MANATEE — Gwendolyn Brown was the first African-American to be elected to the Manatee Board of County Commissioners, and now is the first black person to serve as the board’s chair.
But historical milestones such as those are not big deals to Brown.
“I’m kind of laid back,” said the 57-year-old, life-long county resident as she sat in her office recently on the ninth floor of the county administration building overlooking the Manatee River.
“Certain things, I don’t allow myself to feed me up,” said the generally soft-spoken woman. “I just take things as they come.”
To those who know her, Brown’s humble, non-excitable nature comes as no surprise.
The Rev. James Golden, who has known Brown since he arrived in Bradenton to become pastor of Ward Temple AME Church in 1993, said he would expect her to de-emphasize the significance of her achievement.
Even though Brown becoming the first and only African-American to serve on the commission and then to be elected chairwoman, Golden knows she feels its her actions, not her color, that won her those positions.
“You still have to walk the distance,” said Golden, a former member of the Bradenton City Council.
Even when she first ran for county commission against incumbent Ed Chance in 1988, Brown downplayed the historical significance of the possibility of being the first African-American on that panel.
She said back then that she hoped to appeal to voters’ minds, not outward perceptions and labels.
When first approached to run for political office, it was the farthest thing from her mind.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind,’ ” Brown said with a little chuckle. “I never saw myself as a politician.”
But she had already proved herself a community leader, having served on the Lincoln Middle School advisory board and being active in the local NAACP.
“There were other people who were more outspoken than I was,” Brown said. “But I had experience attending county commission meetings for Head Start issues.”
After more prodding from community and party leaders, she decided to run for commissioner in 1988.
“Every day I would go home and I would go door-to-door to get signatures until about 10 at night,” she said. “It was kind of a struggle obtaining the number required, because there were a lot of challenges to the signatures.”
Brown said it was similar to what Barack Obama went though this past presidential election.
“I tried to convince people to talk about the issues,” she said. “The race issue was subtle.”
But at times, not so subtle.
“When I was trying to get my petition signed (to qualify for the elections) I would sometimes get a door slammed in my face,” said Brown, who was 37 at the time she was campaigning in 1988.
“But I was young and just kept on going,” she said. “It just gave me more fire to keep going.”
Brown lost that election by 7,734 votes, but it was a county-wide election and Chance had the name recognition.
But in the then-District 1, which had the county’s highest concentration of black voters, Brown received 422 more votes than the incumbent, indicating a minority candidate could win in district-only elections.
It was during the NAACP’s fight in the 1980s to achieve single-district elections that Brown got her first taste of politics.
The civil rights organization was working with the League of Women Voters and Common Cause to get the single-member-district issue on the county ballot.
She remembers a NAACP organizer from Miami came to town to force the county to have a referendum in 1988.
Brown helped obtain the documents that showed minorities were not getting elected in a countywide elections.
The voters approved the referendum establishing five single-member districts and two at-large commission seats.
She ran again in 1990 for the District 2 seat against incumbent Kent Chetlain.
It was a close race, with Brown losing by only 117 votes in the county’s first election by districts.
By the time the election for District 2 came around again in 1994, the U.S. Census numbers were out and the county commission had redrawn the boundaries.
With the realigned district including more minority and Democratic voters, Brown decided to take another stab at politics.
“I thought I’d try again in 1994,” she said. “I figured three times is a charm. If I’m not successful, I’ll get the bug out of me and go onto something else.”
By this time, Brown had moved up to executive director of Manatee County Head Start.
She also had earned her master’s degree in administrative supervision from Nova University in 1981 to add to her bachelor’s degree in education she obtained from Florida Atlantic University in 1974. (The commissioner went on to get her doctorate in education from Nova University in 2007.)
Her persistence and hard campaigning paid off. Brown beat her Republican opponent, former Palmetto City Councilman Jeff Burton, with 54 percent of the vote.
Today, District 2 includes most of Bradenton, all of Palmetto and unincorporated neighborhoods north and east of Palmetto.
The election of the first African-American to its governing board was a historical event for the county in 1994, and the election by her six fellow commissioners, all Republicans, to the chair position, was another milestone.
For former Commissioner Pat Glass, Brown’s ascension to chairwoman was a long-time coming.
“You’re going to see a leader who has a calming effect on the rest of the commission,” said Glass, who established her own landmark when she was elected in 1978 as the first woman elected county commissioner.
“She’s going to keep everyone on an even keel and treat them with fairness,” she said of her friend and close ally while they served together on the commission.
Glass recognized Brown’s long years of service to the community before winning the seat.
The Republican nominated Brown, a life-long Democrat, for chairwoman in 2006, the last year Glass was on the board, before she retired.
“A few Republicans got mad at me and chastised me,” she said. “It was against the Republican rules.”
But they had no problem with Brown being first vice chair, so Glass nominated her for that position in 2000.
Brown, the sole Democrat on the commission, became the chairwoman in November when then-Chairwoman Jane Von Hahmann lost her seat to John Chappie, and Larry Bustle defeated then-First Vice Chairwoman Amy Stein.
Brown subsequently was elected to the leadership position at the Dec. 16 meeting, with Commissioner Carol Whitmore nominating her.
“The board learned that the vice chairman position took on greater importance,” Glass said. “They’ve got to get a rise out of that.”
As the chairwoman of the commission, Brown said she plans on working with her fellow board members on several issues.
“We’ve already started on an economic stimulus package,” she said. “The county government can provide the impetus for getting jobs going by advancing projects.”
Brown also said the county needs to be more public-friendly.
“When a citizen comes into the county offices for service we need to be more helpful,” she said. “We know what the regulations are, but I want staff to turn around and tell them how to get through the process.”
Another area Brown said she will be promoting is the need more public/private partnerships.
“We just don’t have the resources,” she said. “That doesn’t mean the project isn’t needed, so it can be accomplished with these types of partnering.”