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Betty Reed, longtime Tampa legislator and community advocate, dies at 81

Reed was elected to Florida’s Legislature in 2006 and worked as an advocate for Black maternal health.
Former state Rep. Betty Reed, seen here at a candidate forum in 2016, died Friday, May 20, 2022.
Former state Rep. Betty Reed, seen here at a candidate forum in 2016, died Friday, May 20, 2022. [ EVE EDELHEIT | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 20|Updated May 20

Betty Reed, a longtime state representative and community advocate who pushed for more resources for Black mothers, better schools and more mentorship in Hillsborough County and beyond, died Friday. She was 81 years old.

Born to a family of 12 children in a small Georgia community, she moved to Florida in her early 20s and settled in Tampa, where she raised her five children as a stay-at-home mother.

She cared deeply about helping those around her and had a dogged determination to get things done, said those who knew her.

“How can you describe your mother when she’s a force of nature?” daughter Cametra Edwards said Friday.

In this 2006 photo, Betty Reed, surrounded by volunteers from other campaigns, waves to motorists as she tries to get voters to remember her when they go to the polling places.
In this 2006 photo, Betty Reed, surrounded by volunteers from other campaigns, waves to motorists as she tries to get voters to remember her when they go to the polling places. [ JOSEPH GARNETT, JR. | St. Petersburg Times ]

Edwards remembers her mother attending every parent-teacher conference as she and her siblings were growing up. Reed later became involved in the Parent Teacher Association, which became her entrance into politics.

Reed lobbied state legislators to ensure there was air conditioning in every school and worked to make college credits more easily transferable. She returned to college herself in her 50s, often doing homework together at the table with her children.

“I was always in awe as a child of my mother, knowing her humble, humble beginnings and the fact that she just kept working and kept fighting, kept reinventing herself,” Edwards said.

Reed was elected to the Florida House in 2006 and served until 2014. There, she was an advocate for Black maternal health, motivated by the personal experience of having her mother die in childbirth when Reed was 13. As a teenager, she helped raise her siblings.

Rep. Betty Reed smiles with loved ones after being sworn in to the Florida House of Representatives.
Rep. Betty Reed smiles with loved ones after being sworn in to the Florida House of Representatives. [ Courtesy of Cametra Edwards ]

Reed, a Democrat, successfully lobbied in the Legislature for a bill to study the differences in infant mortality rates of different races, and also was the sponsor of a law that ensured pregnant prisoners would not be shackled while giving birth.

Arthenia Joyner, a former state senator who worked closely with Reed in the Legislature, said Reed was tenacious. When committee chairpeople wouldn’t hear her bills, Reed would camp out in their offices for hours on end.

“He can’t give me the runaround if I’m there when he walks in the door,” Reed would tell Joyner.

Reed ran for the state Senate in 2016 but lost in the primary to then-state Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, who went on to win the seat.

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Rouson on Friday called Reed a worthy ally and adversary.

“You never had to wonder where she stood,” Rouson said. “And she always fought for right.”

After Reed lost the 2016 primary election, members of the community organized a church service for her where they honored her work in the community, including her support of mentorship for young Black men.

Betty Reed smiles with then-state Senator Barack Obama. Reed was immensely proud of the photo she got with the future president, her daughter said.
Betty Reed smiles with then-state Senator Barack Obama. Reed was immensely proud of the photo she got with the future president, her daughter said. [ Courtesy of Cametra Edwards ]

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor commended Reed’s work for the community and said all are better for her service.

“This is who Betty Reed was — a committed advocate to her neighbors who was willing to work tirelessly to achieve results that bettered the lives of Floridians,” Castor said.

Outside of her life as a representative, Reed enjoyed big family get-togethers, like annual Memorial Day gatherings at Fort De Soto Park or trips to Daytona Beach. She enjoyed getting her hair done and wouldn’t let a birthday go by without wishing someone well.

The family is working to arrange funeral services, which will be held at the Bible-Based Fellowship Church of Temple Terrace.

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