Frederica Wilson brings her distinctive style — and substance — to Washington

MIAMI — A young Frederica Smith would sit under her family's dining room table, hidden by a white, crocheted tablecloth, and listen to her father talking politics, jotting down questions to ask him later.

That inquisitive girl, who wore hats and bows to school to emulate her Bahamian grandmother, would grow up to become Frederica Wilson, the newly elected Democratic congresswoman from Miami.

Elected in a landslide to replace U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, Wilson, 68, will bring to Congress her feisty spirit, diligent hard work and the delicate maneuvering skills she learned quickly as a lawmaker in Tallahassee.

"You run on your record — you don't run on what you're going to be," a proud Wilson said. "I am a person who was able to walk into a Legislature that was dominated by Republicans and get more bills passed than some Republicans."

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Frederica Smith was born in Overtown and raised in Liberty City, the youngest of three children. Her parents, Beulah and Thirlee, spoiled her, Wilson says — especially her father, a self-made man who worked his way from shoe shiner to Opa-locka business owner.

Thirlee Smith Sr. would wake up 3-year-old "Freddi'' to show off her reading abilities to his friends. He let her sit in the front passenger seat in the family's blue Pontiac. By the time she was 11, she knew how to drive — and did, taking her mother to the grocery store.

The Smiths, one of the first families to build a house in Liberty City, opened their home for neighbors to watch Lena Horne and Nat King Cole on The Ed Sullivan Show, and to talk politics. Frederica wanted to join the grown-ups, but her mother would make her sit quietly under the table and take notes.

She graduated from Miami Northwestern Senior High School and Fisk University in Tennessee and eloped with Paul Wilson, an investment banker who died in 1988, after the couple had two daughters and a son.

"We have this saying in our house that it doesn't pay to be simple," said LaKesha Wilson-Rochelle, 38, explaining her mother's high expectations. "You have to talk up. You can't just let people walk over you."

An elementary teacher in Miami-Dade public schools, Wilson eventually climbed the ranks to principal of Skyway Elementary, the Miami Gardens school that would propel her into politics.

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It started with the smell of rotten eggs.

The stench, coming from the Agripost composting plant neighboring the school, was so strong that Skyway students could not tolerate outdoor gym class. Inside, mold formed on desk tops, Wilson said. Custodians, accompanied by Wilson, would come in at 6 a.m. to scratch it off.

Wilson made the fight public, sending the president of Agripost 746 letters from Skyway students complaining about the odor. She had kids testify before the school board and Miami-Dade County Commission, sometimes drawing criticism from her bosses. Once, someone called telling Wilson to back off — and threatening her son, Pauly, if she didn't.

The plant closed. The next year, Wilson was elected to the school board, her first political office. She was 50.

On the board, Wilson was best known as an advocate for black students. She founded a program that matches boys with mentors. Sometimes, she took in troubled boys herself.

After six years on the board, Wilson made the jump to the Florida House, replacing Meek. She would move into his state Senate seat eight years later.

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The late Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican, called Wilson "the conscience of the Senate."

In Tallahassee, Wilson successfully pushed for the state to place nonviolent female offenders in prisons closer to their children. She passed laws criminalizing prison rapes and requiring that inmates leaving jail to be tested for HIV/AIDS.

Another of her bills required that young foster children be in day care, after the high-profile disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, which went undetected by state officials for a year.

Her signature issue: education. Wilson expanded her mentorship program across the state and vehemently opposed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT, which she has since helped revise.

Though overshadowed as a Democrat in the GOP-dominated Legislature, Wilson proved effective by focusing on narrow topics many lawmakers could agree on.

"She figured out pretty quickly how to work with the Republican majority to accomplish things that she felt were important from a community perspective," said lobbyist Ron Book. "She learned how to be an inside ballplayer."

To win her congressional seat, Wilson overcame nine candidates. She also came under renewed criticism that, like other lawmakers who work for the school system, she was paid a hefty full-time salary by the Miami-Dade school district even though she spent several months of the year working as a legislator.

Wilson said she takes pride in her school district work and in her time in Tallahassee — and in her popularity. The self-described homebody and gourmet cook, a grandmother of four, says she can't go to the supermarket because too many people want to talk to her.

Her colleagues attribute her success to her tenacious approach and ability to establish lasting ties with co-workers and community members.

"She understands that the legislative process is a collegial one where relationships matter — and the attention to detail on relationships is important," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat.

Yet perhaps nothing has raised Wilson's visibility more than her distinctive collection of hats, her political brand.

At one time, a lawmaker unsuccessfully tried to keep Wilson from wearing her trademark accessory in the state Senate. Wilson defied that challenge and says she intends to do the same in Congress. The U.S. House bars its members from wearing hats.

"If she didn't wear the hats, people would still know her," said state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat and close friend. "She's a firebrand."

Frederica Wilson brings her distinctive style — and substance — to Washington 11/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010 3:57pm]

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