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Trayvon Martin case a trial by fire for rookie Sanford mayor

For about a month, Mayor Jeff Triplett labored to keep a lid on an explosive situation in Sanford, Fla., after local police released George Zimmerman, who fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin. The mayor emerged intact, but not unchanged.

By Joseph FreemanContributor / April 13, 2012

Sanford, Fla., Mayor Jeff Triplett, a former commercial banker with no political experience, was thrown into the national spotlight by the killing of Trayvon Martin and the national campaign for the arrest of neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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For four chaotic weeks, Jeff Triplett, mayor of Sanford, Fla., lived and breathed the Trayvon Martin saga. It was a time of turmoil and uncertainty, of sadness and anger, of marathon meetings and spirited marches in a town suddenly thrust before the nation, dressed in the garb of a civil rights throwback. What to do, how to meet the challenge became an overriding preoccupation for Mr. Triplett, a white banker holding small-town elected office for the first time.

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In some ways, he couldn't feel like he had a firm handle on things until late on April 11, when a Florida prosecutor announced that a local neighborhood watchman would be charged, after all, in the Feb. 26 shooting death of the unarmed black teenager. 

“The relief of, it’s truly in their hands now. We can take that part off of our plate,” Triplett said the next day, his voice hoarse and tired-sounding.

One thing is for certain: Trayvon's case does not leave Triplett where it found him. He was never at the center of the drama, but the role he played – behind the scenes, in television interviews, at key decision points – appears to have been an important supporting one. And it came, like all career-changing roles, out of nowhere.

Triplett was with his two young sons in Tampa, Fla., watching them play football, when he first heard the name of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

“My phone just starts blowing up,” he says in an interview. Upon hearing that George Zimmerman wasn't arrested after shooting Trayvon, Triplett put his head in his hands in disbelief.

“What do you mean you didn’t arrest him?” he remembers thinking. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand.”

At that moment about a month ago, the harried, crisis-manager version of Triplett, a tall, rail-thin man who wears white dress shirts and unflashy ties, was born. For someone in his first political post, the learning curve was steep. He’d been mayor, a part-time position that pays $9,700 a year, for only about 15 months when Sanford the city became "Sanford the city where Trayvon died." 

Since the shooting, Triplett has elected to take the equivalent of three weeks off from his full-time job as senior vice president of a community bank, to help guide Sanford through the maelstrom. His bankers’ hours ballooned into a series of demonstrations, briefing sessions, rallies, and nonstop media requests. Family dinners virtually ceased to exist. When a scheduled vacation rolled around, his wife, Brandi, left with the kids while Triplett remained. While he hasn’t received death threats and says he doesn’t feel unsafe, there have been, as he delicately puts it, a number of “interesting phone calls and e-mails.”

“I never thought that I would be front and center or that the city of Sanford would be front and center on a stage that has such long-ranging ramifications,” says Triplett, in a bass voice that is a hybrid of Southern drawl and southwest Missouri, where he grew up and went to college.

Overnight, Triplett became the white mayor of a Southern city where racism and police brutality were allegedly endemic. On one of the Rev. Al Sharpton's many visits to Sanford, the activist compared the town with Selma and Birmingham, epicenters of the civil rights struggle. Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, referred to the environment as “Jim Crow Esquire.” The New Black Panthers offered a bounty for Zimmerman's capture. A neo-Nazi group said it would patrol city streets. For local officials, all this attention was, well, new.

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