By Ramsey Cox - 02/28/11 11:17 AM EST
In a tribute to her Bahaman grandmother, who wore hats out of tradition and because of her cultural heritage, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) is rarely seen without a hat.
“It’s almost like I’m imitating her,” Wilson said, wearing a bright red hat that is a cross between a fedora and a cowboy hat.
Her focus has always been on “the underserved,” she said — especially children and low-income minorities.
In the Florida Senate she was nicknamed the “conscience of the Senate” because she brought up compassionate issues that no one else did. She aims to do the same in the House of Representatives.
Wilson wanted to be placed on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, but as a freshman she was put on the Science, Space and Technology and the Foreign Affairs committees instead. One of her goals on the Science panel, she said, is to “close the digital divide.”
“My goal is making technology available to people who have no access to technology, to close the digital divide by setting up pilot programs and trainings in specific communities for people who are underserved,” Wilson said. “I want to make sure they know how to pay their bills online and help their children with their homework.”
Florida’s compact 17th District, just north of downtown Miami, has a large Haitian population, so one of Wilson’s goals on the Foreign Affairs Committee is to increase recovery efforts for Haiti.
Wilson has followed in the footsteps of former Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) — who lost to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in last year’s Senate race — nearly her entire political career. She succeeded him as state representative, then as state senator and now as a House member.
After emerging from a nine-candidate Democratic primary with 35 percent of the vote, Wilson did not face a Republican opponent and cruised to victory with 86 percent of the vote over minor-party candidates.
While campaigning, Wilson promised to bring back jobs to her district, but she said she worries about keeping that promise since Republicans are cutting job programs from the budget.
“We have to cut but we have to be very prudent as to what we cut and how fast we do it, because taking job opportunities away from people is not going to help the deficit at all — in fact, it’s going to hurt the country,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that since the deficit was grown over time, it should be reduced over time, and that reducing the budget immediately to 2008 levels — a plan proposed by House Republicans — would be moving too swift.
“We have to look at, ‘If I cut this program, how many people will lose their jobs?’ ” Wilson said. “And if I have a deficit, I’m going to reduce this deficit over a period of time, just like it grew over a period of time.”
Wilson is used to working with Republicans, as during her time in the Florida legislature she always was in the minority.
Before Wilson became a politician she was an educator. She taught elementary school in Miami Gardens, and in 1980 she became a principal. In 1992, she was elected to the Miami-Dade County School Board.
One of Wilson’s most successful programs in Florida as a school board member was 5000 Role Models of Excellence, which aims to lower drop-out rates through mentoring, especially among African-American males. She said she would like to make it a national program.
The program matches young men who are struggling in school with mentors who meet with them on a regular basis and encourage students to pursue their education.
As a state legislator, Wilson battled Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test, saying the standardized test cannot adequately measure students’ skills and that failing the test should not prevent students from graduating.
“I am not a fan of any program that sees children as cookie cutters,” Wilson said. “I think that each child is an individual and we need to treat them as individuals. I favor end-of-the-year tests to measure what was taught, not some standardized test made by some person in Iowa who has never lived in Florida and never experienced what Floridians have experienced.”