Back-Stabbing In Baghdad

Jingoistic sound bites before an election are nothing new in American politics. We’re now seeing our share, although some Democrats still seemingly yearn for a Vietnam reprise, including a Hanoi Jane moment.

But even nostalgia for bygone Saigon days of protest doesn’t explain — let alone excuse — the unconscionable behavior recently displayed by two Democratic congressmen, former whip David E. Bonior of Michigan and Jim McDermott of Washington. They traveled to Baghdad and allowed themselves to be used as propaganda props by Saddam Hussein.

Seemingly playing Charlie McCarthy to Saddam’s Edgar Bergen, McDermott declaimed that “the president would mislead the American people” in order to get his war. However, “you have to take the Iraqis on their value, at their face value.”

Not even John Walker Lindh would have so spoken. Nor Jane Fonda.

McDermott and Bonior have the right — obligation even — to speak out against what is the Administration’s unilateral, high-handed Iraqi policy. There’s no lack of rationales or domestic forums for such stands.

But you don’t take that stand in Baghdad. Even if you think you can co-opt a wag-the-dog scenario. Even if you’re promised a sleepover at the Presidential Palace of your choice. You don’t do your dissenting in the downtown of a dictator. This isn’t lobbying for peace; it’s aiding and abetting.

And isn’t that Jesse Jackson’s job?

Middleton-Blake: Nostalgia and Challenge

It’s trite but true. That Middleton-Blake grid clash a fortnight ago was much more than a football game. And it was much more than the bragging rights that should accompany a 46-0 pasting, even if it’s (9-11 grade) Middleton putting it on Blake’s junior varsity.

It was even more than the sort of feel-good story we can all use a good dose of during especially troubling times.

That’s because Middleton-Blake was about reunion and revival — of a rivalry. And celebration — of what was best of a time that wasn’t better in so many ways.

Back when segregation-era black schools, such as Middleton and Blake High Schools, were community linch pins. And when their football teams met in the annual “Soul Bowl,” it was a community happening. It all ended with the arrival of court-ordered desegregation. Both historically black high schools were closed in 1971 and converted into junior highs.

Now they’re back. Sort of.

A new Blake opened in 1997 near the old Blake in West Tampa. This year a new Middleton opened near the old Middleton in East Tampa. In barely more than a month the football rivalry that had been dormant for 31 years was renewed. And an overflow crowd of some 6,000 fans, many of them 50-somethings reliving another time, turned out for history and nostalgia.

“We want to bring the guys back together,” said Henry Washington, Middleton ’68 and a former Tigers’ quarterback. “We want to make this an annual tradition like it used to be.”

It was an auspicious kick-start, but the challenges belie the emotions of the moment. Especially for Middleton.

This is now; that was then. Middleton is no longer a de jure black school forced to rally proudly within a Jim Crow universe. The overwhelming majority of teachers and administrators don’t live in the area. Middleton is a choice-plan, post court-ordered desegregation-era product.

With nearly 1,400 students, it is approximately 70 per cent black this start-up year. The School District of Hillsborough County is aiming for 39 per cent black enrollment next year when there’s a senior class and the 2,100-student school is fully magnetized for math, science, technology and engineering. (Blake, an arts magnet with some 1,700 students, is about 45% per cent black.)

Minorities as majorities or pluralities creates a unique 2002 dynamic in the celebration of a de facto family reunion. Most of the fans at the Middleton-Blake game were black, as were the players. But there are more than 200 white kids at Middleton. And a lot more on the way next year. Is there a meaningful part in this nostalgic, back-to-the-future black experience for them?

“It’s coming around slowly,” acknowledged Washington, who’s now the hands-on principal of Middleton. “But, yes, that’s a tough one for the white kids. We tell them how much we love them. I never walk past a student — white, black, Hispanic, Asian — without saying something. I’m all over this campus. We want to make sure this isn’t one-sided. I mean, how many principals get on the intercom each day to say ‘I love you’? This one does. And I mean it. And I’m going to preach that until it’s in their souls.

“Even though there is a black tradition,” stressed the 53-year-old Washington,” this is a new age. No one is left out. We want all students to feel wanted. Teachers were selected carefully with that in mind. Diversity is very prominent on this campus.”

Race, moreover, is not Washington’s only inclusion issue. Next generations, black and white, don’t always read minutes of previous meetings. An adult “reunion” may be merely another variation on a school-choice integration theme. Additionally, all students went somewhere else last year, and for many their allegiances didn’t die with the rebirth of Middleton.

“We preach family here,” underscored Washington, who previously was principal at Chamberlain High School. “You might have been a Plant Panther or a Robinson Knight. Well, now, you’re a Middleton Tiger. No matter where you came from, this is your school. This is our school. We’re all Tigers.”

He may have a Tiger by the tail in the short run, but Washington is holding out for the best of both worlds long term.

“Look, times have changed,” he pointed out. “There’s not the parental backing of the old days. But we’re not wringing our hands over that. In years to come, these young people will be creating their own traditions.

“I hope I can build this family relationship over the years,” added Washington. “This school is for everyone. But there’s a special piece of history that will always be there. The community won’t allow otherwise.”

Nor should it. Race and roots aside, pride in a school — and its role as a community catalyst and hub — can be a colorblind model for all.

Frankly, the easiest part of Washington’s job is already behind him. That was the unfettered fun he and fellow alums had at the historic football game. No one is expecting a 46-0 blowout of Blake’s varsity next year.

More importantly, no one is expecting Washington to turn his increasingly melting potluck of a student body into an instant “We Are Family” love-fest. Some days they may look like the Muddleton Social Engineers.

But every day that begins with kids — black and white, neighborhood and magnet, erstwhile Panthers and Knights — being reminded that someone important in their lives loves them has to matter.

Go, Tigers.

Al Austin: “Hey, Bill, You’re a Liberal”

You don’t get much more Republican around here than Al Austin. Not county-yahoo-Svengali stuff, mind you, but seriously partisan establishment sort with a patrician touch. Austin’s a major party player and statewide go-to guy for GOP fund-raising. His Rolodex includes more than one generation of Bushes.

The “Pioneer Developer” of the Westshore Business District hasn’t missed a GOP convention since Richard Nixon was re-nominated in 1972. During that same time frame he has served in leadership roles in every presidential, gubernatorial and senate campaign in Florida. In 2000 he was a member of the Florida Electoral College. He’s currently finance chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, arguably the best run, most flush of all statewide GOP organizations.

He’s not, however, a campaign strategist. But if he were, you can bet he wouldn’t have signed off on the counterproductive ads that attacked Bill McBride during the primary.

When he sizes up the Jeb Bush-Bill McBride contest, Austin hearkens back to his experience chairing the successful senatorial campaigns of Connie Mack in 1988 and ’94. He expects an ’02 variation on the theme that was so successful against Buddy MacKay: “Hey, Buddy, you’re a liberal.”

Because of McBride’s war-hero record and role in running one of the biggest law firms in the country, he’s increasingly accorded centrist status. Last week’s BusinessWeek magazine, for example, noted that “the first-term governor (Bush) has good reason to worry: the MODERATE McBride has emerged in recent weeks as a serious threat

Blacklash In Broward Over Oliphant

For some time, it’s been manifestly obvious that South Florida isn’t yet ready for prime time, meaningful democracy. Perhaps Haiti should be the model until Broward and Dade-Miami counties are comfortable with the nuances of the home-grown version. Like voting and vote-counting.

But now, long after we’ve sworn we’ve seen it all from that electoral abyss, we’re seeing more absurdity. Black leaders in Broward have been rallying behind Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant, the poster pol for incompetence and arrogance. Obviously of more relevance, however, is that she is the only county-wide black elected official.

Black leaders have claimed that calls for her removal are racially motivated. Ironically, Gov. Jeb Bush probably would have removed her had she NOT been black. He knew a blacklash would result. One resulted anyhow.

The publisher of a black-oriented weekly newspaper called the frenzy over Oliphant’s role in the primary debacle a “modern day lynching.”

U.S Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, noted that to his knowledge Oliphant hadn’t done “anything illegal, immoral or unethical.” He’s probably right unless you consider paying Oliphant $122,446 a year highway robbery.

But the issue is incompetence. It’s that black and white. You can only blame so much on racism and redistricting.

And for those in the know, none of this was altogether shocking. Her election two years ago was notable for its racial precedent, not electorate savvy. She trashed her predecessor, a 30-year veteran, and lost the loyalty of staffers and volunteers. She fired anyone who knew what they were doing.

She then scrambled to hire the less experienced, less competent and less punctual — some of them cronies. She got what she — but not the voters — deserved. Chaos.

Poorly trained poll workers took too long to start touch-screen machines. They compounded this by keeping polls closed until the machines were ready, neglecting to offer voters a paper ballot. At day’s end, they didn’t properly harvest the votes.

And then there were poll workers who didn’t screw up because they never showed up. Some 300 of them. And a bunch who refused to work late after Bush was forced to extend voting hours.

Then the criticism.

Then calls to the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to help rally support for Oliphant.

As it turns out, however, a last-minute compromise has been reached in which Oliphant signed a contract ceding virtually all control over her office to someone else. To the person, ironically enough, who used to run the office’s day-to-day operations under Oliphant’s predecessor.

The deal leaves Oliphant with another precedent to her credit. She now gets $122,446 for doing virtually nothing.

Suppose anyone would want to rail — or maybe rally — against that? Meanwhile, Sharpton and Jackson can devote more time to inciting political correctness over the movie Barbershop .

But this just in.

Andy Ingraham, president of Sharpton’s National Action Network in Florida, does have a problem with this scenario. “She’s abdicating all of her power,” said Ingraham. “To me, it is a modern-day coup d’etat .”

Perhaps the Haitian model would apply.

Trib To The Left Of The Times ?

The Tampa Tribune may be to the left of the Washington Times , but the St. Petersburg Times ?

In at least one instance, that is, indeed, the case. But, no, it’s not affirmative action, school vouchers or pre-emptive sorties against terrorism. The Trib now accepts same-sex union announcements! Could ads for the ACLU be in the offing?

While it’s hardly alone in accepting such announcements, the Trib can still be considered in the vanguard of a trend that statewide includes the Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and Tallahassee Democrat . The overwhelming majority of this country’s 1,600 newspapers, however, still don’t print such announcements. That includes that citadel of liberalism, the St. Petersburg Times .

The Trib’s rationale is straightforward. “We’re a community newspaper, and when members of our community are celebrating a joyous occasion, our role is to provide them with the opportunity to do so,” explained Tribune Publisher Steve Weaver.

It’s not known if the Trib has plans to extend such a policy. But announcement operators are standing bi.

Go Out A Winner, Joe

This is a prediction. But, more importantly, it’s also a preference.

Circle Saturday, Oct. 19. Penn State hosts Northwestern. It will result in a 330-something victory for Joe Paterno.

After the game, which should be one-sided, Paterno will make a dramatic announcement. He will end all the speculation about his status. He’ll announce that he is stepping down after this season.

The timing will be propitious. And not just because he will be doing the university a recruiting favor by giving them a head start to find a successor — and end all the speculation.

Consider that college football’s all time winningest 1-A coach is coming off of consecutive 5-6 seasons. For a coach who transcends the game and the prevalent win-at-all-costs ethic, it’s sad. It’s not right that his last years are marred by un-Paterno-like records.

He deserves better than the college football counterpart of Willie Mays stumbling after a fly ball as a Met or Hank Aaron not hitting his weight for the Brewers. Ted Williams hitting a home run on his last at-bat is more like it.

Paterno has embodied winner in his three-plus decades as Penn State head coach. His “noble experiment” of succeeding without compromising principles long ago secured his place in the pantheon of American sports icons.

An Ivy League grad, Paterno’s educated far beyond game plans and recruiting strategies. He expects his players to be more than one-dimensional extensions of the football program.

He has been good for — and to — the game, and he will be missed. But the nostalgic emotion of Paterno leaving shouldn’t be undermined by dispiriting days at the end. He must go out a winner. This is that season.

After the Northwestern victory, Penn State will have at least five — maybe more — victories to its credit. The remainder of the post NW schedule includes three more, eminently winnable, home games against Illinois, Virginia and Michigan State. Plus a road game against a relatively weak Indiana squad.

Interestingly enough, after Northwestern is a trip to Columbus to play Ohio State. Why not pump up the players a little more and, in effect, exhort them to win one for “Joepa?”

After its impressive start, Penn State is now a lock for a winning season, maybe a major bowl. Next year and those beyond are all wild cards. More 5-6’s could await. Or the pressures not to lose could impact Paterno’s health.

There are too many variables now associated with college football to guarantee more glory years for Penn State under Paterno.

The gradual decrease in the number of scholarships has resulted in a parity of talent nationally. And those prized blue-chip recruits, many of them black kids from inner cities, increasingly see an old guy who looks more like a shoemaker than a legendary coach who’s now supposed to help prep players for the pros.

Even more challenging, however, is a society that condones — and often encourages — boorish on-field behavior that is the antithesis of teamwork, sportsmanship and class. Paterno remains a notable holdout to such a self-congratulating, tasteless, in-your-face culture. But it gets tougher every year.

Go out the winner that you are, Joe. This is the year. Say it’s so, Joe.

And just do it.

Democracy Survives Another Election

Some musings from election day — and night:

*Voting was a seamless exercise locally. As well it should have been; it needn’t be hard. But still, well done, Pam Iorio and staff — and polls apart from the performances turned in by Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Here in Hillsborough, poll workers were ready and well trained. Voter education proved more than ample. Should be no different in November, even with a bigger turnout. Touch (screen) of class goes a long way.

*What to say about South Florida ? Bad enough that it persists in comporting itself as a sovereign state, but must it be that of a banana republic? Should Jimmy Carter be sent in next time to monitor? More material for Jay Leno, David Letterman and Fidel Castro.

*And more disenfranchisement fodder for caustic U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry. She justifiably condemned the condemnable and then heaped criticism on the U.S. Justice Department and “state officials.” But what about (black) Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant , the Peter Principle princess of Broward County?

*No one, of course, was more disappointed in Mimi Osiason’s County Commission District 1 showing than Mimi Osiason . But a close second had to be John Dingfelder . His most viable scenario for winning was for Osiason and Kathy Castor to cancel each other out, enabling well-regarded, lone-male Dingfelder to slip by with a modest plurality. It never came close to happening with Osiason failing to break into double-figure percentage.

*At his election party at Pipo’s on Davis Islands, Dingfelder acknowledged the uphill race against name recognition and how the campaign had to “go to the mattresses” at the end. Literally. With a brother in from Philadelphia, a best friend in from Seattle, plus parents and grown kids briefly returning to the nest, the Dingfelder house was awash in ad hoc bedding.

*Speaking of District 1 , it was obviously top-heavy with quality Democratic candidates. Too bad one or more couldn’t have been parceled out elsewhere for an infusion of sorely needed, progressive, non-confrontational, new blood.

*At Castor’s Cactus Club campaign party, Castor’s husband Bill Lewis was the conduit for election updates. At each juncture, Lewis referenced the candidates as “Kathy,” “John,” and “Mimi.” It’s not a big deal, but symbolically reflective of the civility and respect that uniquely characterized this race. Doubt if there were comparable “Jim-and-Stacey Lynn” or “Ronda-and-Arlene” scenarios. Moreover, Dingfelder wasted no time in making a contribution — $100 — to the Castor Campaign. The combination of District 1 candidate chemistry and sense of party unity should bode well for Castor against Chris Hart .

*When asked who was most nervous about the District 1 race, mom-of-the-candidate-and-Democratic-icon Betty Castor didn’t miss a beat — and nodded at Lewis. No wonder he was kept so busy.

*What happened to all those seething, anti-Storms Democrats who had a golden opportunity (with the universal primary) to rid the county commission of Tropical Storm Ronda? Thanks for nothing.

* “Victory parties” are unique gatherings. Starting with the premise that there might not even be a “victory.” It’s an eclectic gathering of family, friends, campaign workers, party activists, minor luminaries, VIPols and political groupies. One or more bars and televisions are de rigueur .

A dynamic of back-slapping and glad-handing

Rays Get Reprieve: Four Years to Shape Up

First the good news. For now, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have dodged the contraction bullet.

Now the bad news. Managing General Partner Vince Naimoli and General Manager Chuck LaMar, the folks most responsible for such an eminently contractible franchise, are still in charge.

As we now know, baseball’s strike-averting labor agreement will infuse the Rays with additional millions from revenue sharing, a luxury tax and a national television package. But after four years, all bets — and contraction bans — are off. In 2007 the owners will be free to rid the game of two loser franchises, and the players won’t contest it.

This means the Rays, saddled with the wrong owner in the wrong facility in an area that offers so many leisure alternatives to indoor baseball, will have four years to be competitive — or be gone.

Having a cache of cash won’t necessarily save the Rays from themselves. Not when there’s a track record of having ladled too much of it out to the Vinny Castillas, Greg Vaughns, Juan Guzmans and Wilson Alvarezes. Or trading prospects for the Danny Clyburns and Kevin Stockers. Only in a perverse D-Rays context, would Ben Grieve and Esteban Yan look like veritable bargains.

The Rays will never be the Yankees, but neither will any other George Steinbrenner-less franchise not located in New York. But there are models in Oakland and Minnesota. Emulating those efforts, however, requires prudent investment in the product, astute personnel decisions and aggressive marketing. And luck. And then winning.

But there are no guarantees — except that absent winning, this franchise is history in four years.

Bern’s: Reflected World Class Glory

It’s not often that the New York Times obituary page references one of Tampa’s own, let alone prominently. But such was the case recently because such was the reputation of Bern Laxer, creator of Bern’s Steak House.

Before there were Super Bowls and amenities dubbed “world class,” there was Bern’s. Since the 1950s, Tampa has basked in its reflected glory. Bern’s is “one of the country’s more unusual and most popular restaurants,” understated the Times’ obit.

And not unlike his restaurant, Laxer was also one of a kind. He was as eccentric as he was exacting.

His passing jogged my memory to when I first met him. I was doing a profile piece for the Tampa Bay Business Journal . The 1981 interview was at 10 p.m. Any earlier, he had made abundantly clear, would have conflicted with his hands-on approach to running his restaurant the way it should be run.

Personally, Laxer was as low key as his restaurant was high profile; as nondescript looking as it was over-decorated in that SoHo-meets-the-Renaissance motif. With a cluster of keys hitched to his green Bermuda shorts, the wiry restaurateur looked like some culinary custodian.

After a tour of the huge, spotless kitchen and a peek inside the cavernous wine cellar, we adjourned to his second-floor office — a cramped, cluttered cubicle. The focal point was his paper-strewn desk where nine television monitors were mounted, affording various vantage points of the kitchen. Between books, within nooks, under piles and atop heaps were hints of the myriad awards, local and national, that Bern’s had won through the years. None were on display.

I inquired about the seeming insouciance. Most folks can’t get their chamber of commerce appreciation plaques hung quickly enough, let alone testimonials to being the best in their field.

Laxer’s pithy answer spoke volumes. “They really don’t mean a damn thing to me,” he said. “I don’t want to be looking back just because I won an award. That makes me a big shot. I want to be better than that. I want to pretend that I haven’t won any awards. So I can be a better restaurant.”

As a result, Laxer’s legacy now transcends a restaurant that catered to VIP palates and helped put Tampa on the map — and globe. By his work ethic and attention to detail, Bern Laxer also served up food for thought — and what it meant to be “world class.”

Trying Times for Tribsters

It sounds more like a seminar at the Poynter Institute, but the St. Pete Times Forum is the name downtown is now stuck with for the Ice Palace. But no one, of course, is stuck more than the Tampa Tribune . Its reporters and editors will be forced to mention the St. Pete Times Forum in copy about major concerts, Lightning games and maybe even a GOP coronation. Ouch.

For anyone keeping score, the House of Chutzpah is merely the latest Times’ coup in what has long ceased being a newspaper war. For too long the Times has cherry-picked Trib staffers and outhustled the competition on metro stories. It also planted its flag atop a downtown Tampa office building and debuted the weekly CityTimes .

The Times , which can be arrogant, self-righteous and journalistically first rate, is also promotionally pugnacious and street smart. Witness the sponsorship arrangements with Cento Ybor and International Plaza. Now this. Even its naming rights-announcing press release, which didn’t deign to disclose relevant information about financial terms, couldn’t resist lobbing another round across the bow of the Trib .

Paul Tash, the Times’ editor and president, fired off a vintage, take-advantage-of-this-high-profile-local-news-story quote. “This deal demonstrates that the Tampa Bay area is growing steadily into a single metro region,” matter-of-factly noted Tash, who didn’t stop there. “And that the St. Petersburg Times is the premier newspaper for that region,” he then sniffed.

At least no one was editorially asleep for the Trib . The self-serving second part of Tash’s quote never saw the light of Trib print. So there.