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Thursday, Aug 21, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Democrat fulfills promise to her party, and herself

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DADE CITY — Like all other juniors at Ribault High School in Jacksonville, 16-year-old Beverly Ledbetter was called on to write an essay describing the life she imagined for herself.

For the vast majority of pubescent essayists, such efforts tend to be more tests of the imagination than reliable predictors. Otherwise, there would be far more Nobel laureates, Oscar winners, professional athletes and billionaire inventors.

But Beverly Ledbetter was never like the rest of us, and for her, that essay was part contract, part manifesto.

She would be a teacher, she wrote, one worthy of Horace Mann’s ideal of quality, universal public education.

Later, because even then she had a keen interest in shaping government policy, she would stand for public office.

When she brimming with teenage urgency, it’s unlikely she could have imagined the second phase of that forecast taking so long to achieve culmination. She is, after all, part of the generation that came of age distrusting anyone over 30.

Still, age brings patience to the wise, not to mention a sense of orderliness, which helps explain how Ledbetter — all the while rearing a family, earning Teacher of the Year honors at Pasco Middle and Pasco High schools, and coaching three sports — bided her time.

Then, two weeks ago, the promise that would keep became the promise kept: She’s running for the Legislature.

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A longtime officer in the East Pasco Democratic Party, Ledbetter says it drove her batty whenever her party conceded elections to the other guys, either by failing to field candidates, or fielding candidates with dubious credentials, an apt description of the competition mounted against current District 36 Rep. Will Weatherford.

With the Weatherford era succumbing to term limits next year, District 36 will be an open-seat election, the first time that has happened since Ledbetter’s retirement from the Pasco County School District.

Her new job, overseeing teaching interns at Saint Leo University, helps her keep current on the effects of education policy descending from Tallahassee, but is not nearly as time-consuming as being a classroom teacher.

Everything else in her life also seemed to have fallen into place. Her children are up and grown. Her husband, Michael Ledbetter — the former Pasco County commissioner and, in 1982, Gov. Bob Graham’s “No Casinos” campaign chief — is on board. She has gotten encouragement — amounting to sharp elbows in the back — from enthusiastic local party hotshots.

And there’s all that hectoring. Ultimately, she says, “You can’t complain if you’re not willing to do it yourself.”

Spoken like that Ribault High junior.

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Ledbetter knows her campaign will be waged uphill, whoever emerges from the Republican primary, expected to pit political novice Minnie Diaz, of Trinity, against east Pasco native and Zephyrhills Mayor Danny Burgess.

Unlike west Pasco’s District 36, where the state Democratic Party seized on a slight voter-registration advantage in October’s special election, District 38, blanketing all of east Pasco to U.S. 41, leans Republican.

Moreover, Ledbetter predicts, as home of the current Florida Speaker of the House, the Florida GOP will — should push come to outright brawl — defend the seat ferociously.

“I’ll have the support of the county [Democratic] party,” Ledbetter says, “but I wouldn’t expect many resources from the state [party], certainly not the level they gave Amanda Murphy,” the Democrat winner of the October special election.

Still, she sees a sliver of hope in the independent-and-minor-party cohort, comprising nearly a quarter of the district’s registered voters. If they are as persuadable as their identification suggests, she reasons, she has a shot.

About that. Ledbetter, while not a doctrinaire Democrat — she’s suspicious about light rail as the region’s transportation salvation — does line up reliably left of center.

For instance, she says, the problem with the Affordable Care Act is not so much the policy as its implementation. She cites Scripture to fortify her support for expanding Medicaid.

And she’s a staunch defender of unions, which she says are not defenders of under-performing employees, but exist only to negotiate and defend mutually agreed-upon contracts.

That said, what Beverly Ledbetter is, she is poised, bright, articulate, informed and approachable.

Her companion having acknowledged that to her over lunch the other day, the candidate put down her fork of chicken salad, raised an eyebrow above rimless glasses, smiled disarmingly, and said, “Still think Danny Burgess is inevitable?”

What we think — assuming he becomes the GOP nominee — is that Danny Burgess had better bring his A game.

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