Troubled upbringing gives unique perspective to Latvala challenger
CLEARWATER - After being shuffled among 14 foster homes over a nine-year period, it's hard for Ashley Rhodes-Courter to pinpoint which part of the emotional and physical abuse was the worst.
She was denied food. She was beaten so hard with a spoon that she marveled at the red imprint, white where the holes had been, on her buttock. One time, she said, a foster mother shoved the sick girl's face into vomit.
But Rhodes-Courter, 26, has turned her pain into power.
Today, she's an internationally known child welfare activist who has penned a New York Times bestselling memoir about the hardships she overcame and consults groups on the subject.
She's also a Democratic political newcomer who has launched a David and Goliath campaign against veteran Republican lawmaker Jack Latvala for a state Senate seat in the newly created District 20.
Running on a child advocacy platform, Rhodes-Courter says she offers an enthusiasm and a level of expertise that she believes will appeal to voters. At the least, she hopes to draw attention to the issue.
"I know what it's like to be impoverished, seen the child welfare system, felt the impact of budget cuts. I've been able to experience firsthand what happens when we don't have legislative priorities in place," Rhodes-Courter said. "My story isn't unique and it won't get any better unless someone starts standing up for these kids."
And standing up wasn't easy.
Born to a single teen mom, Rhodes-Courter says she entered foster care at age 3 in Tampa after her drug-addicted mother became unable to care for her and her younger brother.
Rhodes-Courter struggled through Florida's child dependency system until she was adopted at age 12 by Phil and Gay Courter of Crystal River.
Feeling "unworthy of love," the preteen initially acted out against her new parents and their two biological sons.
But the self-described "education junkie" soon realized she had found the stability she needed to thrive.
With her adoptive family's help, a 14-year-old Rhodes-Courter embarked on her advocacy career in 2000, suing the Department of Children and Families for the years of abuse she suffered under a foster mother's care. The claim was settled for an unspecified amount several months later.
At 17, the college hopeful entered a USA Today essay contest, hoping to win a scholarship. The piece, about her ambivalence toward her adoption, was so moving she was soon fielding inquiries from publishers. Rhodes-Courter says her book, Three Little Words, is currently being optioned for a film.
Meanwhile, the Eckerd College graduate expects to complete a master's degree in social work through University of Southern California's distance-learning program in December.
That's in addition to her speaking engagements, interning at the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office with the juvenile division, caring for three youngfoster children with her stay-at-home husband, and preparing to deliver her first biological child four days after election.
Rhodes-Courter said she decided to add a Senate run to her plate partly because she was shocked there was no Democratic voice in the mix.
According to Rhodes-Courter, child welfare has direct ties to other social welfare systems such as the prison system, where inmates are often former foster kids or come from dysfunctional families.
She says her experience fostering cooperation among the bipartisan groups she consults would serve her well in the Senate.
"I think it would be an amazing change to see for the first time someone elected who has this social systems perspective and can educate other policy makers on how all of these other systems are related," Rhodes-Courter said.
Latvala, of Clearwater, says Rhodes-Courter seems "very bright" and admits she is more knowledgeable about foster care.
But he wonders why the St. Petersburg woman is running against him when she lives outside the district. (State law says she needn't move into District 20 unless she wins.) Saying she related each question at a recent candidate forum back to child welfare, Latvala also questions his opponent's breadth on other topics.
Foster care is "a very important issue obviously but we've really got a plate full of big issues," Latvala said. "I've got the experience, the roots in the community, the knowledge of a wide range of issues and things that have been tried and failed in the past. I've got proven leadership to get people to follow my lead on issues."
Rhodes-Courter, however, says child welfare isn't her only platform.
She also supports an Internet sales tax and a high-speed rail, has called for a review of Florida's Stand Your Ground and gun control laws, and is a strong advocate for solar energy and other sustainability measures.
Recounting how many foster children, just as she did, view school as a refuge, Rhodes-Courter is a strong proponent of full funding for education.
So far, Rhodes-Courter's very "grass roots" campaign has raised a modest $3,575 to Latvala's mighty $510,457.
Asked why she didn't first try for a smaller post like School Board, Rhodes-Courter joked that Senate is the natural next step for this former fifth-grade class president: "I wanted to jump in feet first. Go big or go home."
--Keyonna Summers, Times Staff Writer