We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into last Wednesday, Jan. 26. All we had were little stray threads of information: There would be a poster-waving teacher protest at a rally for the privatization of education (yawn), and because it was to involve the shiny Astroturf of teabaggery known as Americans for Prosperity, we just had to be there. OK, we tugged at an after-work glass of wine. How bad could it be?
Outside the Plaza Theater, where the event was held, the assembled mass of progressives and teachers and kids – brought to you by the folks at Florida Action Watch, Organize Now and Progress Florida – chanted “Education! Not more corporations!” at passing cars, while sundry blue-hairs who haven’t even considered public schools in, say, 50 years shuffled their way inside for an “Education Revolution.” Standard stuff, then. That is until toe-fetishist to the dancing Republican stars, Dick-motherfuckin’-Morris (trailed by his own camera crew), crawled out of nowhere to extend an olive branch.
“We’d like a representative from your side to speak at the event,” he told protesters, before crumbling into a noticeable hissy-fit over whatever makes Dick Morris unhappy.
We snuck inside a few minutes early, just in time to tap our toes with the octogenarian set to the Oak Ridge Boys’ “American Made.” (With all due hilarity, Americans for Prosperity provided participants with 100 percent polyester “National School Choice Week” scarves made in China.) Video screens overhead aired Fox News highlight reels from recent Tea Party events that included “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, Michele Bachmann and a little old lady saying, “We’re taking America back. You can bet your boots on that!” Scary. By the time the protesters were allowed in, the videos and music were shut down because this kind of white-people indoctrination is not meant to be witnessed by outsiders, and this was supposed to be a presentation on school choice for pretty youngsters.
It was not. Instead, what we got was a talk radio blowhard (Mike Gallagher from WORL 660 AM), a homeschooling Tea Party congressional failure (Patricia Sullivan), an Abramoff casualty straight out of the Christian Coalition (Ralph Reed) and Morris, all tiptoeing around the issue of failing public schools with charmless (and ill-informed) rhetoric. Mike Cahill, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, was given a few minutes to make no real points to an unforgiving anti-union room, and then everything descended into taglines and paranoia.
Sullivan referred to public schools as “government schools,” probably because they taste like cheese, and bemoaned drug deals in the hallways. Reed pulled out the old Republican psychology book and argued that public school kids were likely to end up in jail or hooked on booze (like gays!). Also, “ … maybe they don’t know who their father is.” You get the drift. Back in the days of George Wallace, minorities weren’t let into public schools; now they won’t let the black kids out! It’s a living nightmare.
As would be the audience participation segment that followed, at least for those onstage. Thirty protesters submitted question cards asking just who funds Americans for Prosperity – the group is allegedly in the pocket of Exxon Mobil, among others – and when Morris and Co. refused to answer the query, the progressives turned the political tables and basically Tea Partied the Tea Party with howling dissent. Needless to say, we grabbed our free scarf and left. Your children are doomed.But at least they’re not pit bulls. Shawn Rose, a pit bull owner and cook at the Ravenous Pig, decided he would show his appreciation for Mike’s Dog House, a Palatka-based rescue organization for pit bulls and other bulldog breeds, by holding a fundraiser for the group downtown. There was to be a chili cook-off with top chefs in the area, live music and some tips on caring for the dogs. (Hint: Tying the dog to a tree, beating it and leaving it outside for 48 hours are all no-nos.)
Wall Street Plaza agreed to host the March 6 event … well, until they didn’t. Early on Wednesday, Jan. 26, Rose says Wall Street Plaza special events coordinator Paul Emery called to tell him that the venue “did not want to be affiliated with pit bulls” and asked him to change the fundraiser’s beneficiary. Rose refused, and hence, the event was cancelled. “This is something that we deal with as pit bull owners all the time,” Rose says.
For those of you already a step ahead of us, wondering which local child was mauled this time, it was 8-year-old Joshua Roberson of Seminole County, attacked in the backyard of his Geneva home by a pit bull the afternoon before Rose got the call. If Wall Street management likes WESH Channel 2 News as much as WESH Channel 2 News likes covering pit bull attacks, they may also have caught the Jan. 18 report of a Pinellas County pit bull that was shot dead by a police officer after it attacked the girlfriend of a drug suspect while he was being hauled out of a house in cuffs. Still, it’s unclear exactly which sordid pit bull headline, if any, spurred Wall Street to cancel the event, as Emery declined to comment through his secretary.
Ironically, one of Rose’s reasons for hosting the event was to correct popular misconceptions about the pit bull due partly to negative media attention. “If [the dogs are] shown love by people, they’re not going bite anybody,” he says. Now they will.
When something big, beautiful and shiny is being built, there’s always some emotion involved: There’s the stiff, choreographed public celebration, and then there’s the private pockets of bitterness and regret. When it comes to the 1.2 million square foot, $665 million Veterans Affairs clinic near Lake Nona, the former was on display Jan. 28 when U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki paid a surprise visit to the construction site, because evidently the clinic, upon its completion in 2012, will fulfill President Obama’s vision of “innovation, education and infrastructure” featured in his Jan. 25 State of the Union address. “When [veterans] see the size and the breadth and the thinking that went into this medical center, I’m sure they’re excited,” Shinseki said.
That’s all well and good, but private VA construction drama is so much more interesting, especially when it comes from a house music producer with a British accent. Sam Mollison, who remixed Craig David’s seminal “Hot Stuff (Let’s Dance),” was also a procurement manager last fall for Quinco Electrical, a Winter Park company contracted to do the electrical work for the new VA facility. He called us in October to warn us that the new building at Lake Nona could soon be full of Chinese connectors and couplings – a violation of the Buy American Act, which more or less mandates the use of domestically supplied materials for federal construction projects. Mollison said that the company won federal contracts for VA projects with unbeatably low bids, then, for the sake of profit, bought cheap foreign material that did not reflect the official product submittals to the feds.
The boxes that contained the Chinese materials – in other words, the evidence – were systematically discarded under orders of Quinco bosses, he told us, adding that another VA hospital in Cape Coral further along in development already had the inferior Chinese materials installed. “Everything should have been American-made,” Mollison says. “That’s not what we were shipping out there.”
The charges were corroborated by another former Quinco manager, Steve Wall, so we left a message for the VA hospital in Cape Coral in October to inquire. Sexier things caught our attention and months passed, but then Shinseki’s impending visit reminded us to check up. Lo and behold, there was a shake-up: According to Richard Martire, senior resident engineer at the Cape Coral VA, our voicemail spurred an investigation, the foreign parts were discovered and now Quinco will now be forced to pay restitution to the federal government. God bless America!