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FAMU remark raises eyebrows

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


TAMPA -- Alumni from Florida A&M University came to the Hillsborough County Commission on Wednesday, hoping to get $1-million commitment to lure a new law school to Tampa.

Sitting on the dais, Commissioner Ronda Storms listened to the request, and then wondered aloud whether she should speak up.

But then she did.

Creating a new law school in Tampa for the historically black university, Storms said, will not increase the number of minorities who become lawyers or judges.

"We can get them through law school," Storms said about minorities, "but we can't get them to seem to pass the Bar."

Later, after two people called her office to complain about her remarks, Storms took the point further in an interview with a reporter.

"It's guilt money," Storms said of the tax funds requested to bring a law school to Tampa. "This is so white people can pat themselves on the back."

Storms, a Republican who represents east Hillsborough, said the two callers were trying to silence her. Storms would not repeat exactly what the callers said, and Storms' aide said they did not leave their names.

"I believe it is an attempt to intimidate honest public discourse," said Storms, a Stetson Law School graduate who said she passed the Bar on her first try.

"This is how (they) can tar and feather me," said Storms. By accusing her of racism, "(they) can turn you into someone you are not. I know who in my core I am."

After Storms spoke, the alumni dressed in FAMU's orange and green colors stirred outside the commission chambers. Some called Storms ignorant. Other vowed to write her letters.

"How could she not offend you?" asked Mary White Darby, president of the FAMU Tampa alumni association.

The alumni group wanted the commission to commit $1-million should the state choose to build the school in Tampa. Commissioners agreed to study the request and vote on it next month.

Mayor Dick Greco has supported the cause and has taken FAMU officials on a tour of city land on the Hillsborough River which could be donated for the school.

Despite arguments that the state doesn't need another law school, Gov. Jeb Bush signed legislation earlier this year creating the FAMU school, saying it would help increase the number of minority lawyers. But the bill did not say where the school would be built. The state wants to build the law school in a city willing to match state money with local dollars -- and both Orlando and Tampa are vying for the chance.

"It will be the first time our community will ever have a law school," Commissioner Jan Platt said. "I look at it as an investment for the future."

Storms' remarks, though, could hurt Tampa's hopes. FAMU alumni still remember being snubbed by Tampa businesses when the school hosted the Florida Classic football game at the former Tampa Stadium.

The Classic moved the game to Orlando in 1997 after the Tampa Bay Center, the mall across from the stadium, closed early, keeping Classic fans from shopping at the mall. Alumni also said Tampa hotels placed unfair reservations and payment policies on them.

Tampa's FAMU alumni working to bring the law school here, though, said Storms' words won't matter much.

"I don't think she is important enough," said Carolyn Collins, a past vice president of FAMU's national alumni association. "All someone has to do is look at her track record or watch her on TV and see how she responds."

"She has not been stable in some of her comments," Collins said.

Later in the day, as Storms recognized the reaction to her remark, she apologized to the commission for offending anyone.

"I am not apologizing for who I am," Storms said. "I am apologizing for any offense (taken)."

She also pointed out that her remarks about minorities not passing the Florida Bar at the same rate as whites were backed up by a legal brief filed by the NAACP.

When the evening meeting broke up, Storms huddled behind the commission chambers with Commissioner Thomas Scott, the only African-American on the board. She apologized to him.

"She wanted me to understand that she isn't a racist, and that is not my perception," Scott said. "She's a very vocal person. It's just her style."

Times staff writer Linda Gibson contributed to this report.

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