TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners killed a proposal Wednesday to change their district boundaries and create a seat favoring Hispanic candidates for office.
The 5-2 rejection fell along party lines and was not unexpected, as it was seen by Republicans as an effort by the board's Democrats to reclaim an edge in county voting.
But it nevertheless came with drama, thanks to someone in the audience.
Marilyn Smith, an activist and commission meeting regular, told the board that Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat, was seeking to "ghettoize" the county with his proposal.
"Now if this sort of thing goes any further, we're going to have Lithuanians, Chinese, everybody is going to want their own district," Smith said.
"You want to be different? Go back where you came from," Smith added. "Sorry, I'm not a prejudiced person, but I'm tired of this hogwash."
Miller later apologized for those remarks to Hispanics who had shown up for the meeting when his proposal came up for debate.
"That cuts deep. It's painful," Miller, the board's only black member, said of Smith's comments. "If you've ever had to face those kind of comments in your life, you know exactly what I'm talking about."
People in the audience applauded and said afterward they were indeed offended.
"It was very unfortunate she had to use that very ugly term," Victor DiMaio, a political consultant who is co-chairman of the nonprofit Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, said afterward. "It was pretty shocking."
Smith, reached later, said one woman in the audience called her "a bad woman" as she left. Not so, Smith said. She said she has no reason to apologize.
"I didn't mean to shock him," Smith said of Miller. "I thought he knew a little bit more about history than that."
Smith said she used the word "ghetto" to conjure the walled-off areas Jews and other ethnic groups were forced to live in by oppressors, from the Spanish Inquisition to the years leading up to World War II. She said she believes Miller's proposal encourages people to segregate themselves, to their detriment.
"Nobody needs to apologize for me because I did nothing wrong," Smith said. "Don't separate yourself. We want people to integrate, not segregate."
The county has seven elected commissioners. Three are chosen in countywide elections. Four represent defined districts of the county.
Miller, one of those district commissioners, proposed making one of the at-large commission seats a district seat, carving out South and West Tampa, with concentrations of Hispanic residents.
The board's Republican members argued that the current system gives all residents an opportunity to vote for or against a majority of the commission. That forces commissioners to be responsive to all residents.
"I believe a majority of residents like being represented by a majority of commissioners," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan, a Republican.
Kevin Beckner, the board's other Democrat, was the only commissioner to support Miller's proposal.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]