TAMPA — Sandra Warshaw Freedman was Tampa’s first elected female mayor. As president of the city council, she took over as mayor in 1986 when Bob Martínez resigned to succeed in his run for governor. Then, she was elected for two terms from 1987 to 1995.
As a teenager, Freedman was a tennis champion ranked fifth in the nation among amateurs at one point. However, when she was in sixth grade at Gorrie Primary School, she knew she wanted a career in local politics.
Freedman, 78, spoke with the Tampa Bay Weather on his mandate. This is the first of a two-part conversation. The second part takes place next Sunday.
How did you get accepted as the first female mayor?
I had a department head say to me once – I wanted him to do something and he said, “we don’t do that or anything like that.” And that was at the start. And he said, “You know, I could drag this around and I’ll be there when you’re gone.” We had a “prayer meeting” and it took shape.
A policeman, I remember, on the corner of Kennedy and Florida Avenue. … It was (also) early. I remember I was going to lunch, and I stopped to say hello to this policeman… tall guy and I’m not very tall. I introduced myself and shook his hand. And he said, “I’ll never take orders from a woman.” And it was like, “Huh?” I could not do anything. He was under the civil service; he couldn’t lose his job. It was amazing for someone to say that to your face, you know. …
I was almost always the only woman in the room. … We went for 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 approached Walter at the reception, and I said, “If another landlord calls me, honey, I’m on the next plane, and I won’t be with you.” to make the presentation. And I was serious. …
To this day, Walter always calls me honey when he sees me. … We still laugh about it.
One of your proudest accomplishments, you say, is a housing program your administration launched for people who couldn’t qualify for a conventional mortgage.
It was called the (mayor’s) challenge fund. … Thousands of people got renovated houses, repaired houses or new houses. And I still have people coming up to me to this day, strangers, and saying, “Aren’t you Sandy Freedman? ” I say yes “. They say, “Thank you. I got my house (thanks to) you. I could never have become a landlord.’ And we have this huge affordable housing crisis now across the country, but certainly here with the growth, and we don’t have a program that even comes close to that, the city or county.
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How was it funded?
It was a really creative fundraiser that Bob Harrell and I came up with. … Bob Harrell was already working for the city. He holds a master’s degree in public administration. He is a dear friend of mine….
He is the most creative person in public administration I have ever met. Anyway, I told him about something I had read called the Community Reinvestment Act that banks… had to comply with federal requirements and that a lot of their profits were to be donated to the community… And I had read about and thought if there was a way to exploit that. And with Bob – mainly Bob – we put together this program that every bank and every credit union ended up being involved in. Credit unions were not required by law to do anything; but they wanted it.
And what we did was we took the community development block grant money to support the program. (As a result), federal dollars were the “safety net.” We trained the city staff and the non-profits… 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 papers. It was a revolving fund, and the delinquency rate when I left was less than 3%.
You say that everything your administration has done has been seen through the prism of helping neighborhoods.
When we started, there were about 12 neighborhood associations in the city. When I left, there were over 50. I had a person I hired to be that neighborhood liaison so we could start neighborhood associations in the community.
Tampa Heights was an example. (They) had an association and we went to them and said, what’s the first thing you need? They said we needed lighting. Well, they had lighting but the trees 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 – it’s a true story. … They were looking at me like I was crazy. I said go to the phone book and invite all the pruning services to come into the council chambers and we’ll do 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 cutters. They came. … And we had people from the Tampa Heights neighborhood and we had a few of them stand up and talk about their issues and everything. And I told them, we can’t afford to prune these trees. What would you think if we asked you to prune the trees on a Saturday, and (laughs) – it was just stupid – and we provided you with coffee, donuts and Cuban sandwiches for lunch, and T-shirts? It was the payment.
Each of them came. And they pruned the trees on a Saturday. … What this proved to me and ended up proving to the staff is that if there is a real need and you can advocate for it, people will do a lot of things.