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The higher you go, the whiter it gets // Leon Russell, Man in the Middle

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Leon Russell, a high-profile Democrat, was in what you might call a precarious position.

He was up for a job evaluation last month, and his salary was going to be determined by a panel of Republican politicians and their staffers. Clerk of the Circuit Court Karleen DeBlaker, who was running the committee meeting, was even drinking from a mug shaped like an elephant.

"Yeah, it's kind of a hybrid situation," Russell said, laughing about it later. "But I didn't come here with a political mission. I came here to create an equal opportunity system within county government."

He started doing that when he was hired in 1977. At the same time, the county was under pressure by a Justice Department investigation. Russell has monitored hiring practices ever since, helping boost the county's minority employment figures above the levels in the Pinellas work force at large.

He has the authority to nix rank-and-file personnel moves if they don't follow affirmative action rules.

He also has risen to prominence outside the office. He was elected president of the state NAACP this month, and is on the board of directors of the national organization.

But Russell is not without his detractors, who say he's too content to work within the system rather than pushing for dramatic change.

Russell's paycheck comes from the same politicians and administrators whose practices he is supposed to regulate. Although they cautioned him at the meeting last month against meddling too much in their hiring decisions, they gave Russell high marks for professionalism and fairness.

He got a 6 percent raise, to roughly $74,000 per year. He is the top-paid black employee in county government.

"He just does a great job," Supervisor of Elections Dorothy Ruggles said.

"If I had to use one word, it would be balanced," County Administrator Fred Marquis said of Russell's performance. "Leon is our honest broker."

For people dissatisfied with the county's efforts at promoting minorities and women, though, Russell has become a defender of the status quo.

Shirley Newsome, a former tax collector's employee, says Russell's office doesn't do enough for employees.

"They don't work with the people," Newsome said. "If I knew then what I know now, I never would have gone to Leon Russell."

Russell's office dismissed Newsome's discrimination complaint against Tax Collector W. Fred Petty and his predecessor, O. Sanford Jasper. Newsome, who is black, was passed over for a promotion after a review committee ranked her beneath other applicants. She said that she was promised the job and that the committee was a smokescreen to keep her out.

Former Assistant Tax Collector Gerald Castellanos, who plans to run for Petty's job next year, said Russell has failed to protect the rights of employees. Castellanos said Russell is "more interested in keeping his job."

Russell said he has investigated all complaints and has based his judgments on what can be proven. In Newsome's case, the committee's recommendations about the promotion were fair. Discrimination can be a difficult thing to prove, he said.

And in general, "I've always believed that you change the system from inside," Russell said. "The fact that we look for victories in little bites instead of big gulps doesn't fit with everybody's philosophies."

Now a Tampa resident, Russell, 45, developed his beliefs growing up in rural Virginia. He earned degrees in political science and history at East Tennessee State University, then took a job just out of school with the Kentucky Commission for Human Rights. He came to Pinellas in 1977 after three years on the commission, where he helped local governments in Kentucky develop affirmative action plans.

"It's always been my interest to make civil rights a viable part of local government systems," Russell said.

Russell is clearly not a firebrand orator in his pursuit of civil rights. His interests lie more in the mechanics of making and implementing laws.

That style is not for everyone. Charlie Frank Matthews of Fort Pierce, who challenged Russell's election to the state NAACP post, said Russell hadn't provided aggressive leadership.

"He's just a good second-motion man rather than someone to spearhead a leadership direction," Matthews said.

Russell said the NAACP needs to maintain its focus on gaining access to political leaders. Matthews contends the organization should reach out to young people.

"There's always a rub somewhere," Russell said.