TAMPA — Cornelia Corbett is a name associated with philanthropy in Tampa, chiseled as it is into buildings at the Tampa Museum of Art and at a North Tampa preparatory school.
Renown, in fact, seems to run in her family.
The name of Corbett’s great-great-great-grandfather — Elbridge Gerry — appears on the Declaration of Independence and inspired a term that’s at the center of a court battle under way in Tallahassee: Gerrymander.
Every time Corbett hears the word — and that’s a lot these past two weeks as a Leon County circuit judge heard arguments in a challenge of Florida’s new congressional districts — she thinks of her famous ancestor.
“It’s part of his history,” Corbett said. “And part of mine.”
In 1812, as the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry was part of a notorious plan to redraw his state’s political boundaries to help deliver election victories for his Democratic-Republican Party.
Ever since, gerrymander has been used to describe the manipulation of voting districts for political gain.
The “mander” comes from salamander, said to be the shape of one of the questionable districts that emerged from the process in Massachusetts.
Corbett is married to developer Dick Corbett, who built International Plaza and sold his share of it for $437 million.
Thirty years ago, Cornelia Corbett owned Tampa’s professional soccer team, The Rowdies. News reports often referred to her as part owner and part team mom for bringing players dinner and advice, if needed. She used the team to help build youth soccer programs.
She also was a child protection worker in New York City, a longtime supporter of the local Child Abuse Council, and helped navigate a foundering museum of art into its modern new home downtown, complete with the Cornelia Corbett Center.
The Tampa Metro Civitan Club named her Citizen of the Year in 2010.
Corbett has built a positive reputation, which could not always be said of her famous ancestor.
“He doesn’t go down in history as one of the great statesman, to say the least, as a result of the whole gerrymandering issue,” said Joseph D’Agnese, who with Denise Kiernan authored “Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence.”
“It gave him a real black eye, perhaps unfairly,” D’Agnese said. “He did make positive contributions as well.”
Among Gerry’s greatest fans was founding father and second president John Adams, who once said, “If every man was a Gerry, the liberties of America would be sage against the gates of earth and hell.”
According to the archives of the Senate Historical Office, Gerry was born into a wealthy merchant family in Marblehead, Mass., on July 17, 1744.
His last name, Corbett said, is pronounced with a hard G. Yet gerrymander is pronounced with a soft G.
Historians are unsure why. Gerry’s hometown was a hotbed of anti-British activity during the 1760s and 1770s, according to the Senate archives, and he played an active role by speaking out against the sale and consumption of British tea.
This activism launched his political career.
In 1772, he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature and later to the Continental Congress, the governing body of the new United States during the American Revolution.
This led to one of Gerry’s main claims to fame in the view of D’Agnese: His is one of the few signatures on the Declaration of Independence that has not faded into illegibility.
The reason, D’Agnese explained: Gerry was not present at the declaration’s initial signing on Aug. 2, 1776, and did not add his name until fall, probably using a higher quality of ink.
Gerry was not the last to sign it. That is believed to have been Thomas McKean of Delaware, in 1781.
In 1787, Gerry joined the ranks of those wary of a strong central government and refused to endorse the U.S. Constitution, Cornelia Corbett said. Their holdout resulted in the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
“He thought individual rights were very important,” Corbett said.
“That was a common objection,” said D’Agnese. “The constitution was not popular when it was rolled out to the states for ratification because it did not guarantee rights. But it was promised that one of the first things Congress would do was write a Bill of Rights, which they did.”
In 1810, Gerry was elected governor of Massachusetts.
In those early days of the nation, the two top political parties were the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party.
Kenneth Martis, professor emeritus in the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University, said New England was one of the “last bastions of the Federalist Party,” but with victories by Gerry and others in his party, the balance of power in the state Legislature appeared to be shifting.
Looking to maintain the momentum, elected officials from the Democratic-Republican Party redrew the state districts to benefit their candidates in future elections.
The redistricting was signed into law by Gerry on Feb. 11, 1812.
The Federalist Party still controlled the newspapers throughout New England, including the Boston Gazette, which on March 26, 1812, published a cartoon depicting the politically crooked redistricting map, Martis said.
The cartoon drew attention to the salamander shape but called it a “gerrymander” to tie it to the governor.
“So we can actually point out the exact day that term was introduced into the English language,” Martis said.
In the following days, he added, other Federalist-owned newspapers published the cartoon, as well, and gerrymander soon came into common usage.
“It was the ‘Obamacare’ term of that time,” quipped Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
The redistricting worked, Martis said. The Democratic-Republican Party won the odd shaped district.
Gerry, however, lost his statewide re-election bid.
Some historians blame his loss on the gerrymander scandal. Martis said it could also have been a referendum on the pending War of 1812. Gerry’s Democratic-Republican Party was an ardent supporter, while the Federalist Party opposed it.
Gerry quickly bounced back from the defeat, becoming the fifth vice president of the U.S. in March 1813 under President James Madison. Gerry served less than two years and died Nov. 23, 1814.
Gerry is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., D’Agnese said.
“There is a great quote by Gerry on his tomb: ‘It is the duty of every man, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country.’ I think of that quote when I hear his name. But most will only think of gerrymandering.”
In Tallahassee, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis is considering arguments that wrapped up last week in a case brought by voter rights groups claiming Republican interests improperly influenced the redrawing of congressional districts that was required by law to reflect the 2010 census.
The challenge is the first under Florida’s voter-approved Fair Districts standards, which require keeping districts compact and keeping cities and counties whole when possible, essentially banning gerrymandering.
When more news emerges from the court fight, Gerry’s great-great-great-granddaughter will think of the positives from his life. “He did a lot of great things,” Corbett said. “I am proud to be related to him.”