The Black Vote 


In 1984, a 44-year-old financial planner named Tim Adams took a look at the large number of black voters registered in Orlando and decided he would do something no other black person had done before: be a candidate for mayor of Orlando.

Adams, now the 59-year-old president of a west-side construction company, prepared for a six-month campaign. He bought brochures and yard signs, and gathered about 30 campaign volunteers from Valencia Community College and the Central Florida Labor Council. Adams campaigned on a platform of economic development, affordable housing and job training. He collected $4,100 from supporters.

Word on the street was that Adams didn't stand a chance against incumbent Bill Frederick, a no-nonsense attorney who rolled to his first election victory in 1980 with 68 percent of the vote.

The prediction of a Frederick landslide proved accurate. Though about a third of the city's population at the time was black, more than 14,000 voters -- 67 percent of those registered -- cast a ballot for Frederick. Adams limped home with just 3,200 votes.

Four years later, in 1988, Adams ran against Frederick again with similar results. Frederick crushed him in contributions and at the polls. Orlando hasn't had a black mayoral candidate since.

"People I knew from Chamber of Commerce meetings told me there was no way I'd win because it would be another 20 years before Orlando was ready for a black mayor," Adams says.

It hasn't quite been two decades since Adams' first loss, but Orlando now has its second black mayoral candidate. And he's much better positioned than Adams ever was to become the city's next chief executive.

Derrick Wallace is the 49-year-old CEO of Construct Two Group, a construction management firm. He's a short, stocky man who makes a habit of removing his glasses before posing for photographs. Nicknamed "Shine" for his shiny brown eyes, Wallace grew up in the low-income Parramore neighborhood, graduated in 1971 from one of Orlando's few historic black institutions, Jones High School, received an accounting degree from Florida A&M University and eventually started his own business. Wallace has been fairly visible in the community, sitting on the board of directors for a number of civic and charitable organizations, including Goodwill Industries and the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission. He has never held public office, though he spent $7,900 in 1984 to win 500 votes in an unsuccessful bid to become District 6 commissioner.

The winner of that race was Mable Butler, the west-side matriarch so popular she now lives on a street named after her. Butler, who expanded her reach by serving as county commissioner for eight years, has given her blessing to Wallace's campaign, helping launch his candidacy Jan. 4 at the West Colonial smokehouse of famed chef Johnny Rivers.

With Butler's endorsement, Wallace is hoping to rejuvenate a black constituency often fragmented by infighting and territorial disputes. If Wallace can persuade them to turn out for him, he could surprise as a spoiler or even force his way into the runoff because blacks are by far the largest minority in the city, comprising 22 percent of 81,700 registered voters.

But that's a big "if." Black turnout in Orlando elections is typically pitiful, and Wallace, despite his civic service, is relatively unknown. Political observers were surprised he entered the race since Tico Perez, a well-known, well-financed minority, announced he was running last spring. Yet Wallace says he's encouraged by the response he's received in west-side neighborhoods. "I will most likely have the consensus of the black community," he says. "There's excitement like I've never seen before."

Pillar of justice

Having a wealthy, black, connected candidate of Wallace's caliber should mean a lot to Orlando, considering how far the region has come in realizing black equality. Central Florida has a history of treating blacks as inhumanely as any community in the South, beginning with its first arrivals.

Aaron Jernigan, considered Orlando's founder when he settled in the area in 1842, owned eight slaves; four women and four men. Jacob Summerlin, who today has an east-side street named after him, once traded 20 slaves for a herd of cows.

During the Jim Crow years, blacks in Orlando were separated from whites from the cradle to the grave -- in hospitals, orphanages, trains and buses, restaurants, funeral homes and cemeteries.

Orange County wasn't as notorious for its Klan activity as the panhandle, Lake County or even Apopka, but the city was nonetheless supportive to Klan members and sympathizers. The anti-black film "Birth of a Nation," which portrayed Klansmen as Southern heroes, set attendance records in 1919 at the Orlando Grand Theater. In 1920, 500 Klansmen marched through downtown Orlando as a show of force during election season. Three Orange County Klansmen -- Arlie Gillian, Edward Spivey and James Dean -- were tried and acquitted, along with eight members of the Tampa police department, for a 1935 attack on a labor organizer who was tarred, feathered and beaten to death. Harry T. Moore, whose life-long mission was to register blacks to vote, died with his wife Henriette after a Christmas Day 1951 bombing of his Mims home. Authorities believed the Klan was responsible, but no arrests were ever made.

In fact, 1951 was a particularly gruesome year for Orlando blacks. The Klan burned crosses, made threats, beat people and bombed an apartment complex and custard stand that dared to service blacks. Orange County officials, as was the custom of the day, either looked the other way or were complicit in the violence. Commissioner John Talton and longtime sheriff Dave Starr (whom present-day state attorney Lawson Lamar once called a "pillar of justice") were both Klansmen.

Orlando blacks couldn't change the system because they were kept out of the voting booths. Florida, the last slave state admitted to the union, created poll taxes and separate ballot boxes to confuse largely illiterate blacks, effectively circumventing the 15th Amendment which granted voting rights to all people. In 1901, the Democratic party helped orchestrate another tactic, the white-only primary, which prohibited blacks from voting in primary elections. Each election cycle segregationist Democrats retained office because the few Florida Republicans at that time could not win election. Consequently, only six blacks were registered to vote in Orange County in 1906.

When blacks tried to vote, they were harassed, bullied, beaten and murdered. Central Florida's most infamous incident of racial violence, the Ocoee Massacre, began after Mose Norman, a black farmer who migrated to Central Florida from South Carolina in a mule-drawn wagon, tried to vote in the 1920 election. Whites descended on Ocoee and found Norman at the home of a friend, July Perry. In the ensuing shootout, Norman escaped but Perry was lynched, strung up with a sign that read, "This is what we do to niggers that vote." Two dozen houses, two churches and a lodge were burned and, according to an NAACP observer, more than 60 blacks killed.

Even after the Florida Supreme Court ruled the all-white primaries unconstitutional in 1945, Orlando continued to discriminate at the polls until 1950. In fact Orlando was the last city in Florida to stop the practice. City leaders would have preferred to keep barring black voters, but the threat of a lawsuit finally forced them to dismantle the White Voters Executive Committee in time for the Oct. 3, 1950 primary.

A decade later, Orlando finally began to integrate, slowly but with less turmoil than in other parts of the south. Members of the city council voted against integrating a city-owned swimming pool even after an interracial committee recommended approving it. S.H. Kress and Woolworth both closed their lunch counters when blacks tried to order food in 1960. Lake Fairview Beach was closed when members of the NAACP Youth Camp tried to swim there. And police recommended closing the Big Apple City Market on South Orange Blossom Trail after blacks, standing in the dining room, were served hamburgers.

Eventually, displays of civil disobedience, led by Sylvester Mack and Father Pinder Nelson, wore down the white establishment. Even so, Orange County was far from racially enlightened. The school system integrated its student body in 1964, 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and in the summer of 1980, a three-night race riot broke out in Parramore, sparked by two white truckers chasing a prostitute who had robbed them.

By the 1990s, with "diversity" the buzzword across America, Orlando was forced to hustle to match a nationwide pursuit of multiculturalism. Mayor Glenda Hood hired the city's first black police and fire chiefs -- Jerry Demings and Charles Walker, respectively -- and hired or promoted capable, efficient black administrators in Kevin Edmunds, Marcia Goodwin, Walter Hawkins and Leila Allen.

"Mayor Hood did a tremendous job of promoting the dignity of every human being," says Father Pinder Nelson, the '60s activist. "Blacks would have never gotten in this `elevated` position if the old-boys network was still in power. The mayor did a tremendous job in trying to make everyone equal or at least working towards equality. She began to change our attitudes towards each other."

Hood wasn't perfect in her choices relating to race. The Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation, a city-sponsored nonprofit begun in the mid-1990s as a one-stop help center for low-income west-side residents, fizzled last year without accomplishing many of its goals. The organization still exists, but its offices have moved to the east side, and its funding and future are very much in doubt.

Hood also became so desperate in her 2000 re-election bid against former council member Bruce Gordy that she resorted to racial politics. A brochure she sent only to west-side residents reprinted an Orlando Sentinel article in which former black commissioner Nap Ford accused Gordy of racism. Gordy's crime? He was unwilling to shell out more public money to buy property in the low-income Parramore neighborhood because there was no coherent plan for revitalizing the area.

Recently, Hood didn't endear herself to the black community in what many perceive to be the city's blundered handling of a black county commissioner, Homer Hartage, who claimed in a lawsuit he was prevented from running for mayor because city commissioners voted on a shortened election cycle. The short time-span, Hartage alleged, didn't give him enough time to move into the city and mount a decent campaign. Hood angered blacks further by delaying her resignation until after the election, prohibiting mayor pro tem Daisy Lynum from briefly becoming the first black mayor in city history. State senator Gary Siplin, who represents most of southern and western Orlando, says members of the state's black caucus are likely to remember the two incidents during Hood's confirmation hearings in March. "I have seven black senators who are inclined to vote against her," Siplin says.

Even so, Father Nelson says the city's next CEO must show the same courtesy Hood displayed to the black community.

"The best thing she did was she didn't pull things off the table," Nelson says. "She kept things on the table. There was an open debate on the issues. Any mayor who doesn't do that will be in trouble."

Bozo

It is easier to be black in Orange County today than it was 50 years ago, but there are signs that blacks haven't achieved full equality. Blacks are still incarcerated at a higher rate than whites. They die younger, work lower-paying jobs and live disproportionately in substandard housing. Though the mayor of a city of 181,000 can do only so much to alleviate these problems, he could use the bully pulpit to raise awareness of the black plight.

Yet Wallace, a polite, laid-back, folksy candidate, doesn't seem interested in racial politics. When asked about his mayoral agenda, Wallace responds that he'll foster a better working relationship between the mayor's office and city commissioners, and between county and city governments. "We need to take care of home first," he says. "We need to work within the city and county because what's in the best interest of the city is in the best interest of the county as a whole."

A better working relationship between county and city is long overdue, but it's unlikely to stir the kind of emotions that make people turn out at the polls. In fact, black voters don't appear to have much to cheer for in Wallace except his race. When asked what he would do for Orlando's black population, Wallace broadens his response to include just about everybody. "I'm here to listen to issues affecting all people," he says. "Sometimes an issue isn't just a black issue. It might also affect Asians or Caribbean-Americans or Hispanics. I'll be a mayor who is truly concerned about the city of Orlando and will give an ear to listen to all people. I bring accessibility and sensitivity in terms of understanding the needs of everyday people."

Thus far, black Orlando residents seem content simply to have someone from their community running for mayor. Walking door-to-door on a chilly Saturday morning in mid-January, dressed in a white campaign T-shirt, khaki pants and black shoes, Wallace and an aide put signs in yards and pose for photographs (for which Wallace removes his glasses).

At each stop in the Malibu Shores neighborhood, Wallace mentions to voters that his campaign will offer free rides to the polls on Election Day. A free lift obviously ensures that Wallace's power base will turn out. "That's key to the strategy," says Suzanne Wallace, Derrick's wife and the campaign's communication manager.

On this morning Wallace is popular among the neighbors he greets. Few residents turn down a request to stick up a yard sign and several are willing to share their problems with him. "Society has me where I can't vote," says one man, taking a break from working underneath the hood of a pick-up. "Maybe when you become mayor you can change that."

But the street Wallace is walking is adjacent to his Ivey Lane office. He is, in essence, playing to the home crowd.

How he plays to a white audience is a different matter. At a Jan. 16 meet-and-greet in an artist's studio on West Church Street, guests aren't as nice to the candidate.

Artist Robin Van Arsdol asks Wallace how he would revitalize downtown. "I don't know how to do it," Wallace responds. "I'd like to see it similar to the way it happened in Winter Park with Park Avenue and Winter Park Village."

Whereupon an actor who has been milling about whispers to a reporter, "Was that the worst answer ever? The answer to downtown revitalization is art."

But it wasn't just the message. The actor, who called Wallace a "bozo," didn't think much of the messenger either. "Charisma is a commodity across the board. If you have it, you can sell anything."

Wallace's lack of salesmanship was particularly noticeable at a candidate forum Jan. 13 at the College Park Baptist Church. The audience, which was 99 percent white, was not pro-Wallace. Yet he failed to mention a single issue affecting the black community during the two-hour forum.

Wallace supporters, such as former mayoral candidate Tim Adams, say the candidate's reluctance to discuss black issues is smart. "To go into that audience and talk about things that happen in the 'hood wouldn't play well," Adams says.

But that doesn't explain why fellow Democrats Wayne Rich and Buddy Dyer spend more time on the campaign trail talking about Parramore than Wallace does. A cynic would say the two candidates were being practical, trying to alleviate fears of black crime bleeding over into south College Park. But Dyer went one step further. He told the College Park audience why he didn't appreciate Orlando's habit of annexing around minority communities like Holden Heights, creating pockets of the county within city limits. "I don't believe in cherry-picking," Dyer said. "We shouldn't be jumping over property that isn't desirable to the city."

Marion Barry

It would also be nice to see Wallace make a pitch for blacks in Orlando, if for no other reason than to show that somebody from their community has a firm grasp of the issues. "I don't want to say that black leaders are out of touch," says political scientist Michael Hoover, who grew up in Pine Hills, "but they don't seem to have the organic relationship that minority leaders might have once had. What you have is a group of leaders more comfortable on commission boards and meetings with the white downtown elite than with a constituency on the west side."

Homer Hartage said he was ready to put black issues at the forefront of his campaign, including economic development, annexation and reprioritizing the Community Redevelopment Agency, the city's anti-blight agency, so that it brought more subsidies to west-side projects. "We want inclusion," Hartage says. "We want to be part of the process. We want a piece of the economic pie."

Hartage's platform, however, is not typical of those adopted by today's black politicians. Most are like Wallace -- moderate, centrist, professional but mainstream, predictable and bland. They feel none of the urgency to settle racial disparity that Carl Stokes of Cleveland, Ohio, Marion Barry of Washington, D.C., and Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., did when they were elected in the late '60s and early '70s as America's first generation of black mayors. "They had an implicit mandate to follow the precepts of the Civil Rights movement and re-interpret the black power movement," says Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist and author of "African American Leadership." "When the first black mayors took over elected office, there was a heavy focus on things white officials had not been doing. They looked at under-served neighborhoods, blue-collar jobs and African-Americans in the school system. Black leadership that has come later, given the `white` demographics of an area, have tried to pursue a much more moderate course."

In other words, Wallace is smart to play within the white-dominated system. But that doesn't explain why he contributed money to the most conservative candidate in the 2003 mayor's race, a fact that has drawn giggles and confusion from political observers. On Dec. 13, 17 days before Wallace himself entered the race, he handed Pete Barr a $500 check drawn on a personal account.

Wallace says he wrote the check because he was willing to donate to any campaign that asked for a contribution, implying that Barr asked for the cash. "I'll give any of them money," Wallace says.

But Barr, a former advertising executive and part of Orlando's country club set, says it was Wallace who called him, asking for a meeting.

The contribution has aroused suspicion. Buddy Dyer declined to comment on it, but Wayne Rich looked embarrassed for Wallace when he saw the contribution among Barr's filings. "He's probably not real happy he did that now," Rich said.

At best the money is the mark of an inexperienced politician. At worst it's a sign that Wallace is a sell-out. The theory goes like this: Wallace entered the race at the last second, after finding out Homer Hartage wasn't going to enter, to fracture the black vote for the other two Democratic candidates.

"If I were conspiratorial, I would think this was some sort of strategic candidacy to bring down one of the campaigns," says Hoover, the Seminole Community College political science professor. That campaign is likely Dyer's, the Democratic frontrunner, he adds. "If you go with conventional wisdom, most blacks will likely vote for a Democratic candidate. Some people who would have voted for Dyer will now vote for Wallace. Wallace potentially drags Dyer down."

Wallace denies he entered the race to do anything but win. "I'm not diluting anything," he says. "I get out there everyday and I work, from 7:30 a.m. to 9 o'clock at night. This is not a game. I know I can make a difference for the disconnected. Why would I do that for the Republicans? I'm not a phony person. I don't know how to explain the $500, but nobody told me to run."

Wallace calls the donation as a business decision. "You know what happens if you don't contribute," he says. "You get ostracized."

He says his contribution to Barr doesn't hurt minorities because all of the candidates have a poor track record in the black community. "Blacks will be locked out by these guys anyway," he says. "Buddy Dyer, Tico Perez, Bill Sublette, they will all be the same thing. They don't understand the issues of the common, everyday man."

That's a depressing thought, and one of the reasons many black leaders are still deciding which of the eight mayoral candidates will be the most sensitive to their positions. City commissioner Ernest Page, former Orange County nursing administrator Mercerdese Clark, school board member Kat Gordon, Rev. W.D. Judge, Father Pinder Nelson, congresswoman Corrine Brown and state senator Gary Siplin are among those who have remained noncommittal.

Why aren't more black officials endorsing Wallace? "He never asked anybody for it," Gordon responds.

Freshman state representative Bruce Antone, Buddy Dyer's chief of staff for eight of the 10 years Dyer was in office, is endorsing his old boss. Antone makes a pitch for Dyer by pointing out the former state senator helped extend enterprise zones in Eatonville and Orlando, cut the bureaucracy for minorities applying for state and local grants, and secured $2 million in state funds to convert the dilapidated Sunland Hospital in Pine Hills into a park. "Buddy has been out in the community over the years and worshipped with folks," Antone says. "He's a fair guy."

Wallace shrugs off the idea that black Orlando doesn't support him. "You never get everybody," he says. "The rule of thumb is 80 percent. If I get that many, then I will have everybody."

For Orlando blacks, it will be progress enough if they find a candidate 100 percent behind them.


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