TARPON SPRINGS — Anita de Palma is known best as a Hispanic activist. But in her heyday, de Palma's flamboyant nightclub act reportedly made Carmen Miranda seem tame.
Now, de Palma, a Clearwater resident since the 1990s, is running for Congress and she hasn't lost her flair for the dramatic.
When asked why three creditors say she owes a total of $20,000, the diminutive 73-year-old had an excuse.
The debts weren't hers, de Palma said. She was just buying time to investigate.
"I lost some credit cards, which I didn't take the trouble to report," she said Thursday at her Tarpon Springs campaign headquarters. "And some things were charged against it and, of course, I refused to pay."
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De Palma, a Democratic contender for the 9th Congressional district, will face Sixth Judicial Circuit assistant public defender, Phil Hindahl, 47, of Lutz in the August primary. The district includes parts of Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
De Palma, who lost the primary for the same office two years ago, says she's running because she's unimpressed with Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
"He's still ineffectual," she said "I just think we deserve more leadership for Florida, for our area."
Her interest in politics bloomed as a young woman, volunteering for John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. But her career and her travels distanced her from politics for years.
She began her musical career as a pianist. She went on to perform in theater and nightclubs around the world.
Her act, which featured Mexican tunes, made Carmen Miranda "resemble the grandame in a retirement village," according to a 1968 Milwaukee Journal review.
The 5-foot-1 singer opened her show by whipping off her red cape and staging a faux bullfight with one of the male customers.
For decades, she worked as a performer and then as booker at the Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos, which had several performance spaces.
"The Crystal Room was the big showroom," de Palma said. "That's where I had Paul Anka and all these people."
The Sports Palace was where Julio Iglesias appeared, she said, because "he really was drawing like mad."
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Anita de Palma was originally a stage name. Her given name, she says, is Rosario Anamaria Isabel Lourdes Mendez Gregory. She was born and raised in Manhattan. Her father was Mexican. Her mother, who was born in Tampa, had Scottish/English heritage.
She got the name de Palma from her ex-husband Sergio, who she divorced in 1977. She uses both names, Anita de Palma and Rosario Mendez, for financial transactions.
De Palma, whose first language was Spanish, works as a translator. Her father, who was a linguist, insisted her English be perfect, too. She also speaks French, Italian and "a very poor Portuguese."
De Palma, who has also lived in Mexico and Canada, came to Clearwater because her mother wanted to be buried in Tampa with her family. De Palma settled here with her father.
She met the late Gabriel "Gabe" Cazares, Clearwater's former mayor and county commissioner, while volunteering on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. They forged a close friendship and he introduced her to the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest and oldest Hispanic organizations in the United States.
"He and I were kindred spirits," she said.
Elected in 2003, de Palma served as LULAC's state director for four years, where, among other things, she focused on helping migrant workers and persuading the state's Puerto Rican population to register to vote.
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Recently, de Palma has run into trouble with credit card debt. Over the past three years, she has been sued three times as both Anita de Palma and Rosario Mendez for unpaid credit card bills, totaling more than $20,000.
In December 2008, she was ordered to pay Target National Bank nearly $6,000. In April, a Pinellas County judge ordered that 25 percent of her disposable income be garnished until she paid a $7,000-plus judgment against her linked to a US Airways credit account.
And last year, she was sued to collect nearly $8,000 in connection with a Chase card. As of a May 24 court date, she still hasn't paid.
In each suit, she wrote letters, saying she couldn't pay or show up to court because she was traveling to find work or was not "mentally or physically able."
"I am truly sorry that I have not been here to answer you before, but, as you well know, the job market is dismal and at my age not an easy task," she wrote in June 2009.
Thursday, de Palma explained that she was just "playing for time" to find out what was really going on. "I was also investigating them," she said.
In a 2007 handwritten letter to the court, she said she was 80 years old and had a very limited income.
De Palma, who was 70 then, is not sure why she wrote that.
"I don't know," she said, "but I probably wanted to be very dramatic."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.