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Hillsborough will leave Confederate monument up if it can't get private money to move it

Published Aug. 17, 2017

TAMPA — If the money needed to move Tampa's Confederate monument can't be raised privately in 30 days, then the statue will stay where it is, Hillsborough County Commissioners decided Wednesday.

The contentious 4-2 vote jeopardizes the fragile agreement reached last month to relocate the 106-year-old monument, called Memoria en Aeterna, from outside the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa to a family cemetery in Brandon.

A private fundraising effort to move the monument had raised about $11,835 at the time of the vote. Hillsborough officials estimate about $140,000 more is needed to move the monument and prepare the new site.

This new twist in a months-long saga on the monument's fate came just days after violent protests against the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee engulfed Charlottesville, Va. The rally, attended by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, left one counter-protester dead. The memorial service for the victim, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was airing on national television as commissioners debated the monument's fate.

Commissioner Les Miller, the county's lone black commissioner and the catalyst for removing the monument from the Tampa courthouse, said Wednesday's decision was a backdoor attempt to reverse last month's vote.

"I will be highly surprised if we are able to raise those dollars in 30 days," he said. "I would hope that we don't have a Charlottesville, Va., in Hillsborough County. I pray that we don't."

But Commissioner Victor Crist, who made the motion to require private contributions, said the deadline will put pressure on advocates of removal to "step up to the plate." He specifically called out the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce. Under Crist's proposal, the county and private sector will split the cost evenly.

"I've never been a betting guy," Crist said. "But on this particular issue I'd be willing to bet the monument is moving and the money will come in in the next three days."

Commissioners Sandy Murman, Ken Hagan and Stacy White supported Crist's motion. Commissioner Pat Kemp joined Miller in opposition. Commissioner Al Higginbotham left the meeting early for a medical appointment. He has supported removing the monument.

Tom Scarritt, a Tampa lawyer who is organizing the private fundraising campaign, acknowledged that donors were reluctant to give knowing that the county would make up the difference.

In the hours after the vote, dozens of people sent thousands of dollars through the cause's donation page on the fundraising website GoFundMe.

Still, Scarritt said he felt like the commission "changed the rules on us." Previously, his goal was to raise about $130,000 in 60 days. Now, they need $140,000 in 30.

"The choice is very clear," Scarritt said. "We either raise the money or the statue stays."

The 30-day deadline came at the urging of Commissioner Stacy White, the board's most vocal opponent of relocating the monument. White said it's time for the county to put the issue to rest.

"This has been a tremendous distraction," he said.

The question of what to do about the Confederate monument has dogged the County Commission for months with its reversals, uncertainty and hedging.

First, the board voted in June against removing it and instead ordered up a diversity mural and set aside $250,000 for a racism awareness program.

Then, it voted 4-2 on July 19 to move the monument to a small private family cemetery in Brandon.

Wednesday's decision makes uncertain whether July's outcome will stick, meaning the marble statue could remain on county property in the heart of downtown Tampa. That the Republican-led board could walk away from the issue without moving it incenses Tampa's progressive mayor.

"It's like a festering wound and every Wednesday they keep ripping the scab off and start it all over again," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "We're the ones who are going to have to step in if there's a Charlottesville. They'll be hiding in their suburban houses."

The commission meeting started cordially enough, with a heartfelt prayer by Miller for the victims of the Charlottesville attack and for unity among commissioners with "an understanding that we will have our differences." White called the invocation "inspirational."

But things devolved from there, as Crist and Miller sparred repeatedly and the audience exchanged cheers and boos. As emotions from the weekend boiled over in the crowd, the atmosphere grew decidedly tense, more so than at any point during the weeks of drama.

"Why can't we take down a big-ass racist statue right now and just be done with it?'' Michael Anderson asked commissioners. "People in this community are frustrated and are angry because there are literally white supremacists in this county who are literally standing guard at the statue.''

Opponents of removing the monument rejected comparisons to the white supremacists who were at the protest in Charlottesville. Echoing President Donald Trump's remarks Tuesday, one speaker Andy Strickland asked, "Where does it end? Is Thomas Jefferson next? Is Abraham Lincoln next?"

Strickland and others have so far not persuaded commissioners to put the question to voters on the ballot next fall. Nevertheless, Wednesday's decision injected enough uncertainty for them to celebrate.

Later, advocates of Southern heritage won another victory when David McCallister, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Judah P. Benjamin Camp, won a seat on a citizen committee to promote diversity.

McCallister, in the stars and bars tie that he wears to nearly every meeting, earned votes from four commissioners to win a seat on the county's diversity advisory council, a body whose job is to "facilitate communication between county government and its diverse populations, addressing matters related to diversity that are important to everyone."

The four commissioners who voted to tie the monument's fate to the fundraising campaign also nominated McCallister.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com Follow @scontorno.

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