Gwendolyn Brown, 68, who died in Bradenton on Friday, April 17, from complications related to the coronavirus, was one of the most original people you could ever meet. She was authentic too. And everyone at all times knew where they stood with her and you could expect to hear it directly from her. It’s a trait not shared by every elected official.
I first met Gwen at an advocacy training in the early 90’s hosted by the non-partisan Florida Center for Children & Youth (now Voices for Florida). At the time she was the Director of Head Start in Manatee County. During a break, she approached the dais after a stirring presentation by Mary Repper, a colorful and spirited political consultant best known the Tampa Bay area. She told Mary that she wanted to become the first African-American elected to the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners.
Eventually, the task of interviewing Gwen and assessing her chances landed on my desk. It made sense. I was a former CEO of a social service agency, had managed other successful campaigns, and lived in South Pinellas County, a hop, skip and jump across the scenic Skyway Bridge from Gwen’s home base in Palmetto.
Our first meeting took place in late spring of 1994 in a squatty, older building near her office. The room had a wide metal desk that Gwen sat behind. I pulled up a folding chair in front. We chatted. I was struck by her passion for children, something big we had in common. I was also impressed by her knowledge of issues that stretched way beyond her day job, including land use, the environment, water, transportation.
Her path to victory would have to take on a son of a well-known political leader, and whose brother also held a county-wide office. She had doubts. Lots of people told her she couldn’t win. But those of us in the business knew to do our own math. While we take what everyone is saying into account, we make our own assessments.
Doing the math showed that Gwen did in fact have a path, but it would require an unprecedented turnout of her base and an appeal to women regardless of political affiliation. There were thousands of households to touch. Her eyes grew big and wide. “I can’t raise that kind of money”.
I reassured her that there were options, if she were willing to play the roles of postal employee and television broadcaster. She would have to gather her volunteers and deliver her message personally, on the doorsteps of every targeted household. Not once. Not twice. But three times.
She thought about it and said, yes, I can do it. I replied, “You do it, you can make history. You don’t, you won’t.”
We continued the chat and got something to eat. By the end of the meeting we had hatched the beginning of a campaign strategy. I told her I’d talk to the higher ups and get back to her.
As we were gathering our papers, I said, “You might want to think about buying some dresses and slacks 2 sizes smaller.”
By the sudden change in her facial expression, I thought she was going to lunge across the table and strangle me, even though our conversation up to that point had been amazing. “You saying I gotta be thin to win?”
I realized my comment without explanation was misinterpreted. I smiled and said, “Gwen, I like you just the way you are. Reality is, you’re going to walk miles and miles every day and knock on thousands and thousands of doors in the hottest weeks of the year. You must hydrate and drink a lot of water. You’re going to lose weight doing this heavy door-to-door lift.”
She still wasn’t buying it. She folded her arms across her chest and looked at me hard.
I continued. “Regarding the dresses. Buy a blue one for the debates in the last weeks of the campaign. And, the second, I suggest you buy something you really like. Hang it in the closet and look at it every day. This is the dress you’re going to wear on election night when you make history.”
Gwen’s scowl turned into what I came to know as the Gwen Brown wide smile and hearty laugh that was infectious. We both just kept laughing about the misunderstanding. We stood and she gave me a hug. She said, “Roy Miller, you and I are gonna get along just fine.” And we did.
Gwen made history that year, vaulting over the high bar she had set for herself. She also became one of the inspirations for American Children’s Campaign that developed as an independent, charitable organization in the years that followed. If a director of Head Start could make it into the history books, then maybe, just maybe, a statewide non-partisan effort could raise the profile of children and grab some policy wins at the capitol.
Gwen Brown, more than 25 years later we continue to do the hard work as you did. You will always be remembered. You will always be in our hearts.