In this safe Democratic district, Florida state Sen. Frederica Wilson had an easy road to victory. She had no Republican opponent, and her only competition on Election Day was lawyer Roderick Vereen, an underdog independent. Wilson is an unvarnished Obama Democrat running in a majority black, Miami-Dade County district that gave the president 87 percent of the vote in 2008. The seat came open this year when Democratic incumbent Rep. Kendrick Meek ran for the Senate.
Wilson will be hard to miss on the House floor. She is known locally for a fondness for large, cowboy-style hats and colorful outfits. Wilson’s trademark headgear was inspired by her grandmother, who wore similar hats as part of a cultural tradition in her native Bahamas. Wilson’s politics were inspired by her father, Thirlee Smith, a native of Timpson, Texas, a town that in her father’s day had an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. “He would sit me on his knee, and tell me stories of what happened to him in Texas and how people were lynched,” she recalled.
During a visit to Miami, Smith met Frederica’s mother, Beulah Finley, and the two wed and settled in South Florida. In Miami, Smith ran a restaurant and a billiard hall, but also became active in the civil rights movement, registering voters and pushing for sanitation workers’ rights. The couple’s three children were sensitized to acts of injustice at a young age. Once, in high school, Wilson spied a classmate, a new kid in school, being teased for wearing torn clothes. Wilson, who weighed about 70 pounds at the time, stepped into the circle of bullies and ordered them to leave the boy alone. While Wilson went on to pursue a career in education and eventually politics, her brother, the late Thirlee Smith Jr., became the first full-time African-American reporter at The Miami Herald.
In 1963, Wilson graduated from Fisk University with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She worked as a teacher for a time and then became an assistant educational coordinator for a Head Start program. After taking a leave of absence to raise her three children, she returned to the field as an assistant principal and eventually was promoted to the job of principal of a Miami elementary school. She also served on the Miami-Dade County School Board. During that period, she became more politically active. In 1984, she got involved in a campaign to lobby Congress to remove Haitian refugees from a local detention center. The Haitian women in particular, she said, “had no privacy at all, from guards, from visitors, from INS, from no one. When they would take a shower, they had no curtains. They were treating them like animals.” The woman were eventually released and allowed to remain in Miami.
Wilson first won a seat in the Florida House in 1998, serving two terms before being elected to the state Senate. In office, she continued her work on immigrants’ rights issues, proposing a bill in 2007 banning the term “illegal alien” from state public documents. She also focused on education. In 2004, she led a sometimes bitter fight against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush to scale back the use of standardized testing in schools, which she claimed had a negative impact on children. She brought a group of angry parents to the Capitol in Tallahassee to protest, and complained when Bush refused to meet with them. He shot back, “I hope she’s doing this on private time rather than on $120,000-a-year salary she has working for the Miami-Dade school district,” according to an account in the The Miami Herald.
When Meek launched his bid for the U.S. Senate, Wilson decided to run for his House seat, continuing a pattern of succession for the two lawmakers. Wilson took Meek’s seat when he left the Florida House and took his place in the state Senate in 2002 when he ran for Congress. Eight other Democrats got into the August 2010 primary. She won with 35 percent of the vote, helped by the district’s sizable Haitian population splitting its support among four Haitian-American candidates. Rudy Moise, a Haitian-American lawyer and doctor, came in second. Wilson campaigned as a staunch backer of the Obama administration. Her website sports a photograph of Wilson with first lady Michelle Obama and notes that Wilson was “among the first officials in Florida to endorse Barack Obama.”