BY ANDREAS BUTLER
Volusia County Council At-Large candidate Percy Williamson has named Muriel “Mandy” Dawson-Bethune – a former state representative and state senator who never lost a campaign – as his new campaign manager.
“I am really excited about it. I met with his team and they asked me to do it. I will give it my best shot,” Bethune exclaimed.
Williamson said, “She has been there, and she has done it. She knows what it takes and how to get it done. Who else better to have aboard?”
Dawson-Bethune has a wide range of experience in electoral politics that she wants to bring to Williamson’s campaign.
“The art of the game is to remember what you learn and remain elected. I was never defeated in an election. I think a lot of the reason for that was that I did the people’s work. I listened to them and remained very active in the community. That’s just what Percy has done his entire career,” she explained.
Longtime Daytona resident
Dawson-Bethune is from Fort Lauderdale originally. Her family moved to Daytona Beach when she was 6 years old.
She attended Turie T. Small Elementary and Mainland Junior High before graduating in 1974 from Mainland Senior High, as it was called then.
“I’ve always had an interest in politics. I attended Mainland High when desegregation was still going on in Volusia County schools. I was always the spokesperson for us students. We saw a lot of racial injustice at the time,” recalled Dawson-Bethune. “That is what got me into politics.”
She attended Florida A&M University and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in public service at Barry University.
Dawson-Bethune, then known as Mandy Dawson, was introduced to state electoral politics in her 20s when she served as a legislative assistant for Florida Representatives Bill Clark and Tracy Stafford in Broward County (Fort Lauderdale).
She ran for a newly-designated House seat in 1993, winning her first election at the age of 32. She served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1993 to 1998, then the Florida Senate from 1999 to 2008.
She was the first African-American female elected to the Florida Legislature from Broward County. As a legislator, she had a reputation for being an uncompromising fighter for health care, foster care, women’s rights, public housing, and more.
Starting in 1992, she worked on restoration of civil rights for ex-offenders at a time when many lawmakers thought the cause was unpopular and were reluctant to support it. Dawson-Bethune persisted until she left office in 2008 and eventually worked with former Gov. Charlie Crist in changing the law.
She championed legislation that addressed people leaving children in locked cars. At the time there was a penalty for leaving pets in cars – but not children.
She began a discussion on minority health issues resulting in legislation that formed the Minority Health Commission, which focused on diseases that disproportionately affected non-White Floridians. Dawson-Bethune also fought to keep Black physicians on managed care panels.
Her work also resulted in community clinics that made health care more available, especially for working people with children who were using emergency rooms for routine pediatric care for their kids.
She advocated for funding for the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority’s “Step-Up” program, which gave public housing residents experience and training in construction. Some of the program’s participants are now entrepreneurs and homeowners.
On a more personal side, she also started a Fort Lauderdale clothing bank for low-income women who didn’t have clothing suitable for either job interviews or office work.
In addition, she worked on campaigns for former State Rep. Stafford and Congressman Alcee Hastings. She also led get-out-the-vote efforts for both campaigns of former President Bill Clinton.
Dawson-Bethune remarked, “All these experiences have taught me how to run a campaign, how to win a campaign and how to get re-elected. I also have learned that it’s not being a politician, but it is about being a statesman or stateswoman.
“In the political arena, there must be consensus-building and people must work together beyond party lines for the common good of the people.”
Life takes a turn
Dawson-Bethune suffers from back problems which have required two spinal surgeries and more than a dozen hospital stays. While suffering chronic back pains, she became addicted to prescription drugs; that led to attendance problems while she was in the Legislature.
She was charged with felony prescription pill fraud in 2002, entered a pretrial prevention program, and did a stint in a drug rehabilitation program.
Only legislator charged
Dawson-Bethune was the only legislator who was ever criminally charged during a multi-year federal investigation of alleged influence-peddling and kickbacks inside what was called “a culture of corruption” in Tallahassee while she was a legislator.
Other big-name politicians, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, current U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, former U.S. Senator George LeMieux, and at least five current or former Republican state senators were also investigated, but never charged.
In 2011, Dawson-Bethune, a Democrat, was charged with tax evasion and failure to file tax returns. The charges were unrelated to the corruption investigation. Still, she served six months in federal prison from 2012-13 as a consequence of a plea bargain.
“The general public must know that people in public office are not without problems,” Dawson-Bethune said. “I hope my experiences can enlighten people.”
‘An excellent candidate’
Williamson is in a three-candidate race against former Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson and Dr. L. Ronald Durham, former pastor of Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Daytona Beach.
Dawson-Bethune remarked, “Percy is an excellent candidate with a fabulous educational and career background. He understands what a budget is and how to make the dollars work. That is an important issue in any campaign. The budget is your tax dollars.”
Both Durham and Williamson are Black. Does Dawson-Bethune think they will split votes in Volusia County’s Black community?
She explained, “We’ve had two White candidates in past elections. Why would this one be any different? ‘Splitting the Black vote’ is rhetoric that for some reason has gotten started.
“It comes down to who is the best candidate. My goal is to convince people who the best candidate is. I accepted this job because I believe in Percy Williamson. I believe the public will feel the same way and trust him to make their lives better.”
Winning campaigns aren’t easy, but Dawson-Bethune knows how to win.
She explained, “Campaigns are all about educating the public on who your candidate is and what he has done in that community, state or nation. People don’t often know the role of government. We must educate them on that and how to make intelligent decisions when voting for candidates.”
Dawson-Bethune believes Williamson’s careers as a banking executive and director of the City of Daytona Beach’s Leisure Services department has prepared him well.
“I don’t think people understand the role of the city commission and the city manager in Daytona Beach. Daytona’s city manager isn’t elected, but he has a lot of power. He can fight anyone in city government on what they want to accomplish, especially with regard to keeping relevant programs in our community. I know Mr. Williamson had to constantly fight over the years to both expand services and keep services intact.”
‘Something I love’
Dawson-Bethune is the surviving spouse of Hobson Bethune, Sr., a retired Marine and longtime youth athletics coach.
Bethune, Sr., one of the grandchildren of Bethune-Cookman University founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, died last year from injuries suffered during a motorcycle accident.
Hobson and Muriel were childhood sweethearts who reconnected later in life and got married in 2010.
“This opportunity is getting me back into something that I love to be a part of. It is also helping me grieve the loss of my late husband,” added Dawson-Bethune.