Friday, May 25, 2018
Politics

The Rev. Chairman Tom Scott on voting, and what's next

He would grow up to be many things: prominent pastor, longtime elected official, strong voice in Tampa's black community — and lately, vocal opponent of legislation that could keep certain voters from the polls.

But on that day all those years ago, Tom Scott was a kid helping his mom.

He was 11, one of 11 brothers and sisters growing up in a three-bedroom house in Macon, Ga., in a time when you still saw separate water fountains for whites and blacks.

But the civil rights movement pressed on, even in Macon. And for the first time in her 51 years, his mother got registered and was going to cast a vote. She had a third-grade education and didn't read so well, so the son she called Thomas went along.

Nearly half a century has passed since he stepped behind the curtain with his mother and pulled the lever like she told him to. (Lyndon B. Johnson, since you ask.) But even then he knew this was important, this sense of dignity and pride, this idea of having a voice and a choice.

"I never forgot that," he says now.

He grew up to be a preacher, a Hillsborough County commissioner for 10 years and a Tampa City council member for four more. (This makes it hard to know what to call him: Rev. Scott? Chairman Scott?) He has been a candidate for mayor and recently was edged out of the race for county elections supervisor in the primary. Notably, he is part of a lawsuit against voter law changes that cut early voting days from up to 14 to eight. Early voting on the Sunday before the election — "souls to the polls" Sunday, he says —was also eliminated.

"The whole idea is to deter African-Americans and Hispanics from voting" and "to suppress the vote in the November election," Scott says, in case you wonder where he stands on this and other efforts to limit voting.

At a downtown lunch spot favored by the powerful and political where I suggest we meet, Scott, 58, is stopped, hugged and administered enthusiastic handshakes by a dozen other diners before he gets to the table. He may also be the only person in the room who, when the snapper and soup are set before us, bows his head to bless the meal.

These days he is trying his hand at political consulting, mentoring young people interested in public life and preaching Sundays at his 34th Street Church of God. It's hard to imagine Tampa's political landscape without him, so what next?

Tallahassee? Probably not. He has seen the capitol up close and come away appalled at how "you had to kiss everybody's ring." (Others might use a less elegant, more graphic visual, but he is a pastor.)

Another local office? Commissioner Mark Sharpe term-limits out in two years. Scott's not saying, but he pays attention to these things, who's likely for which seat and which voters turn out where. If you have any political wonk in you, hearing him handicap races is never boring.

But here's what really bothers him: Apathy, and the idea that any eligible adult cannot muster the enthusiasm to cast a vote.

"The very right people went to jail for, died for, had water hoses and dogs turned on them for. The suffering and the bloodshed," he says. In his voice you hear the preacher he is, but also the son who went with his mother all those years ago to see that her vote counted.

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