Normita Woodard was out walking with her grandbaby.
She was in the heart of downtown Dade City, when she came to the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Eighth Street.
It was there she decided to run for city commission.
“That was a game-changer,” Woodard, the 53-year-old Dade City native and now Group 5 representative on the city commission. “Being on that road, I thought, ‘How did Dr. King, how did Rosa Parks — how did those people stand up and get the change they wanted?’
“I served my country (in the U.S. Army), so why not come back and serve the constituents of my hometown? … It’s important our (African American) voice is at the table, that we have the opportunity to make sure equality is done because systemic racism is there — people might not even realize it’s being done, but it’s our job to bring those disparities to the forefront.
“I’m really happy to be able to serve and ensure we have equality for all.”
Home is where the heart is
Woodard wanted to see the world.
She joined the Army after graduating from Pasco High in 1988 and had two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan during the first Gulf War.
“When the bombs started falling, I knew I wasn’t in training camp anymore,” she recalled.
During her 10 years in the military, she rose to the rank of Sgt. First Class. She finished her service at MacDill Air Force Base as a decorated veteran — earning the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal and National Defense Service Medal.
But she felt pulled back to Dade City.
She became a principal’s secretary at Lacoochee Elementary and also worked part-time at Steph’s Southern Soul Restaurant, owned by her godmother.
“I thought I’d have a job where I didn’t have any responsibility,” Woodard said. “I quickly found out that that’s not me.
“Being commissioner, you need to be available to go around the city, and I’m in a position now where if I get an email or call, I have that flexibility.
“One of the reasons I came back to Dade City was just being able to walk down the street and say ‘Hey!’ to whoever and actually know that person,” she said. “I don’t want us to be a town where we just pull into the driveway and go into the house and have no interaction with the neighbors.”
When Woodard decided to run for commissioner on that game-changing walk, she knew she’d also be filling a big seat. Eunice Penix, who had been commissioner since 1993, opted not to seek reelection.
Woodard knew Penix well. Penix also is a Dade City native, and both women attended St. John Missionary Baptist Church.
In a tight race that tallied 772 votes, Woodard edged out Christopher King, founder of The Gentlemen’s Course, a 501c3 nonprofit focused on educating youth in proper etiquette and anti-human trafficking efforts, 405-367.
“I believe her passion and influence is drawn from having grown up in Dade City,” fellow commissioner and Dade City Mayor Jim Shive said. “She is passionate about bringing their voice to the table.
“She always enters every task with enthusiasm, a big smile and says, ‘We got this!’”
An unexpected role
In April, City Commissioner Knute Nathe resigned from his Group 4 seat to serve as a Pasco County judge and was quickly replaced by newly appointed Lisa Simon.
However, Nathe also was the mayor pro tem.
Shive, without hesitation, nominated Woodard at the commission’s meeting in May. Commission colleagues backed the motion unanimously.
“I believe Commissioner Woodard understands her role and the importance of diversity and equality in representing the causes of African Americans, as well as all who reside within the jurisdiction of Dade City, no matter their ethnicity,” Shive said. “I believe she is an inspiration to the African American community and the city, as a whole.
“She is an inspiration to many young girls and women within the community in her role as an elected official and Mayor Pro Tem.”
Woodard said becoming Mayor Pro Tem was never on her radar, nor was becoming any sort of government official. She was heavily involved in activities during high school, but never part of student government.
“I became very versed at public speaking through FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) and that something fostered deep down I didn’t even know I had,” she said.
Now, her focus is on developing Dade City the right way.
She opposes more residential development, but welcomes more commercial growth. She points out that when Dade City lost Lykes Pasco, the beverage plant, in 2004, the city lost a lot of jobs and its economy suffered.
She has confidence in her hometown.
“Dade City is resilient. When that (the loss of a major business) happens in other places, you see that place die off. Dade City didn’t do that,” Woodard said. “It’s important to me that we preserve the proud heritage in Dade City. I don’t want it to look like Tampa or Orlando.
“Am I against development and growth? Absolutely not, but I need to be able to sleep at night with my votes and feel like I’ve done that in this role.”
Walking the path
On that walk with her grandbaby, Woodard had the choice to go to Naomi Jones Park or the opposite direction to Price Park. She says she chose Price Park because the facilities were better.
The walk still influences her actions as a commissioner.
One of her initiatives, with the help of City Manager Leslie Porter, is getting a new building to replace the Irvin Civic Center.
That center has been deemed too small and outdated. Impact studies and research have shown tearing down the current building, as well as moving to a more suited spot in the park, is the best option.
Woodard said she loves working with fellow commissioner Ann Cosentino, who leads the commission’s youth council. Those youth come to city hall to see the commission in action.
Woodard also wants more summer programs for youths.
Those were cut back this year and held at Pasco Middle due to limited space.
Porter said Woodard is an advocate for youths.
“She inspires young girls and women in the community through her outreach efforts and motivational words,” Porter said. “Mayor Pro Tem Woodard inspires the Black community in Dade City by encouraging their involvement, ensuring their voices are heard and representing them at each and every interaction she has.”
Woodard, for her part, walks the walk.
“I make it my business to be present, so another child, who looks like me, can see they can also make an impact,” Woodard said. “When it counts, Dade City unites together. At parades, everyone is standing shoulder-to-shoulder, from one end of the city to the other. We might not agree on everything, but at the end of the day, we all come together, no matter what the color of our skin is.
“To me, that will always be Dade City.”
Published July 26, 2023