By Samantha Joseph
STUART -- Robert Hall is no stranger to controversy. One of the first blacks elected to public office in the region, he entered city government as an outspoken civil rights activist in the late 1960s, who would later face several criminal charges.
In 1969 he became a city commissioner and would later go on to become Stuart's first black mayor. He was a longtime leader of the local chapter of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
During his time in government, he advocated for government to offer similar amenities to black neighborhoods as existed in white.
"The black community was lacking in so many things," he said. "When we were still walking around and driving on dirt roads, they had better roads in the downtown community. We had dim street lights that created a safety issue. And it took at least 10 years to get cable television," he said.
"It was a time when you had to make things happen. Being in politics was an opportunity to be on the other side of the table and help make things happen for others."
During his time in office, Mr. Hall helped bring a tennis court and pavilion to East Stuart, a predominantly black community, after he insisted he would only vote on creating one for downtown if commissioners would also consider one for the other neighborhood.
"It was about making things equal. Tax dollars are the same color everywhere. It was a constant fight but I made it happen. I was very vocal. I was not a shy person. I spoke my piece," said Mr. Hall, now 76. "I was an advocate for anyone's rights. It didn't matter whether they were black or white. I didn't make friends. I made a lot of enemies and I made them in law enforcement, as well. I know I rubbed a lot of people the wrong way."
The biggest rub came about 30 years after he first took public office, when he was at the center of a drug and prostitution scandal, facing multiple felony charges.
In 1999, Mr. Hall got an 18-month prison sentence and 10-year probation term after pleading guilty to 15 drug and prostitution-related charges. Prosecutors said he arranged to have women released from prison in exchange for working in a prostitution ring he operated.
Mr. Hall denies the charges, and said he felt the outcome would have been different if he could afford top legal representation.
"There was no truth to it. That was something that was falsely brought up. I never dealt with prostitutes or drugs. (The charges) were a way of crushing me. It was things that were done to discredit me," he said. "I stood on my innocence then and I stand on it now. And I'm still speaking out. I'm just like a lot of people or political leaders who stood against the system and made enemies."
In 2008, when he was still on probation, Mr. Hall was again arrested on charges he falsified a voter registration card and cast a ballot. At that time he was legally ineligible to vote until completing his sentence and undertaking a process to restore his voting rights.
Mr. Hall said he thought he was eligible to vote under reforms made by former Gov. Charlie Crist. Gov. Crist implanted legislative changes that made it easier for felons to restore their voting rights after serving their sentences. But his successor has since implemented a five-year waiting period after felons complete jail time and probation.
Several supporters spoke out in Mr. Hall's defense, including members of the New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, where he serves as an elder. They said Mr. Hall was instrumental in organizing voter-registration efforts and encouraging residents to vote and appeared unaware he was ineligible to vote.
The incident led Mr. Hall, now president of the Voice of the People Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group, to launch an effort to undo Gov. Rick Scott's changes.
His group launched a petition to that end and is circulating it throughout the state.
"Things have to start somewhere," he said. "I am not ashamed of my record. I know why certain things happen. But I stood on what I believed in. If it caused me embarrassment, so be it. I will speak out. I will not be stopped. I consider myself one of those very strong voices in the community."