Democrats have had a hell of a tough time getting any traction in Florida in recent years, partly, but not exclusively because of voter suppression and gerrymandering. It would be hard to pick another state where Democrats have underperformed with more adverse consequences. The Governor, Lt. Governor, both U. S. Senators, 16 out of 27 members of congress are Republicans, who also hold 26 out of 40 state senate seats and 76 of 120 state house seats. This despite the fact that “active registered” Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in 2021 in the state by 5,247,592 to 5,171,308, respectively.
Florida has uniquely complicated demographics, including a disproportionately-large percentage of white voters without college degrees, Cuban-American, Puerto Rican-American and African-American voters. Clearly, Democrats are in need of some fresh ideas about how to build a winning coalition for both state-wide and local election campaigns.
At Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson interviews Richie Floyd, a schoolteacher and Democratic Socialists of America member and candidate for St. Petersburg’s city council. In the interview Floyd shares some insights about how Democrats can do better in the Sunshine state:
You know, I really believe this state is ripe for working-class politics because the majority of people here are working-class, the overwhelming majority. We’re a service-based economy, mostly like tourism—used to be agriculture, that’s shifted away significantly. In St. Pete and Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay area, we’re trying to attract visitors here to come to our beaches to go fishing. And then you have Orlando, the whole I-4 corridor and center of the state. Orlando is based on tourism as well. And so there’s a lot of working-class people that look like me in this state and they just basically don’t have political representation at this point. The Democratic Party has been incapable of winning at a state level for a long time. They don’t necessarily speak to the issues of working people. They get caught up in a lot of things that the Republicans bait them into.
I think there’s a coalition for that. And we kind of saw it in 2018 with Andrew Gillum‘s campaign. He started out on that path, got a little lost towards the end of the general election. And so just came up short. But I think that really shows that there is something here for working people if they’re organized. And now when it comes to Bernie Sanders and stuff, something you have to know about Florida is the overwhelming majority of Floridians were not born in Florida. We don’t have real connections to this state. And our political institutions are kind of decrepit. There’s no machine politics here. It’s usually people flying in, dropping a bunch of money on mailers and ads without ever making a connection to the community, and then leaving the second that the election is over. And so that’s where our opportunity lies: if we actually get out and organize in our real community. And that’s how we’ve been relatively successful here.
Floyd also emphasizes the link between Florida’s environmental destruction and the screwing of the state’s working class:
Well, the history of Florida is one of environmental degradation and profit put over our natural resources and our working people. The entire time that the state’s existed. And so that’s part of the reason why our politics are able to resonate with people. We talk about the reason why the state is like this, which is the fact that everything that’s gone on over the state’s history has been for land developers and real estate interests to make a profit. And there’ve been bright spots—environmentalists have won victories here. The one I point to the most is in the ‘80s, our estuaries, like Tampa Bay, were just completely in shambles. And we brought back our fish population significantly since then, but we’re turning back towards a situation like we had back then….It can get bleak sometimes, when we’re worried about storms and we’re worried about pollution spills that we’ve had recently, and our red tide, and how expensive housing is. But it doesn’t have to be like this. And I think you catch a lot more flies with honey. You should express why people should be excited to get up and vote for you.
Floyd has avoided leftist buzz terms in his campaigning, and tried to reach voters as a rooted community activist:
The most important thing for us is to actually be rooted in the community and connected to the community. And so as a candidate, what that looks like is I’m a member of my neighborhood association and of the teacher’s union, and I’m active in them. I talk to people around town about a variety of issues and just make myself a known community member so that it’s not anything scary. “That’s just Richie, a tall, goofy middle school teacher.” So that’s the first thing. And then the issues that we talk about, we speak in plain terms. I don’t say the word “proletariat,” like it’s not about “the means of production.” I’m like “I’m here for working families and working people and making sure that the wealth built in the city goes to the people who created it, the people who work and run the city.” And that’s a very left-wing demand, but it’s something that people naturally gravitate to when you say it in plain language.
None of this is to say that the red-baiting that was instrumental in defeating Democratic U. S. House incumbents in Florida last year won’t be used again, nor that it won’t work. True, Floyd is just a city council candidate. But it’s not like the Florida Democratic Party has figured out a better messaging approach that has produced enough actual victories. In any case, Floyd’s point about Democrats focusing their messaging and policies to help Florida’s huge working class is surely a good one.