Prominent black pastor, school choice supporter changes political parties

Travis Pillow

pastor-sykes-150x150Tampa Bay political circles started buzzing over the weekend with rumors that a prominent African-American minister – and pro-school choice Democrat – would be changing political parties and backing Gov. Rick Scott in a contentious re-election battle.

In the end, Rev. Manuel Sykes told supporters he was in fact changing parties, but would also be sticking by Scott’s challenger, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist.

Sykes had until recently been a leader in the St. Petersburg chapter of the Florida NAACP. He is also pastor at Bethel Baptist Community Church, which runs a school that serves children who participate in Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. The two roles collided last month when he was ousted from his position at the civil rights organization.

In a Facebook post reported on the Tampa Bay Times’ The Buzz blog, Sykes wrote he was supporting Crist in part because the former governor stood by him “when the NAACP disparaged my character.”

“I changed my …party affiliation after it became clear that some democratic officials refused to work as genuinely with me as I had with the party,” Sykes wrote to supporters in a follow-up Facebook post on Monday. “The additional frustration of working with a civil rights organization who refused just and fair treatment to me and my board, was a turning point in my faith in it’s current culture.”

Sykes’ list of potential grievances with the Democratic Party is long. The local party blocked his attempt to run for Congress, and later failed to field a viable candidate. Indeed, school choice politics likely played at best an ancillary role in his decision to leave the party.

Still, both Crist and Sykes are navigating the complex, increasingly fractious politics of school choice. Crist’s position on Florida’s tax credit scholarship program has drawn criticism from other prominent black ministers. As reported by the Miami Herald, many of those same ministers have pledged to stick by him in his bid to return to his old job. After a brief flare-up over the weekend, that appears to remain the case.

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