Hillsborough County undermines its Moral Courage Award

What makes a King out of a slave?
Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave?
Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk, in the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk?
—The Cowardly Lion

It must feel kinda shitty these days to be a past winner of the Hillsborough County Moral Courage Award now that county commissioners have renamed it to honor their campaign sugar daddy, the power broker who defined the term pro-growth.

That's right. Hillsborough's top award for civic activism has been renamed for the late Ralph Hughes, a pardoned ex-felon who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars he made in the precast concrete construction business to influence political campaigns in Tampa Bay. It will hereafter be called the Ralph Hughes Moral Courage Award.

Hughes died earlier this year at the age of 77.

The award's new name has shocked and angered level-headed folks in Hillsborough — among them some past winners of the Moral Courage Award.

Cam Oberting, for example, who won the first one, in 1992.

"Hughes used his money and power to get his way," Oberting said in the Tampa Tribune coverage of the renaming debate. "He gave big campaign contributions, paid for commissioners' meals. ... But to public officials or candidates who disliked him, he intimidated those that didn't agree with him."

That doesn't sound like moral courage as much as hardball politicking and influence-buying. All five who voted to rename the award received beaucoup bucks from Hughes: Jim Norman (who floated the cockamamie idea), Ken Hagan, Kevin White, Brian Blair and Al Higginbotham. Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita voted against the renaming.

There's another good point about the renaming made by this year's winner, Dave Brown of Sun City Center.

"You'll have to decide whether that's an award you want to accept," Brown said in the St. Petersburg Times. "Next year's recipient, I think, will have a moral decision to make."

We'll make it easier for those folks. Given that the Hillsborough County Commission has ceded the moral authority to dispense the Moral Courage Award, Creative Loafing will take the baton.

I got the OK from the higher-ups here to give Moral Courage Awards annually, starting this December, for people in Tampa Bay who demonstrate, in the words of the county's award, "exceptional ethical behavior and the moral courage to challenge the actions of government."

It makes sense to have an independent arbiter for this award anyway; there is something that is, on its face, wrong about a government deciding who best challenges it. Wouldn't the person who really raised the most hell, who had the most courage in the face of an intransigent government, also have possibly earned the enmity of that government?

Here's the rules:

Anyone who is not in government or paid to undertake the actions they are being nominated for is eligible. Civic groups or other nonprofits are eligible as well.

Nominees must live in Hillsborough or Pinellas County.

The nominee must agree to be nominated.

Nominees must have shown courage and morality in working to change our community for the better, against great odds or opposition, or against pigheaded government officials.

Anyone that Ralph Hughes disliked or fought politically against gets bonus points from us.

In deciding the award recipients annually, Creative Loafing will consult past winners, experts in morality and civic engagement and a bipartisan group of people involved in public affairs matters. We will highlight these civic winners in one of our December issues annually.

To make a nomination, send an e-mail to [email protected] with the nominee's name, address and telephone number; a short biographical paragraph about the nominee; and why you think the nominee has exhibited great civic moral courage in Tampa Bay in 2008. Include your name, address and telephone number as well, please.

The deadline for entries is midnight, Oct. 31.

Oh, and we promise never, ever to name the award after anyone, whether alive or dead or somewhere in between.

Speaking of the minions of Ralph Hughes, Brian Blair went a bit off track in an interview between himself and challenger Kevin Beckner on ABC Action News' Flashpoint talk show two Sundays ago (Sept. 14), cracking a racial joke about himself and singer Michael Jackson both being from the same Gary, Ind., neighborhood.

The exchange came near the eight-minute mark of the second segment of the show, moderated by Channel 28 anchor Brendan McLaughlin. Here's the exchange in question:

BECKNER: "This is part of Mr. Blair's agenda of marginalizing people in our community. He's had a history of it. He's marginalized the Muslim community. He's pushed for banning books in our libraries. He slighted our African American community. Mr. Blair has done more to drive down the socio- and economic value of our community than anybody other than former commissioner Ronda Storms."

BLAIR: "That's a complete fabrication. First off, I just supported giving the NAACP $15,000. I've been on the Urban Caucus for the last four years. I've coached black kids. Black children stay at my home almost every weekend. I was born in Gary, Indiana, you know where that is, Kevin. There were very few white people in my neighborhood. I didn't know what prejudice was. Probably the only two white people in my neighborhood were myself and Michael Jackson. My friends were all black. ... You're flat-out wrong."

Yes, Commissioner Blair, some of my best friends are black people, too.

Now for those who are racial-sensitivity challenged, Michael Jackson is an African-American man who has lighter skin as the result of a condition called vitiligo. And while making jokes about Michael Jackson's sexual activities (alleged) and apparent whiteness are certainly a national sport, it still seems, well, racially ignorant to use a joke about him as an example of how racially progressive you are.

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