Growing up in Leesburg means coming to terms with Lake County’s racist history.
I’m sure Sabatini will lament he doesn’t belong on this heinous list. But he’s made a bigger splash with his fit over a high school photo than with any piece of legislation.
Usually, major news outlets only discuss Lake County after murders or scandals. This time, the unapologetic antics of this elected official put the region back in national headlines.
Those pols’ reputations lay in ruins thanks to blackface photos. They were adults in their pictures, but Sabatini will be quick to remind you he was just a kid when he paraded around school with black shades, a baseball cap and – just in case no one got it – his skin tarred.
Plenty of people will forgive a teenager for ignorance and insensitivity. The tantrums he throws now, on the other hand, are the actions of an adult, though his hometown paper notes it’s hard to tell.
But beyond his failure to address this round of scrutiny with dignity, what’s most disappointing remains his lack of self-awareness.
Sabatini’s perceptions of his actions show a lack of perspective. But when he ignores the racial history that haunts Lake County, or worse furthers it, he shows willful and malicious ignorance.
Recent attention on the Groveland Four introduced many to Willis McCall, Lake County’s Sheriff from 1944 to 1972. He notoriously delivered injustice to four black men accused of gang-raping a white woman on a country road in 1949. Two men were murdered before a false conviction, one by McCall’s own hand.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet viewed the episode as one of injustice. Days after taking office, they delivered long-overdue pardons to these men.
I’ll let readers know I reached out to Sabatini at the time for comment, since he represents Groveland now. I can’t say he ever weighed in on the matter.
It’s hard to imagine he didn’t follow the case, especially once statewide media seized on the cause. But as a Lake County teen, he surely knew the tales of McCall.
Growing up in Leesburg in the 1980s and ‘90s, I heard them in school and the community. The atrocious stories hardly felt possible in my serene community. A quiet town an hour outside Orlando but far from the urban conflicts of the city, I couldn’t imagine the mob mentality that fueled a bygone era.
But vestiges of the racism remained to remind you it was all real. The local historian who reminisced about when the Klu Klux Klan kept the peace. The occasional student who boasted in the cafeteria how an uncle helped burned crosses in Mount Dora.
Then in the early 1990s, news crews showed up again, this time after the Lake County School Board, led by right-wing zealot Pat Hart, approved the xenophobic “America First” policy. The infamous curriculum required school instructors to teach that America was “superior to other foreign or historic cultures.”
It’s no shock that slogan shows up again these days as a motto for anyone shrouding bigotry with patriotism. In many ways, the subtle racism resembles more closely Sabatini’s buffoonish policy positions. At least Hart’s extremism was short-lived; she served just one term.
I covered local politics for the Daily Commercial in the early 2000s around the time when Sabatini was showing up at parties dressed like a cartoon Mexican. Officials in the adult world then sought ways to heal past intolerance and discrimination.
Leesburg officials worked to redevelop a black neighborhood after allowing a hospital expansion that disrupted the community. County commissioners looked to take McCall’s name off a county road. It gave me hope Lake County need not suffer the same scars forever.
But at the same time, Sabatini drove around town in a vehicle with the Confederate flag on it.
He showed up to “Celebrity Day” at his school wearing a black friend’s bling after greasing his face to look the part.
He drove to Umatilla football games and mocked the town “hillbillies,” then went to Leesburg High, my alma mater, dressed with his costumed buddies ready to mock black people.
Sabatini now calls such actions “immature.” But he also adamantly defends them. He says his black friends had no problem. Why should the wider world?
It’s no surprise to me a teenager in Eustis in 2005 saw nothing wrong dressing in blackface. He didn’t understand its history. It didn’t occur to him a friend needed just to wear preppy clothes, not lighten his skin, to pull off an impersonation of Sabatini.
But you don’t have to mine yearbook photos to show Sabatini would rather cozy to racist causes than demonstrate contrition.
As a Eustis City Councilman (and an adult), he called for the nation’s Confederate statues be sent to Florida for display in his hometown. He did so as neo-Confederates turned Charlottesville into a murder scene and the venue to expose America’s deep racial divides.
President Donald Trump took heat for saying Charlottesville had “good people” on both sides. But Sabatini picked a side.
As an adult informed of history, he still does not care if people see his actions as racist. Otherwise, he would issue an apology instead of remaining incalcitrant.
Sabatini now represents House District 32, home to 13,470 black residents and 13,303 Hispanic residents. Those people make up more than 24 percent of his constituency.
He should care more about their thoughts than those of the Capitol Press Corps.
After winning a 13-point victory over the Democrats in November, he figures he’s fine in 2020. If he faces no primary challenge, he’s probably right.
But if he does decide to study Lake County history, he will learn citizens eventually grow weary of ridicule. It took till 1972, but voters showed McCall the door when a governor could not. They disposed of Hart’s school board majority quickly.
Regardless, leaders in Sabatini’s own party tell me the young man holds no future beyond his current House seat unless he curbs his behavior and watches his mouth. Republicans see Sabatini’s indignity becoming a distraction.
Sabatini needs to start learning from his mistakes and recognizing critics’ legitimate concerns.
The longer he digs in with his ignorant and malicious posture, the more he assures his spot in history alongside McCall, Hart and the other intolerants of Lake County.