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Confederate statue bill clears Florida Senate committee

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A bill aimed at removing the statue of a Confederate Army general representing Florida at the U.S. Capitol cleared its first Senate committee Tuesday.

The Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability passed the bill, with only Ocala Republican Alan Hays dissenting. The legislation could ultimately lead to removal of a likeness of General Edmund Kirby Smith in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Each state has two such statues in the collection. The other is of John Gorrie, the father of air conditioning.

The effort to remove Smith’s statue from the hall in Washington evolved this summer amid a renewed backlash against symbols of the Confederacy. That movement started in South Carolina, whose legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds in the wake of the death of nine black worshippers who were killed by a white supremacist at a historic black church.

But state Sen. John Legg, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said that the removing Smith’s statue is something that as a schoolteacher he’s thought about for decades since he began taking students to the nation’s capital on field trips.

“Our students would ask questions, and I would make them do research papers on our statues,” he said.

The Pasco County Republican called General Kirby a “great soldier … and great Floridian,” but said the fact of the matter is that he only lived in Florida until the age of 12, never to return. “His impact on Florida was not significant. He just did not shape Florida’s history.”

Legg said he wasn’t attempting to disparage Kirby, and acknowledged that he still needed to be recognized — just not in the U.S. Capitol.

He also made sure that people recognized his Southern bona fides. “I grew up in a community where the stars and bars outnumbered the stars and stripes. I just think that in our state we look at where we are, and honor some individuals that have an impact for all Floridians to make a better place for our generation.”

Miami Democrat Dwight Bullard floated some names which he said would be worthy of being placed in Statuary Hall.

Henry Flagler, Margaret Stoneham Douglas and the like, there’s a real possibility of honor(ing) some great Floridians who left an indelible mark on our state, and so I think this gives us a grand opportunity to do so,” he said.

Bullard emphasized that it wasn’t a matter of trying to eradicate Florida history, but is an attempt to acknowledge the “cultural sensitivities” that come with honoring or recognizing members of the Confederacy vs. doing things for the entire state.

The bill has a number of committees to get through before coming up making it to the entire House or Senate in 2016 It’s being sponsored in the House by Miami Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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