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The woman who asked Charlie Crist that question

What sort of woman would ask the state attorney general if he's gay? Criticize the grammar of a new school superintendent?

By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
Published January 17, 2005

MADEIRA BEACH - When Lee Drury De Cesare asked Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist whether he was gay Friday, it wasn't the first time she has silenced a room.

Since founding the Tampa chapter of the National Organization for Women in the 1970s, De Cesare has nipped at the heels of the Tampa Bay area's powerful. For the most part, she focuses on women's rights, but she reserves a special measure of scorn for politicians and journalists guilty of grammatical errors.

In the 1970s, she fought with then-Hillsborough Sheriff Malcolm Beard about the hurdles faced by women in law enforcement.

"He hated me so badly he wouldn't step in the same room with me," she says of Beard.

In 1978, she filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that two landmark Tampa restaurants - Bern's Steak House and the Columbia Restaurant - had all-male wait-staffs.

She established the Barefoot and Pregnant Awards for the people or institutions she deemed the most sexist. She called strip club owner Joe Redner a pimp.

For all of that, her question Friday to Crist at a meeting of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club was still astonishing to those in the room.

"I have heard that you were gay, sir, and I wanted to know if that was true," De Cesare asked.

Crist replied: "I'm not."

During an interview Saturday at her eighth-floor Madeira Beach condo, De Cesare said it was an important question to ask. She said Crist, who is expected to run for governor in 2006, is part of a Republican administration that discriminates against gay people.

"They are tapping into the homophobia and the sexual rage of insecurity to push the ignoramuses - which is most of the electorate - to the Republicans," she said.

Her question was "a step to get the quote-unquote crusading press off their a-- and ask these questions. Now it's entered the public dialogue."

Malcolm Beard called De Cesare, "That crazy d--- woman." But she insists she is simply unreasonable.

"A lot of people say, "you have to be reasonable.' I say, "be unreasonable,"' she said. "That's the only way you're going to make a dent in the world. Be unreasonable as hell."

* * *

De Cesare is 72 and will celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary in August. Her husband, Tom, was the mayor of Madeira Beach for 11 years before he stepped down last year.

Tom De Cesare is a Republican. What does he think of his wife's outspokenness?

"Would I do it? No. But I'm not her. Or is it I'm not she? I don't know. I've got to be careful. She's an English major."

Lee chimed in: "It's "she' because it's predicate nominative."

Lee De Cesare graduated Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude from Queens College in New York, where she studied English and French. She got her master's degree in English from Stony Brook.

After growing up poor in a small Georgia town, De Cesare went to a Catholic nursing school in North Carolina. De Cesare - who is not Catholic - said she was frequently punished for asking "rebellious" questions.

She came to Tampa and worked as a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital. She married, moved to Minnesota and had two children, then moved to New York and had two more. At about the age of 30, she opted to go back to school. After four years at Queens College, she tried to get into Columbia University's graduate school.

"They told me straight out - with no disguise - that I was a woman with four children," she recalled. "And that was it. Epiphany. Bingo."

In the late 1960s, Tom De Cesare's insurance company moved him to Tampa. Lee got a job teaching English at Hillsborough Community College, a position she held for 28 years.

She began meeting with about a half-dozen other women at a library in Tampa. They formed the Tampa NOW chapter, for which Lee De Cesare was the employment discrimination chair.

She made enemies. De Cesare helped two women sue the president of Hillsborough Community College, her employer, for sexual harassment. She criticized police for arresting prostitutes but not the men who solicited them. She said her efforts prompted police to arrest more johns, including some who were well known.

She stepped down from NOW in the mid 1980s because she got burned out.

Last year, when St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon was speaking at a Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon, De Cesare bought lunch tickets for two members of the Uhuru group who were protesting outside. When Harmon began to speak, they stood up and shouted allegations of police brutality. They were escorted outside.

"I love those Uhurus," she said.

* * *

De Cesare likes to watch forensic crime shows on television. Then she reads, usually until 4 a.m.

She usually sleeps until 1 p.m. She gets up, eats a bagel and reads the New York Times . She sends at least a half-dozen e-mails a day to politicians and reporters who make her angry.

She thinks the media don't challenge authority enough.

"Reporters are like groupies," she said. "They're like troubadours of the Middle Ages who go around singing the praises of those in power."

She has a column in the trilingual Tampa newspaper La Gaceta .

She claims to have written up to 100 e-mails to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, many of them assailing her use of commas.

De Cesare wasn't satisfied recently with how new Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox answered one of her questions at a Tiger Bay meeting. So she got a copy of his doctoral dissertation and proofread part of it.

"He had two subject-verb agreement errors," she said. "Those are grammatical felonies."

Two years ago, she went to Augusta, Ga., to protest the all-male membership of the Augusta National Golf Club. Sports Illustrated mentioned the sign she carried mocking club chairman Hootie Johnson: "Hootie Patootie, shame on Youtie."

She keeps the sign - which is attached to one of Tom's golf clubs - in their bedroom.

If De Cesare wishes to portray herself as an unreasonable woman, she's not that way all the time. Ask her about her greatest accomplishment, and it's an easy answer: her children.

"We raised four children and none of them ended up in a federal institution," she said.

"I cook like all liberated women do. In many ways, I am a traditional woman."

But she plans to keep asking tough questions.

"If you are going to change the world in any way, you have to believe that you are right and other people are wrong," De Cesare said. "And I have that conviction."

--Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 727 892-2359 or tisch@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 17, 2005, 01:05:20]


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