Read our exclusive Q&A with State Representative District 44 candidate Geraldine Thompson.
Family: Married to husband, Emerson; three adult children; four granddaughters
Education: Dade County Public Schools graduate; Miami Dade Community College; bachelor’s degree from University of Miami; master’s degree from Florida State University
Qualifications: Incumbent; member of Florida House of Representatives, 2006 to 2012; member of Florida Senate, 2012 to 2016; Florida House Democratic leader pro-tempore, 2008 to 2010; former chairperson, Women Legislative Caucus and Orange County Legislative Delegation; former chairwoman, Florida Conference of Black State Legislators; former Orange County Public Schools teacher; former assistant to Valencia College president; cofounder, YMCA Achievers
Why do you want to represent District 44?
When my family and I moved to our current home in Windermere, our neighborhood backed up to an orange grove that was tended each day by an elderly matron who owned considerable acreage in the area. We woke in the mornings to the smell of orange blossoms and the sight of our neighbor wearing a big hat and long sleeves to shield her from the sun as she drove her tractor through the orange trees. Today, our neighbor is no longer with us, and subdivisions and retention ponds sit where the orange trees once stood. We have witnessed tremendous growth in West Orange County. Presently, more building permits are issued for development in West Orange than almost any other place in Orange County. I want to represent House District 44 to balance the growth ... of the district with the need to preserve our environment, which attracted people to the area at the outset.
One major challenge is to provide educational facilities to residents in the area, which attracts more families than schools can accommodate and leads to overcrowding the day the buildings open. The infrastructure — including, roads, sewer systems, transportation and public services — must be in place to accommodate the growth we continue to experience. I want to continue to support the hospitality industry that is vital to District 44 and the state’s economy as we move to attract manufacturing, technology, solar energy and other diverse employment that will make us less tourist dependent.
This race features one candidate with a history in politics and another who is a newcomer. As the incumbent, why does your perspective make you a better candidate than your opponent?
Because I am not a novice, I believe my perspective makes me a better candidate. I have participated in setting policy that resulted in Citizens Insurance addressing a property-insurance crisis, and I have helped set a course to drive Florida’s recovery after the 2008 economic crisis. I have also been at the table during discussions of threats to our state such as offshore drilling, fracking, and oil spills that polluted our waterways and killed fish, birds and other animals while these occurrences drove tourists away. As a former academician, I bring to my service in the Legislature the perspective of what is needed to prepare our next generation of leaders. As the founder of the Wells’Built Museum of African American History and Culture, I guided the rehabilitation of a former Black-owned hotel that was listed in the Green Book to a venue in Parramore that is part of Central Florida’s hospitality industry.
My work with the Wells’Built allowed me to elevate the lives and experiences of the many diverse people who make up our state and country. Rather than walking into a family business, my entrepreneurial acumen allowed me to develop the Wells’Built from the ground up, including product development, budgeting, marketing, hiring and customer service. I am also a better candidate because
I have the cross-cultural competence to be able to bridge divides and bring people together, which is very much needed in today’s social climate. In a Legislature that meets for 60 days each year, projects are begun that may not be completed in a single year. There will be no learning curve for me in my service to District 44. I have established relationships in Tallahassee and throughout the country that will allow me to connect with others to obtain positive results. I have demonstrated the steadfast and unwavering commitment to continuing to work to get results.
District 44 is a diverse area — both in issues and people. How would you ensure you are representing all constituents fairly?
Each year when I return to the district, I provide constituents an end-of-session report to highlight what was accomplished during the 60 days that I was away. The end-of-session report also solicits input from residents regarding their priorities and issues they would like to see addressed moving forward. I schedule town hall meetings in the district to hear and address constituent concerns. ... This year, due to the pandemic, I held a virtual town hall in June in partnership with the West Orange Chamber of Commerce. I also schedule presentations to each city council within District 44. I have satellite offices in various communities in the district to create greater accessibility for constituents. I also attend homeowners’ association meetings in Williamsburg and other communities. I provide routine updates to constituents through a newsletter called Thompson Topics to inform constituents of important issues and to solicit their input regarding matters of concern.
You and your opponent differ on several key issues. What are the most significant differences between you and your opponent, and why?
The greatest difference between me and my opponent is my extensive legislative and community service. During this challenging period, I have been people- rather than profit-centered, as I have always been. I have assisted thousands of individuals to obtain unemployment assistance through a very cumbersome and frustrating system (that) I voted against in 2011. I have responded to the diabetic who had not received unemployment assistance for months as he worried about covering the cost of life-sustaining medication. I responded to veterans selling plasma to make ends meet as they waited for assistance. I responded to the single mothers who suffered anxiety about evictions and providing food for their children. I donated my legislative salary to food banks and nonprofits that assisted Central Floridians during this pandemic.
My opponent (has) stated that he did not believe in extending unemployment compensation though many were suffering in District 44. This is another area where we differ. My opponent is party-driven, even to the point of defending the unconstitutional action of the governor, who the Florida Supreme Court ruled violated the state constitution by appointing an ineligible person to the Florida Supreme Court.
Though some in my party questioned my actions, I had the independence and courage to stand up to this violation of the constitution that I swore to uphold. I have demonstrated that I am not hyper-partisan. My opponent cannot show the same. During my 24-year tenure at the highly respected Valencia College, I assisted thousands of students to realize the American dream of a college education rather than benefiting personally by soliciting them to enroll in a for-profit, unaccredited institution like the one owned by my opponent, which awards credits that don’t transfer. A lawsuit brought by the government of Brazil against my opponent was decided on Sept.18 and found that his university engaged in deceptive practices in the sale of postgraduate courses which, in fact, did not lead to postgraduate degrees. The court ordered that advertisements of the courses cease and that monies be reimbursed for tuitions paid due to deceptive practices.
I believe in government oversight of various industries unlike my opponent, who has stated that he wants to eliminate regulation of businesses while he operates an assisted-living facility that has been continuously cited by the Agency for Health Care Administration for deficiencies. That assisted-living facility has paid thousands of dollars in fees for violation of standards. These guardrails would not exist if there were no regulations. I am not a novice, which differentiates me from my opponent who wants to be trusted to run state government while there are glaring questionable practices associated with how he has run his own businesses.
COVID-19 has largely affected Central Florida’s tourism sector, almost all of which is housed in District 44. This has affected many District 44 residents and businesses. What is the state’s role in helping those affected?
I requested and supported a moratorium on evictions of businesses that were unable to pay commercial leases due to COVID. I also supported payroll protection programs for businesses that lost revenue due to COVID and were facing layoffs of productive staff members. Unfortunately, many major corporations benefited from PPP, while small businesses were denied funds. I support additional PPP funds that will filter down to small-business owners, and I am opposed to waiting for this assistance until after the election. Through the Department of Emergency Management, the state assisted businesses to obtain personal protective equipment that would safeguard the health of employees and customers. The state also provided guidance and regulation to assist businesses to follow CDC guidelines in order that they might operate safely. I have advocated that the state fully fund Visit Florida to market businesses as safe for domestic and international travelers.
If you had a magic wand, what three issues for West Orange County would you change immediately?
I would immediately require concurrency to ensure that infrastructure is in place before additional development occurs. I would facilitate multi-modal forms of transportation — including rail, buses, trails, etc. — to ease traffic congestion caused by explosive growth in West Orange County. Finally, I would adequately fund public education to provide the best facilities, instructors and activities for all students in West Orange County.
Describe your view on police reform.
I believe accountability is needed in law enforcement. To achieve accountability, I propose revisiting sovereign immunity laws that shield from responsibility officials who exceed and abuse their authority. Individuals who are found to have abused their authority should be liable for criminal and civil action and be personally responsible for awards rather than insurance carriers of law-enforcement agencies. Officials should be trained in de-escalation tactics when confronting civilians. Officials should wear badges to identify themselves and activate body cameras whenever they interact with citizens. Law-enforcement agencies should not be militarized but fulfill their roles to protect and serve. Independent civilian oversight is needed to determine abuses of power and appropriate sanctions. I will advocate for the establishment of a database to be managed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to identify out-of-the ordinary complaints of excessive force by county, law-enforcement agency and individual.
The Minnesota officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes has a second home in Windermere and had 15 complaints of excessive force. Settlements should also be reported to the FDLE. A database would help to raise a red flag in instances where excessive complaints have surfaced and allow the state to identify hot spots and intervene before a person who lacks the temperament to serve in law enforcement kills or seriously injures a person. Training in implicit bias should be required. I do not believe in defunding the police but feel that reform is needed.
What are the issues pertaining to education in District 44, and how should the state address them?
COVID-19 has highlighted issues in education that need to be addressed, especially in pockets of the district that lack access to computers at home or access to the internet. Educational material should be available in formats accessible by cell phones, which most students have. Learning losses should not result from lack of access to the technology needed to receive instructional material. I have worked with Pam Gould and will continue to work with the area School Board member to explore staggered start times that will reduce large numbers of students in any facility at one time. To be considered, as well, should be more learning activities scheduled outside where COVID-19 is not so easily spread. Spacing desks 6 feet apart would allow for social distancing in classrooms, as would leaving seats vacant on school buses that some students use to commute to campuses. Deep-cleaning protocols, PPE and other safeguards are needed and must be appropriately funded. I will advocate to have the state address these and other issues — such as higher teacher pay — that impact District 44 and Florida as a whole.
If elected, how will you ensure transparency and open communication with your District 44 constituents?
I addressed issues regarding transparency and open communications earlier in question three. I will continue those practices.
Describe the relationship you would foster between the leaders of our municipalities — Winter Garden, Ocoee, Oakland, Windermere, etc. — and how those relationships would influence your work at the state level.
My work at the state level will continue to be guided by relationships fostered with local leaders of Winter Garden, Ocoee, Oakland, Windermere, Williamsburg, Bay Hill and other areas in District 44. I will continue town hall meetings, presentations to city council meetings, attendance at homeowners’ meetings, church visits, and satellite offices to guide my advocacy and service in Tallahassee. I have been endorsed by Mayor Rusty Johnson of Ocoee and Mayor Kathy Stark of Oakland. I schedule civic organization visits with groups such as Rotary clubs and Democratic Women’s Club of West Orange County.