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Book excerpt: Florida's Minority Trailblazers by Susan A. MacManus

Susan MacManus

Florida's Minority Trailblazers

"Florida’s Minority Trailblazers: The Men and Women Who Changed the Face of Florida Government'' provides Floridians with an in-depth look at a half century of Florida’s racial/ethnic history through the personal stories of over 50 minority trailblazers in modern-day Florida politics, beginning with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965) and the historic U.S. Supreme Court cases ordering legislative and congressional districts to be drawn utilizing the “one person, one vote” standard.  

The Civil Rights Movement coincided with Florida’s rapid population explosion that yielded the state more representatives in Congress with each successive Census and ultimately changed the faces of state government officeholders (legislative, executive, judicial) in Tallahassee as well -- a process that is ongoing. Among the trailblazers included in the book, 41 percent were born outside the United States, 12 percent had one or more parent born abroad, and 16 percent had one or more grandparent born outside the U.S.

Tampa-area trailblazers featured include: Elvin Martinez (D), first Hispanic of Spanish/Cuban heritage elected to the Florida House of Representatives under one person, one vote standard; Louis de la Parte (D), first Hispanic elected to Florida Senate and first minority President of the Florida Senate; Robert “Bob” Martinez (R), first Hispanic Governor of Florida; Douglas L. “Tim” Jamerson (D), first African-American Commissioner of Education (appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles), and Peggy Quince, first African-American female appointed to the Florida Supreme Court (jointly by Governors Lawton Chiles, Democrat and Jeb Bush, Republican), and later the Court’s first black female Chief Justice. 

Understanding success

Historically, roadblocks to winning state and national offices have been particularly steep for persons of color, often serving as deterrents to their even contemplating a run for or seeking an appointment to higher office.  So what has pushed some to try, successfully, while others have just stood by? Studying successes of these pioneers gives us a keener sense of:
  1. the role of culture, kinships, friendships, and mentoring,
  2. the importance of education, college and community organizations, and churches as socialization agents,
  3. the impact of discrimination and legal roadblocks on candidacy and appointment rates, and
  4. the importance of coalition building in settings where racial/ethnic minorities make up less than a majority of the voting public.
The Sunshine State’s multiplicity of races, ethnicities and countries of origin make it an ideal laboratory in which to study the commonalities and unique attributes of those we label “trailblazers.” Trailblazers are those individuals in minority groups who have braved the tangled jungle of government in the past half century and carved out a trail for others like them to follow. They are important to study.

First of all, they serve as role models. To minority professionals working quietly and steadily, yet heretofore ignored and overlooked for public office; to students mulling futures and careers; to housewives, laborers, and community activists struggling to overcome problems in their communities, the trailblazers offer a beacon of hope and inspiration.

Once elected or selected, trailblazers stand to make a difference, defying the business-as-usual policies and practices of the bodies in which they serve. Legislative agendas, for example, are more likely to contain proposals to improve education, jobs, and living conditions for minority populations. Hiring practices change in order to recruit a wider diversity of candidates. 

Shaping the future

Finally, and no less important, the election or appointment of trailblazers can improve the white community’s racial attitudes and tolerance. Many who might have doubted the competence of minority officeholders gradually shift their perceptions. Young people, who have grown up with racial/ethnic and gender diversity in government, are more likely to accept diversity as a fact of life. They expect to see it among those who seek political office -- from both major political parties.   

Such significant effects raise questions. How did these trailblazers emerge? What triggered their embarkation on new paths? Why Florida? Are there lessons here from which officeholders, current and potential, in other states can learn? And what advice do these pathbreakers have for young minorities contemplating running for office or dreaming of being appointed to top-level executive and judicial posts? Their individual stories are a study of ambition and risk-taking by Floridians of color. Each is different, reflecting different points in time and their own biographies.

The book can be ordered from the University Press of Florida or by calling MacManus’ USF Office (813-974-5351).

Author's note: The book took me nearly 10 years to complete. I regarded it as the last chance to give more context to the state’s rapid growth and political evolution. When I returned home to take a job at the University of South Florida and began teaching Florida Politics, it became evident that throughout most of the state’s high-growth period, political science scholars in the state had been heavily engaged in research using statistical models to explain the transitioning of Florida from a “yellow dog Democrat” state to a competitive two-party state. There was very little qualitative-oriented research gathering the rich personal stories of those whose faces made Florida’s politics much more diverse and led to Florida’s reputation as an “immigrant magnet” state. Now there is, thanks to so many who shared my desire to save this history for all of us and for future generations. -- Susan A. MacManus, Distinguished University Professor, University of South Florida
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