TAMPA — Lawyer and longtime Tampa civil rights leader Delano Stewart surprised listeners during a public hearing at City Hall last week when he quoted an NFL player's use of the n-word.
At the time, Stewart, 78, was acting as the city's legal adviser to the Civil Service Board and was delivering a forceful critique of the city's case against a fired parks employee who is black. Then he paused and referred to a racial slur made last year by Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper.
"You know what this reminds me of?" Stewart said. "It's the same thing how Riley got reinstated after he says 'n- - - - -' " while teammate DeSean Jackson "gets fired" after a news report alleged he has ties to gang members.
"They did not prove their case, and they fired somebody," Stewart continued, refocusing his remarks on the city's case against Queen Matthews, who was fired after her televised appearance on a supermarket shopping spree during a three-day medical absence. "They have the burden of proof before you all, and they … (did not present) one scintilla of evidence from any medical professional or anybody who even corroborates (the city's claim against Matthews) … and when she gets on TV, then they get upset. That's what you call cover your butt."
Cooper, who is white, apologized and ended up getting a five-year, $25 million contract extension with $10 million guaranteed. Jackson, who is black, was released by the Eagles. In response, outspoken Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman has accused the Eagles of having a double standard.
After the Civil Service Board meeting, Stewart said he hopes to live long enough to see race play less of a role in society than it does, but his point was that both the Cooper-Jackson controversy and the Matthews firings were examples of unequal treatment. As for the n-word, Stewart said, "it should not have been used, but I was quoting what Riley said."
No one said anything at the time of the meeting, but Civil Service Board members had mixed reactions.
Board Chairman Jimmie Keel was not disturbed.
"I understand the point he was trying to make," Keel said. "I think he was trying to share some of the things that he had personally gone through and seen in life. … I've known him a long time and I have a great deal of respect for him."
Board member Terin Cremer likewise gave Stewart the benefit of the doubt.
"Del is an older man who grew up in a different generation than I did, and so I can see how he looks at it differently than I do," said Cremer, who did not believe race played a role in the Matthews case. "While I did hear the word, to me it was background noise because we were deciding something else."
Stewart's remark surprised board member Paddy Moses, who called a city human resources official the next day to talk about it.
"I didn't know where he was coming from," said Moses, a member of the Civil Service Board through the administrations of four mayors. She said she felt the remark was not appropriate, but she also was sensitive to the fact that Stewart had been mourning the loss of his brother, Frank Stewart, who died March 22.
"I just think we should talk about it, either through the city or the board discuss it," Moses said.
"I'm certain that there will be additional discussion about that remark," said Kimberly Crum, the city's director of human resources. "So unfortunate."
City Attorney Julia Mandell said her staff was listening to the audio recording of the meeting. Her top concern was to make sure the board gets legal counsel that helps it make procedurally sound decisions. She doubted she would decide what follow-up to recommend — if any — until after the 30-day appeal period in the Matthews case expires.
Stewart, who is paid $135 an hour to advise the board as outside counsel, is an "iconic figure in the African-American community and has a long history of speaking up on behalf of the African-American community and being very passionate about it," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
In a career stretching over half a century, Stewart served as Hillsborough County's first black public defender, fought segregation, mentored or was a law partner to a half-dozen lawyers who went on to become judges and, 10 years ago, was awarded the prestigious Herb Goldberg Award for lifetime achievement by the Hillsborough Bar Trial Lawyers Section.
Buckhorn, who counts Stewart as a "very good friend," said "whether it was appropriate in the context of this hearing, I don't know."
"I think context matters," the mayor said. "Obviously, it is a word that nobody should use, but again, he was relating a set of facts here and the facts are, that's what Riley Cooper said. Does that change things? I don't know."
For city employees, using the word can be — and has been — a career-ender.
Since 1987, the city's personnel manual has forbidden employees' use of slurs "directed at or based upon another person's race, color, national origin, sex, religion, handicap or age." Violations are grounds for immediate dismissal. Even in extenuating circumstances, the minimum punishment is 15 days of unpaid suspension. In 1991, a Tampa police major retired rather than be fired after using the n-word in a conversation about an all-black baseball team from the 1940s.
"In the context of it being used as a slur, we don't tolerate it," Buckhorn said. "That is a firable offense."