Sandra Freedman: Pioneer In Tampa Public Service And Politics

Times Correspondent

TAMPA — Sandra Warshaw Freedman was the first woman elected mayor of Tampa. As City Council Chairwoman, she took over the mayor’s job in 1986 when Bob Martínez resigned to make his successful run for governor. Then, she was elected to two terms serving from 1987 to 1995.

As a teenager, Freedman was a tennis champion ranked fifth in the nation among amateurs at one point. However she knew as a sixth-grader at Gorrie Elementary School that she wanted a career in local politics.

Freedman, 78, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about her time in office. This is the first of a two-part conversation. The second part runs next Sunday.

How were you accepted, being the first woman mayor?

I had a department head tell me once – I wanted him to do something and he said, “we don’t do that or something like that.” And this was early on. And he said, “You know, I could drag this out and I’ll be here when you’re gone.” We had a “prayer meeting” and he shaped up.

A police officer, I remember, on the corner of Kennedy and Florida Avenue. … This was (also) early on. I remember I was going to lunch, and I stopped to say hello to this police officer… big tall guy and I’m not very tall. I introduced myself and I shook his hand. And he said, “I am never going to take orders from a woman.’’ And it was like, “Huh?” There was nothing I could do. He was under civil service; he couldn’t lose his job. It was staggering for someone to tell you to your face, you know. …

I was almost always the only woman in the room. … We went to get the Super Bowl in San Diego. Walter Baldwin was the chairman of the Super Bowl committee, and there were all these people on the committee and me. … Various teams were invited to make presentations. … And they had a reception, and finally I walked up to Walter at the reception, and I said, “If one more owner calls me sweetie I’m getting on the next plane, and I will not be with you to make the presentation.” And I was serious. …

To this day Walter has always called me sweetie when he sees me. … We still laugh about it.

Exhibit designer Joseph Wetzel, left, Florida Aquarium president Bill Crown and Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman look over a model of the planned aquarium. Florida Aquarium, 8/2/1989 [ JIM STEM | St. Petersburg Times ]

One of your proudest accomplishments, you say, was a housing program your administration started for people who couldn’t qualify for a conventional mortgage.

That was called the (Mayor’s) Challenge Fund. … Thousands of people got either remodeled homes, fixed-up homes or new homes. And I still have people come up to me to this day, strangers, and say, “Aren’t you Sandy Freedman?’’ I say “yes”. They say, “Thank you. I got my house (because of) you. I never would have been able to have home ownership.’’ And we have this huge affordable housing crisis now in the whole country, but certainly here with the growth, and we don’t have a program that even comes close to that, city or county.

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How was it funded?

It was a really creative funding way that Bob Harrell and I came up with. … Bob Harrell worked for the city already. He has a master’s in public administration. He is a dear friend of mine ….

He’s the most creative public administration person I have ever come across. Anyway, I talked to him about something that I had read about called the Community Reinvestment Act that banks… had to comply with the federal requirements and so much of their profit had to be kicked back into the community… And I had read about it and thought if there was a way that we might be able to harness that. And with Bob – mostly Bob – we put together this program that every bank and every credit union wound up being involved in. The credit unions didn’t have to by law do anything; but they wanted to.

And what we did is we took community development block grant money to backstop the program. (As a result), the federal dollars were the ‘backstop’. We trained city staff and nonprofits… who would screen them and do the work of the banks, so the banks just (said), “here’s the money”; and that’s all they had to do. They loved it because they didn’t have all the paperwork. It was a revolving fund, and the default rate on that when I left was less than three percent.

You say that everything your administration did was viewed through the prism of whether it will help the neighborhoods.

When we started there were about 12 neighborhood associations in the city. When I left there were over 50. I had a person that I hired to be that neighborhood liaison so that we could create neighborhood associations in the community.

Tampa Heights was an example. (They) had an association and we went to them and said, what is the number one thing that you need? They said we need lighting. Well, they had lighting but the trees over there, it’s an old neighborhood, the trees had obliterated their lighting. … The parks department (said) it would cost $200,000 to trim all the trees. Well, we didn’t have $200,000.

So, I said to my friend Bob Harrell, go to the phone book – this is a true story. … They used to look at me like I was crazy. I said go to the phone book and let’s invite every tree trimming service to come to the City Council chambers and we’ll make a presentation, and these people will tell them their story. Let’s see if we can get them to do it for less. … We had all these tree trimmers. They came. … And we had some of the neighborhood people from Tampa Heights and we had a few of them get up and talk about their problems and everything. And I said to them, we can’t afford to trim those trees. What would you think if we asked you to trim the trees on a Saturday, and (laughs) – it was just stupid – and we will provide you with coffee and doughnuts and Cuban sandwiches at lunch, and T-shirts? That was the payment.

Every one of them came. And they trimmed the trees on a Saturday. … What it proved to me and wound up proving to the staff was that if there is a real need and you can make the case, people will do an awful lot of things.

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