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.

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    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.
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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.

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.

Recommended: How 5 young black men see the Trayvon Martin case

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.

One of Triplett’s colleagues, City Commissioner Randy Jones, says mayors of Sanford have not traditionally grappled with mega issues such as racial profiling, Florida gun and self-defense laws, or the legacy of race relations in the South.

“We’re supposed to be dealing with rezones, and, do you have too many cats and dogs in your yard, and annexations,” says Mr. Jones. “It’s an absolutely unenviable situation.”

Depending on who is doing the talking, Triplett's response to the growing crisis is either an example of strong leadership under fire or the Machiavellian moves of a politician.

One of Triplett's first steps after getting the call about Trayvon was to attend a March 14 meeting at the Allen Chapel AME Church in Goldsboro, the historically black part of the city. In his naiveté, Triplett was unaware of the fury, near and far, that was gaining critical mass and speed, moving like a comet to smash into Sanford. But as he sat there and listened, it came into view. “Oh my," he recounts of his thoughts. "This is huge.”

Critics were accusing the police chief whom Triplett helped hire, Bill Lee Jr., of botching the investigation into Trayvon’s death. Officials from the NAACP came en masse, calling for Zimmerman's immediate arrest and demanding that Chief Lee be fired. Then emerged the horror tales that had nothing to do with this tragedy, as black residents revealed a trove of unaddressed grievances involving local police.

“I sat in on a couple of community meetings, and you hear some of the passionate outcries for justice, not just for Trayvon, but other things that have happened in our city. You can just see the degradation of the trust level,” he says.

The mayor led the offensive to release the 911 recordings that replay Trayvon’s last moments. Before the audio was released to the public, Triplett listened to it with Trayvon's parents in his office, a tiny room on the second floor of City Hall.

“You just think to yourself, how could I sit there if it was my son, in his last moments,” he says. “That was the toughest thing I have ever done in my life.”

He met with US Rep. Corrine Brown (D), whose district includes Sanford. They flew to D.C. and sat down with officials from the Department of Justice to discuss the incident. Along with two other city commissioners, he voted no confidence in Chief Lee on March 21. That decision, he says, wasn’t easy. When the motion was floated, Triplett felt conflicted. Right there in the meeting, he started sketching up a pros and cons list about Lee on a piece of paper. Maybe it was his banker's background, but he says he began thinking of himself and his colleagues as fellow business associates.

“Truly from a managerial point of view, is this the guy you want facing the media? Is this the guy you want letting the press releases go?” he says of his reasoning then. “If you look at our commission as almost a board of directors of a $40 million company, I had to make that call that I didn’t have confidence in ... how it was handled.” The majority prevailed, and Chief Lee temporarily stepped down.

The sole black city commissioner and a lifelong Sanford resident, Velma Williams, says Triplett has so far weathered criticism from all sides. There are angry residents who want to vote him out of office, and members of the police department who aren’t too pleased with his vote against Lee. But what really stands out to her is his willingness to listen during community forums with local black leaders and ministers.

“He’s very sensitive. When you find a white person who demonstrates or exhibits that he is very sensitive to situations like this," she says, "you have someone who really has excellent personal qualities.”

Triplett tells people he is doing everything he can to ensure a full review of the investigation. But do his words mean anything?

The question loomed large on March 22, at an enormous rally for Trayvon in Fort Mellon Park – the first of many demonstrations during the week. The anger was fresh and palpable. Thousands had turned out as the sun was setting over the lakeside recreational grounds. As mayor, Triplett got up to speak, some in the crowd booed, but Congresswoman Brown jumped up and took the microphone. She spoke of his work to get the 911 tapes released. “He had decided to do the right thing," she said later. "To me, that was an important step.”

To others, it was an important misstep.

Linda Kuhn, the incumbent mayor whom Triplett had bested in 2010, blasted him in a letter to the local paper, The Sanford Herald. She wrote that good management shouldn’t be influenced by a “mob mentality.” And she questioned why the mayor was letting Sanford get dragged through the mud in the press.

“Not once has he defended this city and its 53,000 residents against the outrageous statements made by Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Ben Jealous et al regarding Sanford being a racist city,” she wrote.

About a year ago, after he defeated Ms. Kuhn, Triplett was focused only on promoting Sanford, which is 20 miles north of Orlando. Triplett told the Orlando Sentinel in March 2011 that his mission was to polish the city’s image as an unsafe, crime-ridden haven marred by corruption and controlled by what he vaguely called good’ol boys.There were not-so-old controversies whose shadows stretched into his tenure. The former police chief was pushed out after it emerged that a police lieutenant’s son had cold-cocked a homeless man in December 2010 but wasn’t arrested until late January.

The job of sewing back together Sanford’s torn image is now full-time. On a recent Friday, Triplett sat down for lunch at the Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, a German-themed restaurant. It wasn’t even 1 p.m., and he had 17 messages on his voicemail. Every minute or so, his phone lit up like an alarm with a faulty snooze button. He couldn’t remember who last interviewed him. Someone from MSNBC, “Andrea what’s her name.”

Coming out onto the sidewalk, he was greeted warmly by a group of African-American women meeting for lunch. One was Ashton Gaines, who had attended the March 22 rally.

“It was good to see you last night,” Ms. Gaines said to him.

Triplett chatted for a few minutes before heading off to his next appointment. But Gaines had more to say about the people who'd booed him, how they didn’t know what they were talking about. Asked if his race made her distrust his motives, she rejected the idea.

“Jeff is the mayor of Sanford because he is a good guy, not because he is white or black.”

On the day the world learned that Zimmerman would be charged with second-degree murder, Triplett and city manager Norton Bonaparte held their own press conference outside of City Hall, where news media from all over the country waited. They appealed for calm, and, after taking questions, headed back inside to debrief and prepare for the next day.
 
A series of meetings with local pastors and community leaders is in the making, as Sanford preps for the task of “healing” relations between residents and the city. The case is in the hands of the court, but the job of reuniting Sanford is in the hands of city leaders.

Says Triplett, “We’re taking that big, deep breath and saying, okay, what does tomorrow hold for us?”

Recommended: How 5 young black men see the Trayvon Martin case
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