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Peterman opts out of fight

Having walked away from a key education assignment, lawmaker should keep going.

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003


Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, should resign from the Florida State House of Representatives. His most recent action proves that he does not deserve to be in Tallahassee.

Here is what happened: Each term, lawmakers declare their committee preferences. Without hesitation, Peterman listed the subcommittee on education spending as one of his top choices.

Well, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, not known for warm-and-fuzzy feelings for Democrats or exemplary relations with African-Americans, gave Peterman -- a black Democrat -- a coveted seat on the budget-writing education subcommittee. Appropriations is where smart lawmakers want to be.

A Tallahassee insider told me that Byrd went out of his way to put another Democrat on the committee, bringing the number of Democrats to five on the 19-member body. Peterman was one of two blacks on the committee.

A conservative Republican who reached across party lines, Byrd is to be commended. Peterman is not. He accepted the appointment and then turned it down.

The committee process is where most of the critical work on issues take place, where individual voices are heard. And the education committee, which requires long hours and grinding scut work, is one of the most important in state government.

As one Tallahassee observer said: "While one might think there isn't much a Democrat can do, given who's in charge of the executive office and the House, the important consideration is that it would have been constructive for (Peterman's Republican) colleagues to hear from someone like him as to what really goes on in the world they don't seem to care about. There couldn't have been a better pulpit from which to preach for his people, and he threw it away."

Indeed, Peterman, 40, threw away the chance to help his party, his district and black Floridians.

Why?

Last year, Peterman was ordained as a minister, and on Feb. 4, he was hired as the pastor of the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. After accepting the committee appointment and the pastorship, Peterman told the St. Petersburg Times: "Between that and family obligations, I just wouldn't have time that I knew I would need for that position. . . . It took a lot of prayer and a lot of conversations with family members and friends. This is the year. This is the year to fight the good fight on issues dealing with education, but there are some levels of commitment that are even higher than that. God and family come first."

Fine. Peterman, a decent man, knows what is best for him. He should let God and family come first by resigning from the House.

He is right about one thing: 2003 "is the year to fight the good fight on issues dealing with education." Florida's schoolchildren face testing, funding and space problems and teacher shortages like never before. Class size decisions will be made, and committee members will decide what will and will not be cut.

Black children make up a large percentage of the public population. Peterman could have been a voice for them. These children need a powerful advocate, someone willing to work the long hours.

The truth is that budget meetings, the ones Peterman would have been required to attend, often go into the evening, even on Fridays. Word in Tallahassee is that he wants to be in St. Petersburg on Friday. Although he is no longer on the committee, Peterman still will find himself having to work long hours this year because the issues probably will require one or more special sessions.

What will he do? Leave Tallahassee on Thursdays before his work is done? If this is the case, then he should give up his seat so that the people can hold a special election to pick someone who wants the job and is willing to do the hard work.

In January, the Times asked Peterman if his new duties as an ordained minister would interfere with his day job as development director of Juvenile Services Program Inc. and his political duties. Claiming that God was guiding him, he said: "I don't believe it will hinder what I'm doing politically. I believe that it would enhance it. . . . It's really been an amazing process. There are quite a few demands, but for the most part, he's balanced the time quite well and is equipping me with the strength to carry this out."

Well, between Jan. 22 and Feb. 5 -- when he pulled out of the appropriations committee -- Peterman became ill-equipped to carry out his duties in the House. He did a grave disservice to his party and to his mostly black constituency, which includes some of the poorest communities in Pinellas County, where the schools face stiff challenges.

In addition to desiring to serve God and spend more time with his family -- both laudable -- Peterman's action could be motivated by the disease that strikes most politicians: the arrogance of incumbency. Perhaps he believes that he cannot lose in his district, that he can put in a part-time effort and keep his job.

Whatever. Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, should resign.

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