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East Ybor

TV judge visiting to encourage voter drive

The civic association president says the area's needs will be overlooked until more people cast ballots.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

When it comes to neighborhood needs, East Ybor residents have a long wish list.

They want youth programs and a park.

They want code enforcement to crack down on crumbling houses.

They want landlords to be more responsible for unruly tenants.

But they won't get any of that, says Jeraldine Williams Smith, president of the East Ybor Historic and Civic Association, until they start voting.

"When you vote, you can control the destiny of your community," Smith said last week. The civic association hopes to convince other residents of that Saturday during its first annual Neighborhood Empowerment Festival.

To sweeten the pot, Smith is offering an unusual incentive: a photograph with Judge Greg Mathis.

Yes, the one from TV.

Mathis, a district court judge in Michigan, was a high school dropout before a judge ordered him to get his high school equivalency diploma. Now he stars in his own reality-based court show.

Smith, once married to Mathis' first cousin, said Mathis agreed to pose with residents who show proof they are registered voters, or who register on Saturday. "We have to be creative," Smith said.

Saturday's festival will include tours for elected officials and other visitors.

East Ybor stretches from 22nd to 28th streets, and from Adamo Drive to Interstate 4. It straddles Ybor's thriving Seventh Avenue strip, but in many ways is a world away.

Some of its wood-frame and cinder-block homes are old but well-maintained, with trim yards and potted flowers. Others have peeling paint and cracked bricks.

Children play on some corners. On others, they sell drugs.

Smith, a lawyer, was born here.

She and other neighbors founded the civic association last spring and made beefed-up voter rolls a top goal.

In the March 25 runoff for mayor, 7,029 voters in East Tampa, or 21 percent of the registered voters, went to the polls, compared with 13,669, or 30 percent, in South Tampa.

"Very pathetic," Smith said.

That translates into a lack of clout at City Hall, she said.

She offered this example: A few months ago, two run-down houses were moved, as part of the I-4 expansion, to a vacant lot on 11th Avenue, between 25th and 26th streets.

East Ybor residents were hoping the city could instead transform that lot into a park. "But nobody asked us," she said.

The civic association is optimistic progress can be made.

Just having an association helps, said Vicki Giunta, the group's secretary.

Last year, the city upgraded street lighting after the association lobbied for it. Until then, people prowled dark streets at 2 or 3 a.m.

"Now that's changed," she said.

But more political muscle won't come unless votes are flexed, she and Smith say.

For several weeks, Smith has been going door to door in evenings and on weekends, trying to persuade neighbors to register.

She recites the excuses: "I had a beer this morning and they can smell it on my breath ... They're going to do what they're going to do anyway ... My old man is registered."

Smith said she's trying to be realistic about Saturday, even with a TV judge coming.

"If I can get 20 people to register ... I'd be happy," she said.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or .

If you go

The first annual Neighborhood Empowerment Festival runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at 26th Street and 12th Avenue in East Ybor.

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