Luis Viera’s New Tampa town halls are generally hyper-local affairs.
The District 7 Tampa City Council member (and usually a guest or two) are asked about things like Kinnan-Mansfield, traffic along Bruce B. Downs, new additions to our local parks and everything from a pothole over there to a slow light over here.
On Sept. 21, however, Viera’s town hall, in conjunction with the Islamic Society of New Tampa, at the Daarus Salaam Mosque on Morris Bridge Rd., just north of Cross Creek Blvd., broadened the councilman’s normal town hall fare.
Along with a few questions about traffic safety near the bustling mosque, especially in the mornings where more than 100 children are headed to school near busy (and narrow) Morris Bridge Rd., the conversation circulated around such weighty topics as religious and social tolerance, affordable housing, gun violence, school funding and healthcare.
“I thought it went really well,” Viera said. “I thought there was a lot of energy and people seemed enthused to be there.”
The town hall, moderated by CAIRFlorida’s Aida Mackic, was Viera’s 14th in the North Tampa district he represents. It included a wide spectrum of guests, which likely prompted some of the larger-issue questions. Fentrice Driskell, the Florida House District 63 representative (which includes New Tampa), Hillsborough County District 7 (county-wide) Commissioner Kimberly Overman and Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister all joined Viera on the panel.
“My heart is bursting with pride to be here,” Driskell told a crowd of about 100. “I’m so excited, but I’m trying to play it cool.”
It was a predominantly Muslim crowd, but Viera said those who worship at the mosque and live in the area are an important part of the community.
“Potholes hold no party or religious affiliation,” Viera said. “A pothole annoys the Southern Baptist as much as it annoys the Muslim.”
As you might expect from a predominantly Muslim crowd, there were concerns raised about Islamophobia, guns and the protection of the mosque.
Dr. Adel Eldin, MD, a Brooksville cardiologist, laid out a laundry list of items mosque members would like to see from its elected officials — yellow lights to slow down traffic in the morning as children make their way to school, better fire rescue service and for the mosque, which has a Thonotosassa addressed in unincorporated Hillsborough County, to be incorporated into the City of Tampa so it could be on the city’s sewer system.
Along with the recent Islamic Society of New Tampa purchase of six acres of land adjacent to the mosque for expansion, Eldin said his list of requests were critical.
Safety From Violence
But, the safety of worshippers was on his mind as well. He thanked Sheriff Chronister for increasing patrols after shootings of Muslims earlier this year in New Zealand, but also said he would like to see a deputy on site in the morning when the children are vulnerable.
Chronister sympathized with many in attendance.
“There are 4,000 members of the sheriff’s office that want to make sure no one has to live in fear,” he said. He drew one of the loudest ovations of the afternoon when he added, “You should be able to worship in peace, regardless of your faith.”
That led to a discussion about gun control, namely the dangers posed by access to assault rifles, as well as a 12-year-old in the crowd suggesting lawmakers focus on the mental health issues of students who suffer from harassment and fear of bullying in schools.
“This is a community concerned about tolerance and safety a bit more acutely than other folks,” Viera said.
Driskell tackled questions on the lack of education funding, one of her primary interests as a legislator. “I am ready…give me the ball!,” Driskell said when the first question about education was asked.
A product of local public schools (Lake Gibson in nearby Polk County) who went on to graduate from Harvard, Driskell said more help — both financially and in the classroom — needs to be provided to teachers across the state in order to retain them. She said she watched the joy of teaching fade from her mother after a 35-year career in the classroom.
Since being elected last November (beating incumbent Shawn Harrison), Driskell said that she has witnessed first-hand just how tough that fight for more funding for public schools can be.
“I don’t like to make things partisan,” she said, “but I think 90 percent of the time in state legislature, we agree on most of the issues and most of the bills we vote on will pass through unanimously. But, for whatever reason, public education has become so highly politicized. It falls into two camps: those who favor public schools, and those on the side of charter schools and vouchers for private schools.”
Driskell said she is not necessarily against charter schools or vouchers, “but not at the expense of public schools.”
Overman and Hillsborough County District 3 School Board member Cindy Stuart, who was in attendance, also said more funding was central to fixing what ails schools and their teachers, but the answers may have to come from the community.
Chronister agreed. As the vice chair of the Citizen Oversight Committee for the education referendum that passed last year, Chronister touted many of the school projects that the $23 million raised by a the new one-cent sales tax that are making things better for students and teachers.
Affordable healthcare, affordable housing and building a stronger community also were touched on in the wide-ranging, two-hour forum, and at the end, Viera said it accomplished what he had hoped.
“I do it because I think it’s important,” Viera said. “There were a lot of legitimate concerns, not paranoia, raised, and addressing them and showing that their local politicians have their backs makes the community stronger and better off.”