Sunday, February 11, 2001
New lawmaker's journey spans healthy portion of of civil rights history
By LYNN BULMAHN | News-Journal Staff Writer
DELAND — At the end of every school day, Euclid High School senior Joyce Cummings made her way down Woodland Boulevard from her racially segregated school.
"They had two variety stores with lunch counters" along the main street of downtown, she remembers. "McCrory's was on the left and Woolworth's was on the right."
Both stores served only white people at their counters.
But this was the early 1960s, and the civil rights movement had come to DeLand. Young black students -- taking part in what came to be known across the South as the lunch counter demonstrations -- sat at the counters and were refused service.
Was it dangerous? She shakes her head no.
"The police were there and they would protect us."
When one store closed its lunch counter, the young people would go across the street to the other store until it closed, too. Then they would assemble in a public park, on the present-day site of the Volusia County Administration Building.
"We would talk about the fact we would not give up and would continue to come every day," she said, and the fire of the young protester shines in the energetic grandmother's eyes. "Eventually, they closed the lunch counters down. But later, when they opened them again, they opened them to all people."
The former protestor is Joyce Cusack. She's gone from taking part in a sit-in to taking a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.
The newly elected state representative for District 26 hasn't forgotten her beginnings.
"I thought this is so ironic," she said in her Woodland Boulevard office on a rainy Wednesday morning. "The same town that closed its lunch counters to blacks has now elected me."
As she looks around her comfortable office, still lacking pictures on its walls, Cusack, 58, seems to still be in awe of what has happened.
"To be a part of that august body, well, that's something for this little girl from New Smyrna Beach, who grew up in this segregated community," she said. "It restores my faith in humanity. It proves that you can rise above your circumstances."
They were circumstances she helped to change.
"This is the first time an African-American has ever been elected to this seat," said Cusack. "This district is 80 percent to 90 percent white. It is the only seat in the state -- in the House or in the Senate -- where an incumbent Republican was unseated. And to think, it happened right here in Volusia County."
Cusack edged out first-term Republican state representative Pat Patterson, capturing 51.45 percent of the vote to Patterson's 48.55 percent. It was Cusack's first attempt at elective office.
Judy Craig, president of the West Volusia Democratic Club, said party officials knew "this is a winnable candidate." Cusack's "warm, friendly welcoming smile" made a lasting impression on others, she said.
"When Joyce began running, she made speeches on the courthouse steps," Craig said. "She grew into the role. By the time she was in her third speech, I knew Joyce was a winner. It's really great to have somebody who can step up there and stir up a crowd."
Cusack said she has no aspirations for higher office. But she does want to keep her legislative seat for the full four terms -- eight years -- she's allowed to hold it. After that? She dreams of retiring, and going fishing in New Smyrna Beach. She smiles at the thought, and her eyes have a dreamy, faraway look when she talks about it.
But, first, there's work to be done. "I'm working 10 and 12 hours a day, and at the end of each day, I still feel like so many things were not done," she said.
Cusack's sister gave her advice for her political office: "Start like a ripple and end like a tidal wave."
If she's taking that advice, she's making a pretty large ripple.
Cusack was recently elected to the National Democratic Committee. She traveled to Washington last weekend to vote for a national party chairman. Back home Sunday night, she packed for Tallahassee and headed north to the capitol.
Getting established, setting priorities
Craig said Cusack has been dedicated to her job from day one. "I know she's really doing her homework and working very diligently," the party official added.
Cusack has been networking with other women in the legislature, including Suzanne Kosmas, a New Smyrna Beach Democrat, and Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, Craig said.
Cusack's committee appointments include Transportation, Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations, General Education, Health Promotion and Senate Redistricting.
"Joyce is someone who will represent us," Craig said. "I just believe she's always going to be the people's candidate all the way through. She is dedicated."
Already, Cusack has set two priorities: election reform and parental rights.
On election reform, she said "We have to learn from this. We have to educate our voters and we need a uniform system of voting and a uniform system of choosing supervisors of elections."
She points out that Volusia County's charter calls for county elected officials to run in a nonpartisan election. And, she said, she believes that the position of elections supervisor should also be nonpartisan all over the state. In many Florida counties, the positions are not.
Cusack also supports giving noncustodial parents more rights. On this, she draws from her experience as a nurse and working with the Department of Children and Families.
"It's just the right thing to do," she said. "Parents should not divorce their children."
The current statute, she explained, is not clear on a number of issues. Her proposal, she said, would make it clear that both parents have equal access to the child's school and medical records.
"If there is some reason the noncustodial parents should not be seeing the child, that would be determined at the start," she said.
Her proposed bill also would help working parents cut down on court appearances and time off from their jobs -- to iron out various provisions of the custody agreement. Instead, such issues would be handled at the same time as the divorce.
Life of service led to legislature
Cusack's life journey has prepared her for Tallahassee.
"I had really tried to position myself to run for office," she said. "Even though this was my first time running for public office, I've been around and I've been active in the community.
"I grew up in DeLand, and I have a warm relationship with many, many people," Cusack said. "I pride myself in remembering names and associating with the people."
She was a corporate nurse for Brunswick, a manufacturer of camouflage nets used in the military, for many years. "I know a lot of blue-collar workers," she said.
Cusack also worked in the public health sector, as a community health nurse and a school nurse. She was hired by Volusia County as "the only nurse there. Every person who came to work for Volusia County, came through our office."
Outside of her regular jobs, Cusack stayed busy in religion and politics. She has just finished a term as a deaconess and the chairwoman of the deaconess ministry at Greater Union Baptist Church. Its educational building is named for her father-in-law.
Cusack was secretary of the local Democratic Executive Committee and a state committeewoman. She also chaired its affirmative action committee.
In DeLand city government, she served on the economic development board, charter review committee, airport task force and a community task force that helped secure block grants.
Her motive for running for office? "I just want to make a difference in the lives of people," Cusack said. "And I think people see that."
Cusack has been married for 38 years to Charles Cusack -- she calls him Chuck -- and the couple have two daughters. Her husband and one of her daughters are teachers. Craig said it was gratifying to see how the Cusack family supported the candidate all during the campaign.
Since taking her oath of office, "the only thing I've found to be the down side of this job is time," Cusack said. "You have to time yourself because everything is on a time schedule. That's not really me. I love to take time and talk to people."
The lunch counter protestor turned legislator says she still has a keen interest in race relations.
"It was very interesting growing up in a smaller town that was really very segregated," said the member of Euclid High School's 1960 graduating class. "But I think DeLand is unique. We have a wide range of people here who are willing to step out and make sure that there's inclusion."
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