Oldsmar City Council candidate open about struggles with alcoholism

OLDSMAR — City council hopeful Linda Norris has a record that most candidates for public office would shy away from.

Two DUI convictions.

Multiyear license suspensions and revocations.

Two other arrests.

But the 48-year-old business owner wants to serve Oldsmar so badly that she's willing to discuss her battle with alcoholism and face public scrutiny.

She said she wants her candidacy to inspire others to shed the shame of their pasts. She said she wants to show them that they can pursue their dreams, regardless of their histories.

"If this recovering alcoholic doesn't step up and try," she said, "others with similar struggles might not step up and try."

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Her record, which spans from 1981 to 1998, is so substantial that she said she did not remember, until reminded by a Times reporter, a 1981 arrest in Tampa for possession of barbiturates and quaaludes and a 1996 arrest in Miami for resisting an officer and trespassing. The 1981 charge was dismissed, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records. She was convicted of the 1996 charges but was given credit for time served.

"I knew my past," she said. "I just didn't remember it all. That's a symptom of the disease."

Norris knows she doesn't fit the profile of a typical candidate. She could have avoided the judgment, the vetting, the embarrassment and just applied to any one of Oldsmar's seven voluntary boards. But Norris chose to run for elected office because she felt she could make more of an impact on the council than she could on an advisory board.

Norris said she had some reservations.

"I was afraid that people would judge me for the mistakes I've made in the past, and they would not understand that people can overcome anything," she said.

Before she qualified for Seat 4, she came clean with a veteran of the Oldsmar political scene, current vice mayor and former mayor Jerry Beverland.

"She said there are some things I probably need to tell you about myself," he said.

Norris told him about DUI convictions in 1985 and 1989, license revocations in 1986 and 1990, a relapse in 1998 in which she refused to take breath and blood tests.

"Well, you shouldn't be judged on your past," Beverland said he told Norris. "You should be judged on your present. I think anybody can be an example. I don't care who you are. Nobody, absolutely nobody, needs to throw rocks."

Since Norris entered the race against former council member Loretta Wyandt and former Tampa Tribune sales and marketing executive Robert Brown, she has received an endorsement from the International Association of Firefighters Local 2980, which represents firefighters in Oldsmar and Palm Harbor.

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Alcoholism runs in Norris' family, she said.

She was a senior at Tampa's Leto High when she had her first drink. She was less than two months shy of her 38th birthday when she had her last.

She started drinking heavily after her father died of a massive heart attack in October 1979. "I was able to forget," she said. "I was able to find happiness — false happiness."

She drank so much at an office Christmas party in 1984 that her boss at Pine State Securities, a Tampa mortgage company, put a note in her personnel file.

But the drinking didn't affect her professional ascent. And to a certain degree, that made her feel invincible.

It wasn't until an April 10, 1998, stop in Hillsborough County — just four months after the state reinstated her license from the 1989 DUI — that she decided she wasn't invincible anymore.

She didn't want to live her life as an alcoholic. She wanted to be remembered for her successes in the business and philanthropic worlds, not for the pitchers of beer she could kick back in one sitting.

She went to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings every day. Some days, she went twice.

She found God and prayed.

She met with an alcohol counselor who told her she wasn't a bad person, just a sick person. Norris said she learned that alcoholism is a disease that affects millions of people. She felt understood.

"I wasn't ashamed anymore," she said.

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Norris will celebrate 11 years of sobriety on April 26.

Since then, she's opened her own business, Providence Painting Inc. The Tampa company employs 17 people and grossed about $800,000 last year.

She's volunteered with charities across the Tampa Bay area.

And now she wants to put that business and philanthropic experience to use on the city council. A first time candidate, Norris said she wants to be the voice of Oldsmar's 14,000 residents and help the city become an even safer, cleaner and more prosperous town. She announced last month that if she were elected, she would give her council salary — about $8,400 — to Oldsmar charities. Voters go to the polls March 9.

"Maybe it will give people the courage to say, 'Maybe I can quit. Maybe alcohol doesn't have to define me or my life,' " Norris said. "Maybe that's what God wants out of this."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Oldsmar City Council candidate open about struggles with alcoholism 02/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 7:08pm]

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