It’s just so complex(ion)

What gives?

Why are the cops so tough on some people?
And so solicitous toward others?
Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe the police are afraid of these guys because they are armed to the teeth.
While these people are armed with nothing more than righteous indignation.
Maybe it’s because these people are rude.
And these people are courteous.
Perhaps it’s because these people are rabble.
While these people have friends in high places.
It could be because these people are complaining about police misconduct.
While these people just want death for politicians.
Or that these people wave the flag.
And these people don’t.
I dunno. It’s such a conundrum.
Really, it’s such a complex(ion) question.

The unmasked man

When you think about it, wearing a mask in these infectious times is the ultimate act of selflessness.

Alas, selflessness is not deemed an American virtue these days.

I think it’s tucked into the Declaration of Independence somewhere: Life, liberty and the freedom to infect my fellow Americans.

That codicil coming right before: Suppress votes, not germs.

Which, when you think about that, is pretty much the ethos of the Party Of Trump.

So it wasn’t surprising to read state Sen. Keith Perry’s condemnation of Alachua County’s face mask mandate in last Sunday’s Sun.

It “sends the wrong message to local business owners that the government can operate their businesses better than they can,” Perry wrote.

Which is also a great argument against restaurant sanitation inspections, fire prevention codes and policing bars to make sure they aren’t serving 17-year-olds.

As Perry assures us, “In the absence of a mandate, businesses can still implement health and safety measures as they see fit and allow the consumer to shop where they are most comfortable.”

Of course, we know from his history that Perry objects to lots of things cities and counties do.

He objects to Gainesville selling electricity. He objects to Alachua County banning gay conversion therapy and buying land that he had his eye on. This coming session he wants to crack down on local occupational licenses.

And let’s not overlook the political propaganda embedded in Perry’s call to liberate Alachua residents from the tyranny of county mask enforcement.

“While not yet as loaded as a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown,” reports the Associated Press.

Listen, with an election year unfolding in the face of widespread joblessness and an ever-steeper body count, pretty much the only thing Republicans have left on which to hang their re-election hopes is the party’s time-tested “government is the enemy” rant.

Trump sets the example: He doesn’t like masks, won’t wear one and urges armed protestors to “liberate” their states from the pro-maskers (Democrats).

Not to forget Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva’s recent tweet that “we are past the limit of acceptable government intervention in a free society.”

Olivia asks: “We measure Covid cases but who is measuring the wide spread destruction of people’s personal and financial lives?”

He might have strengthened his case by pointing out that, despite all of this unwarranted government intervention, America still leads the world in COVID-19 deaths.” Except that might lead to uncomfortable questions about why Trump, his party’s standard bearer, sat on his hands for so long while he tried to wish the virus away.

There will inevitably be real casualties in this war of words.

Like the security guard in Michigan who was shot in the head for presuming to enforce face mask compliance in a Family Dollar store. He left a wife and eight children.

“If 80% of a closed population were to don a mask, COVID-19 infection rates would statistically drop to approximately one twelfth the number of infections—compared to a live-virus population in which no one wore masks,” reports Vanity Fair, citing new research.

Maybe. But saving lives at the risk of making America bluer would be a selfless act indeed for Trump and his Freedom To Infect Party.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com.

Red and our right to know

J. Emory “Red” Cross was a maverick in the Florida Legislature who believed that his constituents ought to know what their government was doing in their names.

(I wrote this article for the current edition of FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities)

What’s in a name?

If you had asked J. Emory Cross that question in 1948, he would have said that name recognition counts for a lot.

Cross, Georgia native turned Marianna car salesman turned Gainesville lawyer was running for state prosecutor against two rivals from well-known local families. At campaign functions they liked to brag about just how familiar their names were.

“That was sort of getting to me so finally I began to say,’now you are talking about familiarity of names?’ I believe mine was more familiar than either one of theirs,” he recalled in a 1978 interview with the University of Florida’s Oral History Program.

“My name is Red Cross.

“That might have won me the election.”

Whether it did or not, Red Cross stuck. He of the crimson hair, “ice cream” tropical suits and a penchant for tough causes.

And Red wasn’t even his first nickname. When he ran for student body president at the University of Florida in 1945 – winning by just 15 votes – they jokingly called him “Landslide.”

But the most enduring moniker Cross acquired during a stellar political career was no joke:

Father of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

It took him a decade to do it, beginning in 1957 when he was in the state house. But in his dogged determination to mandate public meetings, Cross more than anyone insured that, in Florida, the people’s business would be done in sight of and with participation from the people.

And getting that done was a lonely business. “I never had a co-introducer on it in all the times that I introduced it,” Pepper would later say of the legislation that finally passed in 1967, when he was a state senate.

In terms of having a lasting impact on everyday lives, J. Emory “Red” Cross may be the most consequential politician that many Floridians have never heard of. If you ever attended a city zoning board hearing to protect your property rights, or weighed in on your neighborhood school’s redistricting, you can thank Red Cross for that right.

Half a century after its passage the Sunshine Law still obliges school board members, city and county commissioners and state officials to hold open meetings and listen to public comments before making decisions.

And it should surprise no one that it is newspeople – who regularly attend public meetings and report on their outcomes – who are most likely to remember and appreciate Red Cross’ legacy.

“There should be a statue of the man in Tallahassee, and his face should be emblazoned on the wall of every county courthouse and city hall in the state,” Craig Pittman, reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of “Oh, Florida!” has written.

“Think of how very different our lives would be without the Sunshine Law, and not just here but also others states that have copied us,” Pittman says. “He saw what was happening outside the public view and came up with this thing that we all take for granted today.”

And therein hangs a tale worth telling.

Red Cross, who died in 2004 at the age of 90, was a fixture in north Florida politics through the 1950s and ’60s. First as prosecutor then state representative and senator and, finally, Alachua County judge. And it’s fair to say that he made an impression on folks.

“He always wore white. White suit, white tie, white shoes, white socks,” recalled Gainesville attorney Jonathan Wershow, whose father lost a legislative race to Cross. “I thought he was an excellent politician but from a political standpoint he was a lot more liberal than the area around him.”

Which is to say that Cross was one of those rarest of political animals – the Southern Progressive. Cut from quite the same mold as Florida’s other “Red,” Claude Pepper, and Lawton Chiles, who served with Cross in the legislature and went on to champion the federal version Florida’s Sunshine Law in the U.S. Senate.

“Red was a very colorful, classic Southern good old boy,” recalls Jean Chance, who began teaching journalism at UF in 1956 and often invited Cross to speak to her students. “It was the day of the Pork Choppers but he was smart enough as a lawyer to know how to compromise. He knew how to count the votes and he knew he was in a college town.”

Indeed, Cross himself would admit that key to his political longevity was his liberal college town constituency, which often put him at odds with the rural lawmakers who ran the state well into second half of the 20th century.

“I had a lot of enemies in the legislature,” he said during that 1978 UF interview “but I represented a county that they did not have any strength with. Alachua County was peculiar in that regard.”

How peculiar? Well, consider that Gainesville was the only Florida city that George McGovern carried in 1972.

And it would be short-changing the man’s legacy to imagine that open government was his sole contribution.

Cross himself said his proudest achievement was bringing a medical school to the University of Florida, in 1955. Working with then-Rep. Ralph Turlington and state Sen. William Shands, Cross drove the length of the state to secure legislative votes for the initiative.

“I had broken my arm and had a cast up to my shoulder,” he recalled. “I drove with my left hand from Pensacola to Key West.”

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Cross helped funnel millions of dollars to Florida’s fledgling community college system. He introduced the bill that created Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville (after heated fight with Sen. Charlie Johns, who wanted it in Starke). He also championed better mental health screening and treatment.

Cross began his push for Government In The Sunshine shortly after he was elected to the House, and after meeting with then-UF journalism dean Rae O Weimer and Buddy Davis, Pulitizer Prize winning editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

The ability of elected officials to make decisions in secret had long bothered Cross.

When I-75 was in the planning stage, he once told the Gainesville Sun, “I had a very good friend who was on the road board helping his buddies” buy up land along its future path. “It just wasn’t right.”

Cross said in his oral history interview “I always believed the people had a right to know about what the public officials were doing and how their money was spent.”

That notion of a public right to know didn’t go over well with many lawmakers. Cross remembered one Chiefland representative, Edder Usher, who argued that “down in Levy County we are not for open meetings.”

“And his newspapers all over Levy County wrote editorials against him,” Cross said. “He was sorry he said that.”

What ultimately paved the way for passage of the Sunshine Law was a landmark court-ordered reapportionment that ended the reign of the pork choppers and ushered in new state leadership. Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, signed the bill into law.

Ironically, it was that same reapportionment that ended Cross’ legislative career. After his district was redrawn to include portions of several rural counties, Cross lost his seat to Gainesville oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders.

“Saunders was a handsome businessman and the right people got behind him and funded his campaign,” Jean Chance said. “Red didn’t keep up with his times.”

Fifty two years after its passage, Cross’s Sunshine Law remains durable but vulnerable to changing times. Barbara Peterson, of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said “there are far fewer exemptions to our right of access (meetings) than to public records. Of 1,100-plus exemptions, maybe 10 to 15 percent have been to Sunshine Law and the remainder to the Public Records Law.”

Which is not to say that the public’s right to know isn’t threatened by fast-changing technology. Increased used of email, text messaging, social media and other forms of instant communication are challenging the very meaning of what exactly constitutes a public meeting or record.

Sandra F. Chance, retired UF journalism professor and co-author of a history of Florida’s open government laws, said “technology is fast outpacing the law’s ability to keep up. It allows us to do more things more remotely, but a lot of people still don’t have access to computers.”

In the end, she cautions, open government “is dependent on the commitment by citizens to protect their democracy and demand access to information. And if the public isn’t paying attention these laws are going to disappear.”