Tampa City Council unanimously votes for official apology for city’s racist past

The proposal by Orlando Gudes was long overdue, his colleagues said. A county government move could be next.
Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes at a June council meeting at the Tampa Convention Center.
Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes at a June council meeting at the Tampa Convention Center. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Sept. 3, 2020|Updated Sept. 3, 2020

TAMPA — Even after three months of race being front and center in Tampa politics, Thursday was different.

The Tampa City Council voted unanimously at noon on to approve a non-binding resolution to officially apologize for the city’s racist history.

And from the words of the Hillsborough County Commission chairman yesterday, today won’t be a political outlier.

City Council member Orlando Gudes called for his legislative body to officially apologize for its racist past by approving a non-binding council resolution.

“The City Council apologizes for any and all past participation in sanctioning segregation and systemic discrimination of African Americans,” reads Gudes’s resolution.

Gudes also wants the city to create a racial reconciliation commission to address historic inequities in incarceration, employment, housing and other institutional factors.

Moments before the vote, Gudes thanked his council member colleagues and the city’s Jewish community, which showed strong support for his measure. In January, Gudes vowed to build racial bridges after uttering an anti-Semitic slur in a phone conversation with a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

He said Thursday that the incident prompted him to write the resolution with City Council attorney Martin Shelby.

“At first, I was upset,” Gudes told the Times after the vote, referring to the Times story about his remarks. “But it was a blessing God gave me.”

He said he was especially gratified by the strong show of support from the city’s Jewish community, which he said embraced him after the January incident and his subsequent apology and vow to do better.

“This isn’t just about being black,” Gudes said of his apology and reconciliation effort. “This is for everybody.”

His daughter is gay, he said, and it took his religious family some time to accept that fact. But they did and he is glad of it.

Council chairman Guido Maniscalco said Gudes’s idea was long overdue. Maniscalco, the son of Sicilian and Cuban immigrants, said “at the end of the day, we’re all Americans.”

Other council members offered similar praise, saying that the city needs to grapple with race without half steps.

Mayor Jane Castor issued a statement saying Gudes’s idea was welcome.

“It is important that as a city we take accountability for our past and recognize the damage caused by some of the worst chapters in our history,” read a statement from Castor relayed by her office.

Gudes said Castor called him to say she supported his resolution. He said the mayor’s background as a Lesbian makes her able to understand his mindset.

“You tell me that she hasn’t had some issues,” he said. “That she hasn’t felt ostracized.”

On Wednesday, during the Hillsborough County Commission meeting, Chairman Les Miller voiced support for Gudes’s proposal.

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Miller said he was taking a point of personal privilege at the outset of Wednesday’s county commission meeting and then urged his fellow board members to consider some unspecified action at a future date at the county government level to address systematic racism.

Miller received racist emails earlier this year as part of his work on the Emergency Policy Group seeking a curfew and mask mandate. He said he expected to get more of the same after his four-minute commentary at the meeting.

“This county and this state and this country is on the verge of some very, very serious racial divide, if we’re not already there. Systemic racism has occurred in this country over the years...

“It’s gotten ugly. It is dividing us as a country and that’s not where we should be. We should not be there.

“I’ve talked about what I’ve seen in my life growing up in the South and growing up in Tampa in the ’50s. You all know that I’m talking about facing racism eyeball to eyeball with some of the emails I’ve gotten this year in 2020, it’s hard evidence that it is still there.’'

“But we have got to make a difference.We must make a difference. This board can make a difference in this county. We can send a message to other counties in other parts of the state in other part of this country in trying to work to bring harmony to everyone, regardless of race, regardless of our sexual orientation, regardless of our income, regardless of our political ideology and our political differences whatever the case may be. We have got to work to make difference.

He evoked both John Lewis and Martin Luther King. He talked about ongoing demonstrations and the peaceful demonstrations that have drawn more than just Blacks to protest for social justice.

Miller is not seeking re-election and his last day in office is Nov. 16. Before departing, he said, he plans to bring back some sort of action for the commission to consider.

“We can put something out there that’ll make a difference in this county. It’s not about an apology or anything like that. It’s about education. It’s about finding people jobs. It’s about health care. It’s about many things..’'

“We’ve got to do something. We should not sit back on our hands and do nothing,” Miller said.

Gudes, 52, a retired Tampa police officer, was elected in 2019 to represent District 5, the city’s lone council district that is majority black. The district covers downtown, parts of West Tampa, East Tampa and Ybor City.

“Everybody has to learn. We just can’t go back,” Gudes said.