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Perry Harvey Jr., Tampa's first black councilman, dies at 81

TAMPA - Perry Harvey Jr. wielded power and influence as a union boss and made history as the first black elected to the Tampa City Council. Along the way he sometimes courted controversy for his combative style, and endured a federal corruption trial that ended with a jury’s not guilty verdict. Harvey, who died Wednesday at age 81, is remembered by friends as a trailblazer who championed the rights of women, blacks, Hispanics and the poor. "He was someone you want with you in the foxhole because he was never going to leave you," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
When Harvey was elected to the council in 1983, Sandy Freedman was a city council member. Buckhorn became Freedman’s assistant after she was elected mayor in 1987. He remembered Harvey Jr. as a fierce defender of causes who could be confrontational but always was respectful. "He forced city government to do things it didn’t want to do but morally, legally should have done," he said. "The African-American community is better because he served." Harvey was re-elected twice, in 1987 and in 1991. His last election was in 1996 when he ran for a Hillsborough County Commission seat against Tom Scott. Scott pulled off an upset, winning the District 3 contest by 86 votes. "He was one of those people who passed the torch on and has moved on to higher ground," said Scott, who became chairman of the commission and later chairman of the city council. On the city council Harvey Jr. spearheaded a vote to create a database to track the city’s hiring of blacks and pushed to award more city contracts to women, blacks and Hispanics. He also lobbied for the promotion of more blacks into higher ranks of the Tampa Police Department. He didn’t always win friends. "But in those days that’s how he had to be to get things done," Buckhorn said. He was an icon who broke political barriers, said Councilman Frank Reddick. "He was a strong voice for the black community," Reddick said. "He made sure the issues affecting the black community were kept to the forefront." As head of Local 1402 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, Harvey helped countless people get jobs, Reddick said. Harvey stepped into the role of union boss following the death of his father, Perry Harvey Sr., in 1972. The elder Harvey founded the union in 1935. For both men it was a position that came with power over the ambitions of would-be political candidates, especially anyone courting black votes. The Harvey family has a long tradition of civic activism. It is a tradition shared by prominent black community leaders of the past such as C. Blythe Andrews Sr., who founded the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, and West Tampa businessman Moses White. Harvey Jr., in a 1983 Tampa Tribune article, recalled that his father expected his children to work hard and get involved. The elder Harvey set the example. In 1945 he tried to register to vote as a member of the White Municipal Party, which dominated city life during segregation. He was refused but filed a lawsuit that challenged a primary system that kept blacks from winning citywide elections. He believed in non-violence and helped ease tensions during Tampa’s riots in the summer of 1967.   Harvey Jr. recalled a hard life in Ybor City where he grew up in a small wooden house with six brothers and sisters and his parents. At age 13 his father put him to work as a water boy on Tampa’s docks. He was an all-state center at the then blacks-only Middleton High School. He graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta with a biology degree. During the Korean War he was drafted into the newly-integrated U.S. Army and served as a laboratory technician at Camp Roberts in California. After the war Harvey earned a master’s degree in biology at Atlanta University. He considered becoming a doctor but headed back to Tampa where he briefly taught science at Booker T. Washington Junior High School. He decided to join his father at the longshoreman’s union, eventually becoming administrator of the union’s pension, welfare and vacation fund. Harvey Jr. also became politically active, joining in voter registration drives and sit-ins at Clearwater Beach, restaurants and theaters. "I was in all kind of ‘ins.’ Sit-ins, wade-ins, lay-ins. If there was an ‘in,’ I was involved," said Harvey, according to the Tribune article. In 1983 he jumped into the Tampa City Council District 6 race after longtime white councilman Lloyd Copeland retired. Harvey and then nursing home operator Rubin Padgett beat three white candidates and squared off in a hard-fought run-off. Padgett lost by 20 votes and Harvey Jr. became the first black councilman. Padgett went on to become the first black to win election to a county commission seat. "We stayed friends," said Padgett. "He was a selfless person. He was always there." The two men worked to rename Buffalo Avenue as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The county commission was the first to adopt the new name. It bothered Harvey that the city didn’t lead the way. During his third term in 1991, Harvey Jr. was indicted on federal charges that he embezzled union funds. A jury found him not guilty. Harvey told reporters he thought he was targeted because he planned to run for mayor of Tampa. Following Harvey’s indictment, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller won a special election and served in Harvey’s place for 56 days. Harvey Jr. always had been a role model for Miller, who said many black people in Tampa saw the federal charges as a "witch hunt". "He didn’t do anything wrong," Miller said. "He had nothing to be ashamed of and a jury of his peers found him not guilty. He was a trailblazer." Funeral services will be held Sept. 22 at the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, 3005 E. Ellicott St. Visitation will be from 5 to 9 p.m. today at the Wilson Funeral Home, 3000 N. 29th St.    

ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7652

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