is adequate funding for education. Right now, we are in a position where many of our students are in large lecture halls, three, four hundred students in a hall with a teacher, because we don’t have the funding to hire more faculty, we don’t have the funding to erect more buildings. We are using more distance learning techniques and people are taking classes online and I welcome that kind of technology. I, at the same time, realize that we are going to have to adequately fund education. Some institutions like our historically black colleges and universities that are lagging behind and have not been adequately funded over the years, it’s even more important now to bring them to a level where they can keep their doors open. These institutions have played and continue to play a crucial role in serving our student population which, without them, would not have access to higher education.
WONO: Representative Thompson, Florida voters passed a class-size Amendment in 2002 and I know that there is a deadline of August for compliance. Many argue that it would cost the State billions to comply. What is your view and how do you see this playing out?
Geraldine Thompson: Well with the class-size amendment at the elementary school level, we required no more than 18 students in a classroom; at the middle school level, its about 22 students and in high school, its about 25. For years, our parents have been told, you can move your children from a school that’s not doing well or a failing school and put that child in private school where there are smaller class-sizes. Well, if we know that it works well in private school, it will work well in the public school system. So, that was the intent of the class-size amendment; to bring us to a point where a teacher–and as a former educator, I can tell you, I can certainly give more individualized attention to a student in a more intense way, if I am working with 20 students, rather than if I am working with 40. Currently, in some of our high schools we are about 27; we are not that far off. So, the idea is to freeze it at the levels now and then when the economy rebounds, go back and revisit it.
The schools’ superintendents and some teachers are in favor of freezing it and having the latitude to look at class-size based on a school average, rather than on a class-by-class basis. I think that might be a good compromise, but I don’t want us to retreat from class-size. I know that there is a proposal now from the Governor to go back to the citizens and to ask for an amendment that would release the State of Florida from implementing the class-size. I would not support it. As I said before, I think you do a better job in teaching students when you have a manageable number of students to work with.
WONO: Florida has a jobless rate, currently of 11.8% and many businesses are struggling to survive. What’s your own view on how the State’s economy might be jump-started? What are the four or five major priorities on which Florida should be concentrating?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, if we think about a state like North Carolina, that depended at one point almost exclusively on tobacco, tobacco farming and tobacco products, and then, when people decreased the use of tobacco, they could no longer rely on that product. That state began to do something that we are beginning to do here in Florida–invest in their colleges and universities to do research in the biomedical field and to implement technology. What is happening here in Florida, in Orlando, specifically, we’re talking about the Burnham Institute that will be doing research on how to deal with and treat and cure diabetes; we are talking about Nemours, which will be a specialty children’s hospital to treat illnesses that other hospitals may not have the expertise to deal with; we’re discussing a new medical school at the University Center of Florida. We’re talking about a whole medical city at Lake Nona. That’s what I meant earlier when I said we’re moving to a knowledge-based economy and we have to get our young people ready to take those jobs, otherwise we end up importing people from other states to take the jobs, after granting tax breaks and other incentives for those entities to locate here. So, what we’ve got to do to jump start the economy is to invest in education, to prepare our young people for the jobs that are going — those jobs of the future. We were also talking about green technology and things like solar energy. We live in the sunshine state, yet we generate less solar energy than Germany. And so, we need to be focusing on those kinds of things. Those are the jobs of the future.
WONO: You and your colleagues have been conducting a series of public awareness exercises sensitizing minorities on the upcoming 2010 Census. How has that gone and do you anticipate there will be higher levels of participation among minorities than ten years ago when the last Census was conducted?
Geraldine Thompson: The awareness activities have gone well. In every area where there is a member of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, on January 27th there was an activity in Orlando where my office partnered with Senator Gary Siplin’s, to host a job fair for people who want to work for the Census. The jobs pay $14 an hour. We held the event at the James R. Smith Center in my district. Over 200 people came to take the test; there is a basic skills test you have to pass in order to qualify to work for the Census. Once an individual qualifies, that person is placed on the eligibility list to be called to work for the Census. What is so important about that is, when you send a person from a community, to knock on the doors of someone who lives in the community, there is a higher level of trust, a higher level of comfort than somebody from outside the area coming in. Now what we expect is that, the Census forms are going to go out in early March, we’re going to encourage everybody to complete those Census forms–there are only ten questions–and send them back by April 1. If the forms have not been returned by that date, we’re going to send out ambassadors–folks who will be employed to begin knocking on doors, visiting places of business, like beauty parlors, barbershops and churches, to inform that, much is riding on this Census count. We’re talking about funding for our hospitals, our senior citizens, for education and more. There’s $400 billion available at the National level and it will be parceled out and sent to states, depending on the population size of the state and services that people need. So, if persons don’t respond, then we can’t get the funds to provide the services. Florida in the last Census count was projected to have a little over 18 million people, and we know that a lot of people were not counted. So, we are listed as the fourth largest state in the nation, when actually we think it should be number three, but people have to respond to the census. So the $400 billion I referred to earlier, how that is allocated across states is very much dependent on people responding to the Census.
The other thing that’s important about the 2010 census is, our representation in Washington, D.C., depends on the responses to the Census. Whether we qualify for one more member in Congress or two will depend on the numbers. The 2010 Census also, is going to determine how the lines are drawn for legislators to represent us in Tallahassee, and so, it’s just critical that people respond to the 2010 Census. And, yes, we do expect that we’ll have a higher response this year than we did in 2000, because we are using different methods. We’re not using just traditional advertising; we’re actually going into the communities where people live and drawing on the folks who live there to contact their friends and neighbors.
WONO: Do you think illegal immigrants should be counted?
Geraldine Thompson: Yes, indeed, because they need services. So, I think that they should be counted. And particularly now, that Haitians qualify for Temporary Protected Status, I think that they need to be counted. They have to be counted, so that we’ll be able to get the funds to provide the services that they are going to need.
WONO: One of your hobbies is writing. What do you write? Is it short stories, novels and have you done any writing lately?
Geraldine Thompson: I have been extremely busy and have not done a lot of writing, except for things related to my legislative position. My most recent writings have to do with the history of African-Americans in Orlando. I undertook research and participated in an oral history project in the 1980s where we interviewed various people. As you ride around Orlando and see names like Pappy Kennedy and Nap Ford and I. Sylvester Hankins, Jr., many do not know who these people are. Well, we interviewed them back in the 1980s and I sat down at a point, about ten years ago and transcribed all the audio taped conversations. From that material I was able to compile a book that highlighted the history and the contribution of African-Americans in Central Florida. So, that’s the kind of writing that I do, historical research and documentation.
WONO: Representative Thompson, final question. There’s an upcoming U.S. Senate race and Governor Crist and Marco Rubio are in a tight race–in fact, I think Rubio is pulling ahead– for the Republican nomination. Now, they both lead the Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek, by 13 to 15 percentage points. Do you have any predictions?
Geraldine Thompson: Well, I’m supporting Kendrick Meek. I’m working for him, I’ve contributed financially to his race and I think he would serve us very well in Washington DC. He’s been a member of Congress there for eight years. So, he would just be moving to the next level. As you say, and surprisingly to a lot of people, we see Macro Rubio now pulling ahead of Governor Crist, but polls go back and forth, so we may see this change, depending on the economy and on what happens. But, in terms of my support, I am supporting Congressman Kendrick Meek.
WONO: Thank you very much.
Geraldine Thompson: Thank you, too. Good to talk with you.
More About Geraldine Thompson:
Geraldine F. Thompson (born November 18, 1948) is the Florida House of Representatives leader Pro Tempore and a representative of State House District 39 in Orange County.
Thompson, 60, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and grew up in Perrine, Florida. She and her husband, Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr. have lived in Orlando since 1973.
After six years in Orange County Public Schools, she left the classroom to accept a position as Director of the Equal Opportunity Office at Valencia Community College where she served for 24 years as Assistant to the President. Among her many accomplishments at Valencia Community College, she initiated 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. She also served on the Florida Commission of Human Relations.
Also considered a local historian, her passion for history led her to conducting research and compiling documents which resulted in authoring a book entitled, “Black America Series: Orlando, Florida,” in 2003. She is 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. Representative Thompson serves on the Board of the Association to Preserve African American Society, History & Traditions, Inc. and the Holocaust Memorial and Resource Center.
During her tenure in the House she has filed legislation to outlaw the mutilation of young women, increase penalties for hate crime perpetrators, provide $1.8 million in trust fund monies for a student who was injured in a local public school, and increase access to healthcare for women diagnosed with breast cancer. On November 18, 2008, she was unanimously selected by her colleagues to serve as the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore, the second highest ranking Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives until 2010.
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. She enjoys reading and traveling.
Contact Representative Thompson:
316 The Capitol
402 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300
Phone: (850) 488-0760
511 West South Street
Orlando, FL 32805-2761
Phone: (407) 245-151
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