Article reprinted with permission from 1199 SEIU News [Oct. 2004 issue].


Turning the Tables in Florida

1199SEIU Heroes register tens of thousands of voters in the Sunshine State.

Across the nation, individuals and organizations are putting their usual tasks aside to concentrate on one of the most important Presidential elections in decades. Unions are among the leaders in the campaign to evict George W. Bush from the White House.  And among the many unions working to defeat Bush, none is doing more than 1199SEIU.

With New York State safely in the Kerry camp, hundreds of 1199ers have left their families and workplaces to get out the vote in crucial battleground states.  Most are working in either Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida.  They and other SEIU Heroes are working with labor, religious and community organizations on voter registration, voter education and get out the vote (GOTV) campaigns.

In August, 1199SEIU News visited 1199SEIU Heroes working at eight campaign sites in five Florida counties.  By the end of August, the Heroes had registered more than 12,000 voters. and organizations led by 1199SEIU Heroes had registered about 80,000, mainly by canvassing door-to-door and in public areas.

When discussing their work, many of the Heroes and other campaign workers inevitably refer to the 2000 elections, when thousands of Florida's votes were stolen through undercounting, poorly designed ballots and the disenfranchisement of mainly African American and Democratic Party voters.

"That's one of the reasons why I'm glad I'm here" says Jacksonville Hero Tyrome Bell, a delegate at Mt. Sinai Hospital, Manhattan.  Bell notes that African Americans were the principal victims of the Florida thievery.

"The whole nation lost because of what they did to us," says Tyrone Williams, another Jacksonville Hero from Isabella Nursing Home in Manhattan.  "Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who directed the vote count, was also the state chair of the Bush for President Campaign," Williams emphasizes.

1199ers were among the first unionists and others who went to Florida in November 2000 to petition for an honest count, and they were the last to leave after the Supreme Court issued its infamous decisions to halt the recount and anoint the new President.

"If all votes are counted, we'll win," says 1199SEIU Organizer Katherine Taylor, who left New York in January to become the executive director of the America Coming Together Orlando (ACT) operation.  ACT, a national coalition of some 30 unions and issue groups working in the battleground State, is the largest voter mobilization campaign in U.S. history.

"We know that if we can add a few votes in every key precinct, that can swing the outcome in Florida and in most of the battleground states," Taylor says.  "And we're working today with local and national organizations to make sure that our victory is not stolen."

In August, ACT supported the appeal by six members of Congress to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate the Florida Department of Law Enforcement questioning of Orlando voters.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put the civil rights issue on the national stage when he wrote Aug. 16, "The vile smell of voter suppression hangs over this so-called investigation….The long and ugly tradition of suppressing the black vote is alive and thriving in the Sunshine State."

What follows is a summary of the Heroes' operations in five Florida counties.


Some 14 Heroes are working in the Jacksonville ACT office under the leadership of Organizer Bruce Lane and Member Political Organizer (MPO) Stephen Jones. By September, Jacksonville ACT had registered some 15,000 voters.

In 2000, nearly 27,000 ballots were rejected in Duval, the largest number of any county in the state.  The bulk of the discarded votes were in Democratic-majority precincts in Jacksonville, including 9,000 in predominantly black precincts where Al Gore captured about 90% of the vote.

"I'm 65," says Francois St. Phar, a Jacksonville Hero from Cliffside NH in Flushing, Queens.  "I'm here for my children and grandchildren and to make sure that what happened in 2000 never happens here again.  This time the world will be watching Florida."


The ACT office in Orlando is much more than a political operation.  It is one of ACT's crown jewels.  Under the leadership of Exec. Dir. Taylor and Field Dir. Carlos Quiles, a St. John's Queens Hospital delegate, the office resembles a multi-service community center.  1199SEIU Heroes work with students, community residents and a broad array of community organizations.

When Taylor and Quiles opened the office in April, ACT assigned their office a goal of 12,000 new registered voters.  As of early September, the office had passed the 35,000 mark.  ACT captains from other states have been sent to Orlando for training.  Print and broadcast journalists call the office for statements and community residents stop by to offer help and to be helped.

"These people have changed my life," says James Brown, a driver for the ACT canvassers.  Brown was homeless when he met Taylor and Quiles. "They helped me to get on my feet and now that I'm working, I have my own place, and I'm able to help others out."

Monica Bell, one of the most spirited and enthusiastic members of the Orlando team, discovered ACT while she was in a home for battered women. "We're a family," she says.

"We don't leave anyone behind;' added Joyann Wilson, a Hero from Little Neck NH on Long Island.  "As brothers and sisters, we carry each other's burdens."

In mid-August, the ACT family interrupted canvassing to concentrate on disaster relief after Hurricane Charley.  They helped clean up hard-hit residents' homes and yards and also found skilled trades workers willing to volunteer their time.

Their work was contrasted in the local press with the price gougers and others who sought to profit from the tragedy.

"The community folks have come to know us," says Hero Jimmy Moorer, who formerly worked at New York Presbyterian. "Because they know our faces, they are more likely to open the door for us when we continue our canvassing and to tell their friends and relatives to cooperate with the people from ACT."


Metro Orlando is the fastest growing Puerto Rican community in the U.S. Puerto Ricans account for more than half of the areas Latino community. Carmen Acosta, a delegate at Brooklyn's Wyckoff NH, heads a team of six Heroes who work with Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes), a Florida voter-registration project affiliated with People for The American Way.

"We canvas door-to-door using walk lists of unregistered but eligible voters;' says Acosta.  "We also work mass locations that most residents frequent in their communities and attend mass meetings created by specific events-concerts, festivals, naturalization ceremonies."

"This is not easy work," says Hero Norma Diego, a delegate at Visiting Nurse Service Family Home Care in Manhattan.  "It gets very hot and sometimes frustrating, but on Election Day, I know we'll all feel that it was worth it."


Five New York 1199SEIU retirees left for Delray Beach in July, not to enjoy the Florida sun, but to join the legions of 1199SEIU retirees who are beating the bushes to help beat George W. Bush.

The five--Ora Holloway, Cora Matthews, Miriam Brown, Susheela Desai and Victoria Owens--are working with SEIU's Lisa Ramsey and former 1199SEIU National Benefit Fund Exec Dir. Eleanor Tilson, who are coordinating the work of SEIU seniors around the state.

"With some 7,000 1199SEIU retirees, we are a formidable force in the state," Tilson says.

Palm Beach County is the home of the infamous butterfly ballot, whose design caused voters to mistakenly vote for conservative candidate Pat Buchanan in 2000.  The retirees celebrated with other Kerry supporters on Aug. 31 when the person responsible for the ballot, Theresa LePore, was defeated in her bid for re-election as Palm Beach Elections Supervisor.

"We’re not surprised," says Hero Owens.  In Delray Beach, Owens engaged 90-year-old WWII vet Nathaniel Muse in conversation at the entrance to his home.  Said Muse, "You don’t have to tell me that we need a new President.  I could have told you that."


Unlike ACT, which has substantial resource and provides Palm pilots for each of its canvassers, the Voter Improvement Project (VIP), another nonpartisan voter-registration organization, must make do with less.  This has posed challenges for the team of 13 Heroes in Broward town of Sunrise.

Led by MPO Ivanei Nascimento, the Heroes make light of the gated communities, guard dogs, no trespassing signs and overzealous local police and the press covering with their work.

"We have to look past those problems and help each other out," says Hero Regina Gyamera, a Partners In Care home health aide.  "We've created a family here to make sure we don't leave anyone behind."  "Everybody helps out in some way," says Michele Duncanson of Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx.  "For example, my roommate Yola Ducles (from Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn) does the cooking and I provide the entertainment with my oldies music."


With increasing numbers of Haitian immigrants opting to become U.S. citizens, Florida's Haitian community--the largest in the U.S.--can no longer be ignored by the political parties.  For example, the majority of 1199SEIU Florida members are of Haitian descent.

Haitian-born Robert Constant, an Member Political Organizer and an 1199SEIU Hero, heads the Ft Lauderdale Caribbean Power Project, which shares space with Latino Power Vote, an organization of members mostly from SEIU Local 32BJ, the New York City building services local.  Both groups are affiliated with ACT.   "We won the state in 2000," says Constant and we're going to win it again--except I this time by a lot more votes."

Another team member is Haitian--Michel Pierre-Louis, a Maimonides Hospital retiree who volunteered, he says, because "this is a good way to help my people."


1199SEIU Heroes in Dade County are helping to transform the political landscape in South Florida.  For decades, Miami has been the stronghold of right-leaning Latinos, mostly of Cuban descent.  But not only are many younger Cubans moving away from the conservative politics of the older generation, a growing percentage of Latinos in the region are of Puerto Rican and Central and South American descent, who don't share the viewpoint of the conservative Cubans.

"Our message gets a good response from many of those we speak to, especially the younger ones;' says Leah Gonzalez, team leader of the 1199ers in Miami's Mi Familia Vota.

By the first week in September, the team of 12 had registered more than 5,000 new voters.  Overall, the MFV operation in Miami was nearing the 40,000-registration mark.

As in the other Heroes operations, the MFV 1199ers have formed a close-knit family. "We're like 'The Real World' reality show," says Hero John Bowden of St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan.   "We're different, but we love each other."

"I think we're making a difference:' says Brooklyn's Lutheran Medical Center Hero Adelaida Montalvo.  My 10-year-old granddaughter is going to come down and canvass with me.  She says that she wants to tell her classmates that she helped me to do something important."


One of the smallest groups of Heroes works out of the VIP office in Miami. The six members are led by 1199er Mark Fraser, a delegate from Staten Island's Bayley Seton Hospital.

The attitude of Carol Towey, an LPN at Ocean Promenade Nursing Center in Far Rockaway, Queens, is indicative of that of many Heroes.

"This my way of expressing my gratitude and helping pay back my union," she says.  "Through 1199SEIU, I was able train without spending a penny to become an LPN.  I passed the New York State boards in January.  I've been fortunate because I belong to such a great union.  My work down here will help others to get what I have."

The Florida Heroes will return shortly after Election Day, though some have asked to stay and work as union organizers. But that comes after the victory party.