TALLAHASSEE — The little girl in the pink bow with matching pink dress and socks sits beside her mother on a city bus. A stiff breeze sends her bow flying out the open window, onto the streets of downtown Miami.
She makes such a fuss, her mother begs the bus driver to stop. And when he does, the little girl and her mother trudge several blocks back until they find the pink bow. They have to wait there for the next bus to come along. But the little girl is happy because she has her pink bow. And everything matches again.
Six decades later, the little girl has grown into a longtime lawmaker. The hair bows have given way to flamboyant, glittering hats and coordinating skirt suits.
But Sen. Frederica Wilson is as headstrong as ever.
And everything still matches. From hat-covered head to toe.
In a political universe dominated by men in dark suits, Sen. Wilson is the rainbow that cannot be ignored.
She walks the halls of the Capitol flashing her custom-made, bedazzled cowboy hats and perfectly matched suits — her own runway of eye-popping colors that are more suited to the Miami district she represents than to good ol’ boy Tallahassee.
Canary yellow. Five-carat turquoise. Cotton-candy pink. Cherry red. Rhinestone-studded black and gold.
Here in the center of Florida’s political universe, the loud wardrobe of the educator-turned-Democratic lawmaker sends a clear if unspoken message to fellow lawmakers:
I am here. And attention will be paid.
Spend enough time in the Capitol, and you’ll hear lobbyists, staffers and lawmakers talking about Wilson and her hats.
“I always tease her about needing a U-Haul to take all those hats back and forth,” says Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville.
Not quite. Wilson has a well-honed system of rotating out seven or eight hats at a time, packing them carefully in a big suitcase for the weekly flight from Miami to Tallahassee. Wilson, 66, can easily get through the 60-day session without repeating a hat. After all these years, she has too many to count.
“More,” she smiles.
“Oh, yes, oh yes. There’s no question,” Wilson says. “You have different kinds of hats. Winter hats, summer hats, spring hats, Easter hats. And I have evening hats I like to wear out to dinner.”
The collection is so large, she has turned a sitting room adjacent to the master bedroom in her Miami home into a hat room.
Her eldest daughter, Lakesha Wilson-Rochelle, teases Wilson about her inability to “dress down.”
“If she wears sweats, it’s dressy sweats and a hat,” says Wilson-Rochelle, 36.
Most of Wilson’s hats come from Whittal & Shon, the New York-based hatmaker with a store in Miami.
Wilson is a special customer, says owner Eliot Whittal. He customizes hats for her, dying them to match suits or adding rhinestones and trim to fit her style.
“We don’t do that for most people, but we know what she likes,” he says. “Even in Miami, where we’re a little more flashy, we notice her around here. It’s nice.”
Wilson doesn’t like to spend a lot on her hats, she says. If she really likes one, she might splurge.
“I’ve found hats for as cheap as $5, as much as $500.”
Wilson is named after her grandmother. The elder Frederica hailed from the Bahamas, where ladies always wore hats and gloves.
“It’s my heritage,” says Wilson.
In grade school, it was feminine hats and bows. In middle school, it was a Davy Crockett style that raised the eyebrows, and the ire, of school administrators. The dean called her father in one day to complain about the tomboyish hats.
She and her father did not budge. The Davy Crockett hats stayed.
It wouldn’t be the last time someone tried to make a fuss about her unique style.
It was 2002, and Wilson had just gotten elected to the Senate after four years in the House. Her hats were her trademark on the House floor, but another senator didn’t think they were appropriate for the Senate chamber.
The senator aired her concerns during a Senate retreat, led by incoming Senate President Jim King, Wilson recalls.
“I thought, with all these problems we have, she’s worried about me wearing a hat? Well, I just smiled through it,” Wilson says. “Sen. King took care of it.”
Asked what she would have done had Senate leaders pressed the issue, Wilson pauses.
“File a lawsuit.”
She laughs as she adjusts her hat, but the glint in her eyes suggests she’s not kidding.