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United Way decision speaks ill of bay area

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2003


Sometimes I wonder what kind of community Tampa Bay is: Are we tolerant or are we not?

Six months ago, the bay area's No. 1 charity, the United Way, drew up plans for an event. It was to be held in mid April.

There would be a day of workshops to teach female business executives how to serve on the boards of nonprofit agencies, those thousand points of light that help the poor, the disabled, the troubled. Serving on the boards may not sound like much to you, but this work is a way for executives to give back to the community in which they prosper.

The big draw of the day was to be the luncheon speaker, actor Susan Sarandon. The United Way snared her because she has ties to the bay area. Her brother is a St. Petersburg Times sports writer. He asked Sarandon to come. The Times, a sponsor of the April event, was going to pay her speaker's fee.

The months came and went. America went to war. Sarandon, like a lot of Hollywood people, and a fair number of ordinary Americans, was opposed to the invasion of Iraq.

That's when the calls and e-mails began. In a fundraising year in which it had already been hard to meet its goal, the United Way started hearing from people who said that if Sarandon appeared, they would withdraw their contributions.

United Way caved in to this blackmail.

The invitation to Sarandon was withdrawn.

The entire day's events were canceled.

And while those opposed to Sarandon's appearance were appeased, some who wanted to let her speak were angered. Two longtime volunteers are resigning in protest. The chairwoman of this year's fundraising campaign -- Marty Petty, executive vice president of Times Publishing Co. -- quit her United Way position.

This is, in a way, difficult to write about. The newspaper is so heavily involved in the event that I might be accused of solely promoting the paper's point of view, for the paper's own gain, regardless of the facts. So be it. Certain principles are at issue here, and they matter more than who's standing on what side of the line.

Since when is disagreement about government policy unpatriotic? Why are the noisiest advocates for patriotism ready to deny other people their right to free speech?

Sarandon was not coming to Tampa to talk about the war. She was coming to talk about women and leadership. How rich. Leadership is about standing tall, taking a position, advocating it -- not turning tail and running, which is what the United Way has done.

Robin Carson, the general manager of Busch Gardens and chairwoman of the United Way Board of Directors, said United Way was facing a divisive situation and she wanted to avoid it. She got just the opposite.

Her decision speaks loudly, and because United Way is such an integral part of Tampa Bay -- this one covers both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties -- it speaks loudly about the nature of the bay area.

We don't want disagreement.

People who step out make us mad.

Whatever Sarandon thinks of the war, she is active in charitable work. She uses her position as a celebrity to do good. A chance to do some good here -- to help who knows what child, what elderly person -- was lost because her politics was deemed offensive, even though her politics and her charitable work have nothing to do with each other.

I joke, but United Way should have thought to not just get Sarandon but her mother, Lenora Tomalin. Tomalin, from Lakeland, is a Republican and 100 percent for the war. They could have had a nice mother-daughter political spat. Both sides of the debate would have been happy, and United Way would have packed the house.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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