With the country deeply polarized politically, Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, a Democrat, opted this week to speak in front of the conservative organization Community Patriots of Tampa, which includes members who attended the Donald Trump rally in Washington on January 6 that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

What You Need To Know

  • Tampa councilman Luis Viera met with a conservative group that has members who attended a D.C. rally on Jan. 6

  • Viera said he talked about public safety, systemic racism, implicit bias, immigration, etc. 

  • Viera received criticism and praise for meeting with the group "Community Patriots of Tampa"

  • More political news

Viera said he talked about public safety issues, and also items like systemic racism, implicit bias, nativism, immigration and refugees.

After he posted a photo and message on his Facebook page Monday night, the reaction was intense, with some members of the community praising him for reaching out to the other ideological side, and others blasting him for meeting a group whom some detractors call a “dangerous” organization.

Overall, Viera says about 70% of the feedback he received has been positive.

“A lot of people believe that we need to engage with one another,” he told Spectrum Bay News 9 on Friday outside of City Hall. “It’s important we don’t legitimize extreme views. We don’t open up forums to people with extreme views. But we go and we talk to people about why we believe what we believe. Not as a politician to try to triangulate. Not as a politician to try to win votes. Right? But as somebody who is speaking from the heart.” 

Among the most vocal in speaking out has been Tampa community and political organizer Jae Passmore. Passmore was involved in several high-profile protests last summer that emerged following the death of George Floyd, and she says on a couple of occasions she experienced members of the Community Patriots of Tampa acting violently with Black protesters, including herself.

“Luis Viera at times has been one of the main City Council members that people consider progressive,” she said. “He often speaks about civil rights and equity when other community members are silent, so I was very astonished to hear this, being the fact that if it wasn’t for people who look like me who go out and protest, Luis Viera would never have won his seat that he won in that small margin that he did the first time he got elected to city council.”

Viera defeated Jim Davison by just 65 votes in a special election for his District 7 seat in December 2016. 

“Knowing that those were the people who fought for him to get in that position, to meet with people of that nature was really kind of like anti-everything that we thought he was,” Passmore said.

Spectrum Bay News 9 reached out to Community Patriots Tampa Bay, but we did not make contact with any member of the group.

While Viera has been criticized, others have rallied behind him.

Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn said she understands the concerns expressed by critics that meeting with certain groups can appear to be “legitimizing them.” But she said that the public should have access to elected officials.

“Once we wade into the waters of picking and choosing, who we make ourselves more accessible to, then we start to really move away from civil service and start to move away towards the divided politics that we have now,” she said. “As long as you’re not compromising your morals and your values and where you stand on the issues, and you’re explaining that to your constituency, I don’t think elected officials should be demonized for making themselves accessible.”

Viera said he did not attend the event to legitimize the Community Patriots platform. 

“I went there not to triangulate, I went there certainly not to gain any political advantage, because I’m getting heat from going there," he said. "I went there to have a dialogue.”

An email from one member of Community Patriots of Tampa indicates that Viera didn’t appear to have changed her mind.

“I found your comments about racism in our country offensive,” the woman wrote. “You uttered the divisive Democrat party line and insulted most of the people in that room.” 

A Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service Civility Poll that was taken in the immediate aftermath of the January 6, attack on Capitol Hill found that 82% of Americans agreed that political, racial and class divisions are getting worse.

“A lot of voters often say that they want politicians who are going to speak from the heart. Who are going to go into tough situations, and maybe take a risk,” Viera said. “That’s what I did on Monday.”