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Sonny Oppenheim


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Sonny Oppenheim
Series Title:
Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman administration oral history project
Physical Description:
1 sound file (41 min.) : digital, MPEG4 file + ;
Oppenheim, Sonny
Kerstein, Robert J
University of South Florida Libraries -- Florida Studies Center. -- Oral History Program
University of South Florida -- Tampa Library
University of South Florida Tampa Library
Place of Publication:
Tampa, Fla
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Community development -- Florida -- Tampa   ( lcsh )
Tampa (Fla.)   ( lcsh )
Oral history   ( local )
Online audio   ( local )
Oral history.   ( local )
Online audio.   ( local )
interview   ( marcgt )


During the tenure of Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman (1986-1995), Sonny Oppenheim served as the Mayor's Administrative Aide. The interview begins with Ms. Oppenheim discussing her background and her move from Brooklyn, New York, to Tampa when she was nineteen years old. Ms. Oppenheim discusses various city programs including "Peer to Peer" and "Paint Your Heart Out." She also talks about the mayor's problems with the Tampa Police Department over the "take home cars" issue. There is also a discussion about the positive relationship the mayor's office had with the press during Mayor Freedman's tenure. The interview ends with a discussion of Ms. Oppenheim's current position working for the Women/Minority Business Enterprise Program (WMBE) in Tampa.
Interview conducted on June 22, 2005.
System Details:
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
System Details:
Streaming audio.
Statement of Responsibility:
interviewed by Robert Kerstein.

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University of South Florida Library
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University of South Florida
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 028546235
oclc - 180113927
usfldc doi - F50-00019
usfldc handle - f50.19
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Oppenheim, Sonny.
Sonny Oppenheim
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Robert Kerstein.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (41 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (digital, PDF file)
Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman administration oral history project
Interview conducted on June 22, 2005.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Streaming audio.
During the tenure of Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman (1986-1995), Sonny Oppenheim served as the Mayor's Administrative Aide. The interview begins with Ms. Oppenheim discussing her background and her move from Brooklyn, New York, to Tampa when she was nineteen years old. Ms. Oppenheim discusses various city programs including "Peer to Peer" and "Paint Your Heart Out." She also talks about the mayor's problems with the Tampa Police Department over the "take home cars" issue. There is also a discussion about the positive relationship the mayor's office had with the press during Mayor Freedman's tenure. The interview ends with a discussion of Ms. Oppenheim's current position working for the Women/Minority Business Enterprise Program (WMBE) in Tampa.
Oppenheim, Sonny.
Freedman, Sandy.
2 610
Tampa (Fla.)
Office of the Mayor.
Community development
z Florida
Tampa (Fla.)
7 655
Oral history.
Online audio.
Kerstein, Robert J.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Florida Studies Center.
Oral History Program.
University of South Florida.
Tampa Library.
4 856


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1 Sandy Freedman Oral History Project University of South Florida Interview with: Sonny Oppenheim Interviewed by: Robert Kerstein Location: Unknown (Tampa, FL) Date: June 22, 2005 Transcribed by: Rebecca Willman Edited by: Sonny Oppenheim (August 3, 2006) Robert Kerstein (September 06, 2006) Rebecca Willman (September 11, 2006) Audit Edit by: Nicole Cox (August 30, 2007) Final Edit by: Nicole Cox (September 11, 2007) [Tape 1, Side A] ative Aide to Mayor Freedman. Thank you for speaking with me, Sonny. RK: Can I ask a little about your personal history? Where were you born? SO: In New Jersey, but I grew up in New York in Brooklyn. SO: And got married at nineteen and came to Tampa with my husband, and raised my family here. And thought eventually if something interesting came along I would go to work outside the home, but I stayed home with my children until my youngest was in coll ege. And something interesting did come along. I volunteered on a political campaign and was invited to go to work for a State Legislator, George Sheldon. I had known Sandy Freedman since she was a little kid, socially. She was a little tennis player and we met through her parents. But I went to work for George, and when George lost his race for congress, he went to work for Levine Freedman, the law firm, and took me with him. And we, we re met Sandy at the time. And George went to Tallahassee for a year run for mayor. And I said in her political campaign. And he said we have a better idea. When Sandy becomes ma Because she knew me, she knew my work at the law firm. And I thought that she wanted to bring in one person that was


2 until ome RK: So you were there from the very beginning? SO: From the very beginning. From July 1986. RK: And what were your responsibilities as an Aide? SO: Well, I kept of course I answered the pho nes, took all the calls of people calling the Mayor. [I] kept her schedule, went through her mail and directed it, although she liked to see it too you know, the appointments, to see if she was open or not open, the complaints, whatever; [I] did the procla mations. But mostly it was directing the telephone could get the help they nee ded without harassing and haranguing the mayor. I was her gatekeeper. I also made her appointments; did a schedule a daily schedule for her; presented a weekly schedule to the press because they wanted to know what she was doing. Every Friday they would see her mail, which they did, after she did. And then they realized it was kind of boring and so they gave up after a little while, but a lot of them wanted to see it for you know, two, t We had a lot of interesting phone calls, we had a lot of regular regulars who called to complain. And when you first take office, everybody that has a gripe about City Hall, starting was basically what I did, which was a busy day. It was a great job. RK: How did you determine who would get appointments because I assume many more people wanted appointme nts than you had time for? SO: Well not necessarily, not necessarily. I always ran it through her, I never made those determinations by myself. So she determined who got the appointments. Most of the time, when somebody called with a complaint, we could d eal with it without having to come to see the mayor. Because we gave it to the right department. And when it came RK: Did you follow up? How did you know if they responded? SO: Well I work ed with the other folks on that floor; there were, she had the Mayor had Super Chiefs as you probably know. And each Super Chief had an assistant. And so when someone called complaining that a ditch in their neighborhood was a mess, we would go I would go to the person who handled the Department of Public Works, or the Parks


3 Department, whoever was responsible for that particular thing, and they would handle it and follow up. Sometimes someone would call and say, look I have this problem and I w to deal with it, who do I talk to?, which was easy, because I would direct having to go through the mayor. RK: Is there any way you can recall what were some of the major c SO: People would call about no, code enforcement I think. That was probably the major complaint. And that was very frustrating too fo foreclose on a homestead. So you can only give them notices, and they go before the we still have the same problems, a lot of them. RK: So more code enforcement than anything else? falling down mess that kind of thing. RK: Anything else that you recall in terms of types of complaints? Anything about inadequacy of police protection for example? kinds of stuff, you know. Speeding in the put speed bumps in that kind of thing. RK: OK. I just spoke with Steve LaBour recently, as you know, who was the liaison. Did you have n eighborhood organizations calling like the presidents of different neighborhood organizations? SO: Occasionally we dealt with a couple of those people but they, they knew who to deal with. Yeah, [there were] a lot of very good programs when Sandy was the mayor, some


4 RK: What was that? SO: Where the neighborhood people were given postcards, and if they had a problem in the neighborhood with the Code Enforcement, they would directl y fill it out and mail it to our office. And it was handled that way. So then the neighbors got involved in what was happening in their own home. Sidewalks too. We asked them to give us priorities on which side, which streets they wanted sidewalks on. We w ere very neighborhood oriented and most people who deal with the city or any government, are interested in their own interested in their own crime, the hookers on Nebraska Avenue, the code enforcement RK: What about builders? Because some used to suggest it was too difficult to get permits and so on. Did you get complaints? SO: Sandy well, we streamlined the a lot of the building permits at the time, b ecause there were complaints about that. Sometimes trees, they make down the tree. The treehuggers are which they got no sympathy from me, but I tried very hard you know, not to inject myself. The only people that really upset me were the let otherwise you know, people have legitimate gripes sometimes. And generally I was on their side. I mean these are citizens who have complaints with the city, and I office cor their neighborhood and ? So I tried to advocate with for the citizens who were making the complaints. RK: Now what about the City Council people, do they often call for appointments? SO: No. -per sonal communication? SO: No. No, no Sandy would initiate a lot of appointments herself. You know, she would say or I want to have lunch with this one or find out when so and so can come and see me She would I mean, she was the boss, she was the one who determined who she would see and I was the one who would fit it in to the calendar.


5 RK: Did you ever get to meet any famous people? SO: Oh sure. Henry Winkler was here when he made that movie with Burt Reynol ds Simmons was a real character. The Queen was here. I was among the many who stood in the line when she walked through. Sandy had some good stuff happening. She had dinner with the Queen; she met Ron Brown when he was visiting Tampa during the Clinton campaign. RK: And he was Head of the Department of Commerce at that point? SO: No, he was working with the Department of Commerce when he was head of the Democratic Party at the time. [I] met the President a couple of times because Sandy was one of the first people who welcomed him to Tampa. The first time he came to Tampa, RK: President Clinton, did he actually come up to the offi ce? remember one of them was in a gymnasium. And the other was after a speech he made occasion But and she was invited to the White House a couple of times. She was invited to the White House to me it was exciting for the signing of that peace agreement between Arafat and, was it Rabin that day. They cal led, the White House called, and I then. And I tracked her down because I was so excited about that invitation. And she and Mike she and her husband went. She was in the audience that day. RK: Do you have any, kind of, funny st ories? RK: Can you tell us about the Japanese? SO: Oh, the Japanese well, we did a lot of proclamations. We proclaimed practically everything, from diseases to h onoring people retiring, to organizations that were doing good work. So there were a group of people who were clowns, and they would visit children in hospitals and do all kinds of nice things, and so they had a week or a month we did a proclamation. And when they would come up to get presented with proclamations, Sandy would don herself in clown outfits. She had big lobby and present the proclamation, and they would get their picture taken. And there she was in her little clown outfit with the red nose, when the elevator door opened, and there was a group of visiting Japanese business men who were a little bit early for their


6 appointment. And the look on their face was priceless. When they looked at the Mayor of Tampa with her little red nose and a clown. So they must have been thinking, so this is [laughs] It was funny. Of course, you know, we all laugh We had, we had a lot of nice things happen with when we another program that Sandy started which was is still going on. RK: What did that involve? day, one Saturday in April, we chose, we had armies of volunteers, we had a group who determined which houses to paint. We did as many as one hundred homes that day. Luckily it hardly ever rained on us, on that Saturday of April. Once it did, I think. And almost every business and organization in the city would field a team, and we would paint a house of some deserving generally seniors who needed the work, and we got enforcement office. Because it was something I think had been d one I think in Pittsburgh, thing was Maybe some of the others will remember what the third thin g was that we won the award for. RK: I want to ask another question about people calling. Every city has different organized groups that try to influence public policy. Did you have many representatives of groups call trying to get an appointment who were concerned about housing policy or economic development policy or whatever it might be? mayor about policy, she always met with them. There was no reason not to. She me t with a lot of different people. I wonder if she still has copies of her schedule. Probably not, I Kerstein the schedule]. I would print out a schedule, what time and where, and usually, what it was for. And then the weekly one of course, would go to the press. And then put it on her desk with a folder. On one side on the front of the folder would be the schedule, and inside the folder would be the copy of the invitation or whatever information was about that particular event. You know, she always was there were nights when she would go to two or three dinners and never get a bite of food, because the mayor was expected to attend There were times when there was an emergency, and remember


7 particularly bad had happened, and she had showed us she had showed up with a fancy outfit on because she had been to a formal dinner. But that happened too, a lot not a lot but, it happened, where she was pulled away from something important. But there were always events, those kinds of events, and I would, I would just merely put on the invitation whether she was open o r not, or whether she had two or three other things going that night. As long as she was out anyway, she may as well stop and visit. Organizations I RK: What about the press? Did you get many calls from the press? SO: Well they were there almost everyday, they were always around. And whatever we do is public information. And that was my attitude toward it, and that was her attitude toward it. And so when they wanted to see her, they generally got to see her. When something was happening making announcements, when something was going on, the room was full of press. But there was generally somebody there from the Tribune or the St. Pete Times wanting to know what her s chedule was, and would ask about this particular appointment or that particular appointment. RK: Do you think she got a fair deal from the press in general? finally I ne ver understood why she continued to talk to her but she did, and finally she got fed up with her. Because whatever she said never got to where it was supposed to, or RK: Who was that columnist? SO: Mary Jo, Mary Jo Melone. RK: From the St. Pete Times? SO: Who has a, had a dismal view of the world, poor thing. But generally people like Troxler Troxler actually called once and said, do you think I w as unfair ? I said and I told him, and Sandy felt the same way (we generally had the same reaction to things), no, you were not unfair, you you know, you disagreed with her, which is fine. But you Which is, you kno you felt like they were intrusive, but that was their job. RK: What type of, kind of managerial style would you say that Mayor Freedman had?


8 she would argue, they would argue sometimes. But she always wanted to hear what other people had to say. RK: Was she a tight manager, in other words, did she try to ensure that the bureaucracies carried through on whatever was the policy? do you call RK: Micro manager? manage. She expected people to do their job. And when they have been probably. RK: Why was that do you think? le of people who are at let people go, you know, they think of the family and the whole, the whole nine yards. like to fire people. George was like that too he used to send somebody else to fire people. RK: Is that George Sheldon? SO: Yeah. RK: You used to work for him? SO: Yeah, [I] worked for him. He actually sent someone else to do the firing which was re ally bad. But Sandy fired very few people during that, almost ten years that she was mayor. RK: Now you were on the eighth floor then, is that correct? SO: Yeah, the mayor main floor. RK: And were there several other heads of bureaucracies there? SO: There were all the Super Chiefs. The so called Super Chiefs were up there. RK: Can you explain that?


9 word, I think. It was Bob Smith, was Head of Public Safety, which included the Fire Department and the Police Department. Joe Abrams was Parks and Recreation. Now they were each two separate departments who had their own directors, but he was over them. And Mike Salmon was Public Works, which was Waste Sewer Depart ment, the Solid Waste Department, and then Public Works Department. And so they kind of oversaw the works of and those were the people that were senior staff. They and Lou Russo, the Finance Director and George Pennington, the RK: Was he Chief of Staff? SO: Chief of Staff. And then there was John Dunn who was Government Relations, I when she was in Tampa, but of course she was in Tallahassee a nd did a lot of traveling RK: Was Bob Buckhorn senior staff? SO: Bob was senior staff. And, and then LaBour, was when he came in and worked with neighborhoods that was very big too. That w as something that she started from scratch. Absolute scratch. There were no there was no communication. There really were no neighborhood organizations. There was a loose amalgamation, but she hired LaBour to do just exactly that. When she left office, fro m nothing I forgot on what the number was RK: Is there anyway you can describe a typical day, in other words, did the mayor meet with the heads, with the Super Chiefs like weekly or da ily? SO: There was a senior staff meeting every week. And of course she was always available to them, we were all, you know oss the hall were the Super Chiefs and their aides. As a matter of fact, in those days, each one SO: She was available to t hem on a, you know, regular basis. They would come on in see her, because she was right there. And she was very good about always letting me know where I mean even if she was going around the corner to talk to the finance people, she would let me know that she was leaving her office. So I always knew where RK: Were there many, do you remember any kind of, difficult times? Because any mayor goes through good times and bad times so to speak? SO: Well there were, yeah, there were things. Like when we were building the


10 Convention Center and the budget started to escalate and she was concerned about that. There was the time when, when her husband was involved with that bank thing, which was the most difficult time. Mike, who had been falsely accused of being involved, in some sort of SO: Key Bank. RK: Key Bank. SO: He had been falsely accused and it was very difficult for both of them. It was a tough time. But that was personal and, and she, you know, she kept on doing her job. But it was difficult for her. Because the press was after her. And I remember this one time, when she was going down to her car and one of the reporters one of the good guys as I used to call him shoved the microphone in her face, and she just kept on walking; it was hard, it was hard. Because she always had a go od relationship with him. But as I said, they were doing their job. There were difficult decisions; there were always things that came up. But with she would confirm with the folks that she, whose, you know, whose opinion she respected. And it was the busi ness community too the Chamber of Commerce people. Then there was the Bamboleo thing. That was when she was mayor too. RK: Yeah, do you have any recollection of that? SO: Not a whole lot. I remember Bob Gilder with his Bamboleo, which I never thought a w hole lot of. And it was time for something like that to happen, it was time. that the Krewe was very discriminatory, very it was a very elitist group. It always was. like it was sexist. And there w ere a lot times when she was the only woman in a meeting. And those were the days too when there were very few women who achieved in politics. And there was always that sexist thing, always. There was work for a skirt, and she was actually told that by someone I get mental blocks with And 80% of the police personnel were living outside the city city. So that was a difficult time too. That was at she was not reluctant to make difficult not always easy.


11 RK: Do you remember any especially good times? SO: There were a lot of good times. The, as I told you, the invitation to the White House to witness a historic event was a wonderful thing. Meeting the Queen you know, meeting the celebrities and getting the fun stuff, that was, that was nice. The award for actually say thank yo u for doing nice things. Mostly it was good, mostly it was always, it was really good. something and see it through, and see it happen. that works. RK: Were you involved in her campaign in 1991 that she won? remember. You know I remember doing volunteer work on Saturdays or I remember going to the campaign office on Saturdays. And I remember making phone calls once or twice in the evenings, but not especially, no. RK: So the office s till carried on as usual? rule ul, particularly so that there never is eful. RK: How was the transition from Mayor Martinez, who preceded Mayor Freedman, and your administration? Was it smooth? Did they assist you in terms of getting going? I actually started the day she became mayor. Th at was my, that was my first day of employment. And so the transition had really already been taken care of. And as I said, she kept the whole senior staff. So I doubt that there was any transition at all, because there was nobody left. And they stayed on Pennington was there for most of her administration, so was Russo. The difference is, and now I upplies. I mean, I was not I am not in the bureaucratic world, and then I found out I needed forms and, RK: Were things tight fiscally, just in terms of your role?


12 the things that we purchased for the the frames for the proclamations were about as far as we went. I had walked into the office and there was a computer there, with a system I had never used. So I spent a day with a, with a disk an instructional disk, and I learned it. You know, you learn what you have to learn. people start coming in and just learning how things worked? SO: You know, I was moved. When Sandy when we knew that that administra tion was ending, in those days we had a ten year vesting you had to be with the city for ten years Sandy had been mayor for eight and a half. So she wanted and I wanted to stay the home until my youngest kid was in college, so I was no kid. And I felt, well, I better start thinking about getting vested at least And so Sandy moved me to a we have classified unc SO: Classified and unclassified. Anybody that works on the eighth floor is unclassified well, Greco did make a lo t of changes. But he allowed me and she moved me to go to work with Ever a d [End Tape 1, Side A] ___ [Tape 1, Side B] RK: So you went to work with Everad? SO: So I went to work with Everad, and became a classified po sition, and Mayor Greco somewhere, and Lee Duncan, and Parke Wright Jr. both contacted him fo r me on my had any concern about doing that, because there was never a problem with me staying on. RK: And who was Lee Duncan? SO: He was City Councilperson. He was o n City Council at the time. RK: And who was Parke Wright?


13 SO: Parke Wright III was a very prominent Tampa citizen whose idea what was his idea RK: He was involved with THAN e arly on, I know. that started it then. He was a great he was fine man, a very nice man. SO: Archer. RK: And what does he head? SO: Women and Minority Business. Which is what he we started doing, after graffiti, which seemed to be come under control. He was moved to the Women and Minority Business office, which is what we do now. We notify we have a list of certified women and minority owned businesses. And we notify them, I my job is to notify them of bid opportunities when they co me along. From the City of Tampa, from Department of Transportation, anywhere I can get information. I notify folks that do that particular kind Everad does a lot more. He actually monitors projects that women and minority businesses are working on within the city. RK: And did this program begin during the Freedman administration? it the language, the thing about language what did we call that, did anybody mention that...? RK: Yes, yes. Do you have recollections of that? SO: I remember that, and she started that, a I think happens in politics, you know. Somebody s we had a wonderful housing program. I mean there were people that, there are people who have homes now een for Sandy and the programs that we


14 RK: Did you work for the housing progra m for a while? we were over at the German rogram is, and concentration on Ybor City, which was a whole other thing, and the trolley and all the RK: And what was your impression of Mayor Freedma SO: I think she, her her priorities were neighborhoods and how those kinds of things evolved. The Convention Center was wonderful I mean that was nice to have. Having the Ice Palace downtown, those were important things, and it was nice, it was good. Curtis Hixon Park was another one. There were a lot of nice things, and they were all important. But basically I think, it was the ne ighborhoods. RK: And do you think that was appreciated by the citizens, that priority? office. And people come up to her and tell her that, oh, I wish you were back, this, this and this I think that probably happens. RK: When you look back at your, I guess eight years with the mayor, how do you reflect on those years in general? SO: They were wonderful, they were great. It was, it was the best job. Because it was she, she did things that I [skip or pause in tape] other names, throw them, throw in. And


15 these are the men, these are t he black, these are the Hispanic, these are the people that should be involved in th is And she did that a lot. RK: Did some people resent that? s the what happens. But those are the kinds of things that tell you a lot about a person, that tell me a lot about her. She was always doing things like that. She expec ted other people to do that too. RK: So it was a very positive eight years for you? SO: Oh very much so, very much so. continue for while? SO: Oh, I hope so, I hope so. Well it gives small although we do have members who are from St. Pete, or even as far away as Miami and believer in hometown hiring. Like keeping you know, small business people who have an opportunity. We have a new program, just an SBE program, a small business program. small busines s is supposedly the backbone according to Republicans. Mayor Freedman emphasized neighborhood rehabilitation. And this is many years after nges in this neighborhood, which is historic, Hispanic and African American neighborhood? here. The people this mayor is going to hopefully concentrate on th ings like that. It to. There have to be I wonder where these people, who live in this public housing, Winn


16 RK: Thanks a lot for spending the time to speak with me this morning, Sonny. SO: My pleasure Bob.