What began to shape up last week as a racial debate over the future of Tampa General Hospital took form Saturday as a battle between rich and poor.
About 40 people, many of whom have needed charity medical care, met Saturday and vowed to take on Bruce Siegel, the $335,000-a-year hospital president, and H. L. Culbreath, the former head of TECO Energy Co., who heads the hospital's board.
"This is about us, but it's also about white, middle-class people in Hillsborough County. The folks who are making these decisions, they're not hurting. They're not suffering," Otis Anthony, who was an aide to former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, said during the meeting at the Lee Davis Neighborhood Service Center.
He scanned the mostly African-American crowd.
"Is Tampa General H. L. Culbreath's hospital?"
"No!" they shouted.
"Is Tampa General Bruce Siegel's hospital?"
"Is Tampa General the people's hospital?
Behind each participant's emotional response is a story of someone who turned to Tampa General in a medical crisis. They fear, despite repeated denials from Siegel and Culbreath, that the level of acute care for the poor could be jeopardized by changes to the institution's charter, including a possible change from public to private, non-profit status.
Katie King, whose four grandchildren died this year in a house fire, described her anguish when she heard her grandson's last breath dissolve in a terrible scream inside her smoke-filled bedroom. She was grateful for the public hospital's burn unit even though the children could not be saved, she said.
"It was too late for my kids, but it won't be too late for somebody else," she said. "I didn't have no insurance on my kids, and they were taken there."
Saturday's meeting was organized in response to published reports this month about plans to take the hospital private.
Siegel, who on Wednesday will present to the hospital's 15-member board his plan for Tampa General's future, began a hurried campaign to sway public opinion after an outline of his plans became public. Board members, ending six months of secret strategy sessions, said they initially had hoped to announce their plans quickly and take a vote Wednesday.
Siegel went behind closed doors again last Wednesday to try to convince an African-American audience of about 50 people that Tampa General will go bankrupt if its charter is not changed. Most who attended were black ministers urged to carry the message to their pulpits, said Michelle Patty, a community activist who attended the meeting and helped organize Saturday's gathering.
"We were on display Wednesday just to put a black face on it," she said. "It's was a good power play, but we're not going to allow them to play a race card here."
Those who want Tampa General to remain public say Siegel has been working hard to persuade black leaders to support his plan, and they fear that public relations work could prevent their concerns from being heard.
They pointed to the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, the newspaper of record for Tampa's black community, and question why the paper did not publish a notice of Saturday's meeting. Is it because owner Blythe Andrews is on Tampa General's board? they asked. They asked why state Rep. Les Miller, a Tampa General employee, has been silent on the issue. And why did County Commissioner Thomas Scott initially support the move to go private, without polling his constituents in the black community for their reaction?
The group is asking public officials to attend its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lee Davis Community Center. No hospital board members were present Saturday.
Meanwhile, several people said Saturday they were contacted last week by a telephone marketing company that asked them for their opinions on the privatization issue.
Monica Mills, 31, said she was asked her age, race, position on privatization and whether she would be willing to speak to the media.