JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One morning, a week before Labor Day, a dozen volunteers were working the phones to elect union longshoreman, Tony Hill, to the Florida Senate.
“Tony is easy to talk to,” said Tim Artis, one of the volunteers at Hill’s headquarters on Jacksonville’s north side. “He has a great love of people. When my cousin was having trouble getting Medicare, Tony stepped in and solved it.”
The AFL-CIO, African American community groups, the women’s equality movement and all other progressive movements in Jacksonville endorse Hill, a recipient last year of a PWW “Courage Award,” The city is festooned with billboards and lawn signs saying “Elect Tony Hill: Performance not Promises.”
Senate District 1 stretches south from Jacksonville nearly to Daytona Beach along the St. Johns River. But 82.5 percent of the vote is concentrated in Jacksonville. The district is nearly three-to-one Democratic, with 87,000 African Americans, 45,000 whites and 1,200 Latinos among its diverse population.
Hill, a community organizer for the Service Employees International Union, spent an hour with this reporter. “The race is in full swing,” he said. “We’re talking issues that are important to working families: defending public education, health care and prescription drugs for all and livable-wage jobs.”
Hill served in the Florida legislature from 1992-2000 until term limits forced him to step down. He co-sponsored legislation to establish the Florida Commission on Minority Economic and Business Development and won increased funding for Black colleges. He sponsored the Florida Farmworker Safety Act and the Florida Motor Voter Act to makes it easier for people to register and vote.
This summer, Hill, State Senator Kendrick Meeks, and State Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Fort Lauderdale co-sponsored a petition to place a referendum on the November ballot to reduce “class size” in public schools to 18 in grades K-3, 20 in grades 4-8 and 22 students in grades 9-12.
“This ballot initiative is the silver bullet that gives us an effective message against Gov. Jeb Bush in November,” he said. “Bush calls himself the ‘education governor’ but he opposes this class size ballot measure.”
As a state legislator and then Secretary-Treasurer of the Florida AFL-CIO, Hill, with Meeks and National Organization for Women leader Barbara DeVane-Gilberg, staged a 24-hour sit-in in Gov. Jeb Bush’s office in January 2000 to protest the governor’s “One Florida” plan to terminate affirmative action programs in the state university system. A few days later, 50,000 students and other fighters for equality marched to the State Capitol.
The sit-in and demonstration galvanized the upsurge, including nearly 900,000 Black voters, in the rejection of George W. Bush in the November 2000 election. During the post-election “Battle of Florida,” Hill lead protest marches in West Palm Beach and Tallahassee demanding that election officials “count every vote.”
Hill said that if all the votes had been counted, “George W. Bush would not be in the White House. Right here in Duval County, 27,000 votes, mostly of African Americans, were not counted because the court ordered the vote count stopped.” Hill said the struggle now is to prevent the theft of the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.
Hill announced many months ago that he would run for the Florida Senate. Later E. Denise Lee, an African American legislator, announced her candidacy. Many charge she is a stalking-horse for Jeb Bush and the Republican Party, which has poured thousands of dollars into her coffers. Hill compared it to the GOP’s dirty tricks switch-over vote to unseat Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA).
“Jeb Bush has unleashed the dogs,” he said. “He and his supporters don’t want a progressive voice in Tallahassee. I come from a working-class background. My seat is an organizing seat. When union members are elected, they articulate people’s kitchen table needs. We can change public policy to provide livable wages so people don’t have to work two or three jobs to support their families. We need elected officials who represent the people and not Enron and the corporate rich.”
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