FAST. HOPE. BOLD.
The acronyms for Florida’s faith-based community action groups are all about urgency — and the need for results.
FAST (Faith and Action for Strength Together) held its annual Nehemiah Action Assembly Monday night Apr. 7 at Tropicana Field, attracting thousands who attended for the chance to ask Pinellas officials “yes” or “no” questions about public policy proposals.
HOPE (Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality) met the following night with Tampa City Council members Frank Reddick and Lisa Montelione, who told the group that they would be open to an amendment to the city’s criminal history screening ordinance and would propose it to the Council.
BOLD Justice (Broward Organized Leaders Doing Justice) saw a similar victory the same day in Fort Lauderdale, when the Broward County Commission narrowly passed a “Workforce Investment Act” that requires county contractors to consider hiring felons, dropouts, the homeless and other “hard to hire” people, a change that BOLD Justice fought for.
All are part of DART (Direct Action and Research Training Center), a statewide network of Justice Ministry Organizations. Some critics, like Tampa-based contractor Steve Cona III, voice concerns about the organizations’ collective “social justice agenda.” But judging by the number of groups (there are now 10 of them in the state), that agenda has plenty of fans.
If the crowd at the Trop was impressive (an estimated 3,000), so was the lineup: County Commissioners Ken Welch, Janet Long and John Morroni (Charlie Justice had the flu and sent his regrets); St. Pete City Council members Jim Kennedy, Karl Nurse, Wengay Newton, Steve Kornell and Darden Rice; and St. Pete Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s top assistant.
All of the participants were informed up front about the questions. But when any of them had the trepidation to decline a “yes” or “no” response in favor of a “maybe,” they heard about it.
So Tomalin discovered when it came to discussion of the Construction Incentive Project (CIP), which would provide local hiring incentives to contractors working on city projects that cost over $500,00 and was approved by the City Council last year. FAST had said prior to the event that Mayor Kriseman would move to include projects that cost less than $500,000.
“Unemployment rates are down, the economy is up, yet in Pinellas County, 40,000 are unemployed and 80,000 are under-employed,” said Rabbi Michael Torop in setting up the ask.
But Tomalin wouldn’t commit to the under-$500,000 directive, saying only that it was a possible option.
“We want to be transparent and thorough with our answer,” she added.
“Tonight we are disappointed,” the Rev. Robert Teagle said solemnly. “That’s not the clear commitment we were looking for from the mayor.”
On the subject of reducing the number of juvenile arrests, the dialogue was less contentious. FAST leaders praised Tomalin, along with Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and State Attorney Bernie McCabe, on stage for their work on the issue.
“We gotta make sure that kids don’t go from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse,” said Gualtieri. He said there is a now a full-time staffer in his office whose job is dedicated to a diversion program for youth.
“You need to understand when the sheriff and I get involved with a youth, something has already gone wrong,” said McCabe. “We need your help.”
Tomalin said that a second chance for youth “who need love rather than lockup” is one of Kriseman’s biggest priorities, and he’s looking for a new police chief who will support that vision.
Next up on the agenda: a request for $6 million for comprehensive dental care for an additional 15,000 adults in Pinellas.
Don Browne of St. Catherine Catholic pointed out that with rising property values and a projected $20 million surplus, the county should be able to meet the request. “Our county spends plenty on beautification projects,” Brown told the audience. “Now it’s time to help our brothers and sisters in need, right here in Pinellas County.” Both Morroni and Long agreed, but Welch was more circumspect.
“I want to be clear with you. We have not had our first look at the budget,” the longtime Pinellas Commissioner declared. But he added that if $20 million does come through, $6 million shouldn’t be a problem.
As president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, Steve Cona III finds the rise of FAST and its ilk kind of scary.
“All of a sudden we are seeing all of these well-funded and organized local interfaith advocacy groups popping up all over the state and pushing the same agenda,” frets Cona. “They are targeting public construction projects and pushing local governments to mandate contractors hire ex-offenders and disadvantaged workers.”
The push in Hillsborough and Broward to have contractors reconsider policies against hiring workers with criminal records is also part of the incentive project proposed in St. Pete. CIP would require that a third of the local workers hired would be apprentices and “disadvantaged workers,” defined as a “new hire who has a criminal record and is either a recipient of public benefits or a person with personal income below 50 percent of the area media income.”
Cona suggests that FAST and other such groups are taking a page from “the ACORN model,” which he says “was funded by the labor unions to push their labor-oriented and social justice agenda.”
In fact, FAST is funded by its 38 member congregations — and ACORN (that old Tea Party punching bag, the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) was funded by a combination of private donations and government grants.
Parisrice Robinson, a member of FAST’s Jobs Committee and St. Joseph Catholic Church, strongly defends the coalition’s goals and funding sources.
“It is absolutely right and just to use our public money and public contracts to help unemployed Floridians get back to work, whether they happen to be a disadvantaged worker or an ex-offender,” said Robinson. “To suggest or imply anything different is wrong.”