Frederica Wilson: Washington-Bound Mad Hatter

The next U.S. congresswoman from Miami has become so synonymous with her hats — 300 of 'em ranging from rhinestone-studded Stetsons to pink muffs to demure brown bowlers — it feels wrong to see her scalp.

But mistaking the woman for the fashion would be a grave mistake. Miami-Dade commissioners made that error when, as principal of Skyway Elementary School, she took dozens of schoolchildren downtown to complain about a recycling business. Tallahassee legislators, who underestimated her, paid the price. And opponents in this year's Democratic primary who deridingly called her "the Hat" were soundly defeated.

Come January, she'll be taking her tough political style to Washington. "It all came from my father," she says, relaxing on a bright orange sofa in her Miami Gardens home. The living room is jammed with carved giraffes and gazelles, and the walls are decorated with bright Caribbean paintings. "He was a civil rights activist right here in Miami, and he always sought justice."


Frederica Wilson

Thirlee Smith Sr., who owned a billiard parlor in Opa-locka, raised Frederica — born February 5, 1942 — in Liberty City. In a then-segregated Magic City, the outspoken businessman got uniforms for local garbage workers, registered young black voters, and mentored fatherless kids.

He also taught Frederica and her brother, Thirlee Jr. (the Miami Herald's first black reporter), not to take injustice sitting down. "We realized that even if you were black, you were allowed to sit at lunch counters if you didn't speak English," Wilson recalls. "Well, we didn't know how to speak Spanish, so we'd just speak gibberish."

Wilson's Bahamian grandmother, also named Frederica, wore a traditional hat and gloves every day. By the time Wilson was in grade school, she too was wearing Davy Crockett hats and elaborate bows to class.

Neither attitude nor fashion statements abated when Wilson became principal at Skyway Elementary in Miami Gardens. She successfully lobbied for the release of mistreated Haitian prisoners and used her students to persuade commissioners to close a $25 million facility called Agripost. "My superintendent told me: 'This is not in the job description of a principal,'" Wilson says. He demanded she stop missing principal meetings to speak to the county commission. "I said OK. Then I went right back to the next commission meeting!"

In the Florida House and Senate, Wilson made her name waging war for extremely unpopular causes: testing inmates for HIV, allowing imprisoned moms to serve time closer to their kids, keeping foster children in one school — even banning "dirty dancing" at high schools. "These are real issues real people are dealing with every day," she says.

Once in D.C., she says, "I'm going to pass a bill nationally that bans talking on any kind of phone in your car while there are minors in there."

Dave Barry | Elizabeth Caballero>>

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