Current Affairs

Can Florida’s Sunshine Socialist Bring Working Class Politics to St. Pete?

Richie Floyd is a schoolteacher and DSA member running for St. Petersburg’s city council. He spoke to us about how the left can win in Florida.

Richie Floyd is a science teacher and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He is running for the city council in St. Petersburg, Florida. Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson recently spoke to Richie on the challenges of bringing left politics to the Sunshine State. The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity. 

ROBINSON:

I am so excited to talk to you, Richie Floyd. And the reason that I am so excited to talk to you is that I grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and there has never been any hint of socialist politics for as long as I can remember in Southwest Florida. And you are running for the city council in St. Pete, and I’m just totally thrilled because if you won, you would be the first elected socialist in Florida politics?

FLOYD:

Well, the Socialist Party a hundred years ago had a rich history here. And so they elected a lot of people, state legislators. In Pinellas County, in this area of Florida, across the state. There’s an article that’s really well-known on the left from Jacobin by Seth Ackerman, and he uses Florida as a case study of how they manipulated ballot line laws to keep socialists from winning. And it’s in Florida because they were winning huge support here back in the day. That was a hundred years ago now. So things have changed a lot, but [I’d be the] first in the modern era—well, there’s another caveat, [because] there is an Orlando DSA member who’s on the soil and water commission in Orlando, which is an elected position. You don’t get paid or anything. And you don’t have any power. I think you can consult with people. But other than that, yes.

ROBINSON:

We will have the Orlando soil and water commission and the St. Pete City Council! Well, listen, I want to start with the personal, if you could just tell me a little bit about your journey to leftism. Are you from St. Pete originally? How did you end up where you are politically?

FLOYD:

I’m from Florida, but I’m from the Panhandle of Florida. I moved to St. Pete after college for a job with my wife and also to get out of the Panhandle—if you know anything about the Panhandle of Florida. We moved here [and] we really got active in the community… Both of us came to leftism [and] socialism together. We were always like social democrats. My wife is actually British. And I went to grad school in the UK. That’s where we met, we were there during the 2017 general election, we moved here just after that. So it was really inspiring to see Jeremy Corbyn demolish the Tory majority. And that really inspired us to get more involved, and Bernie Sanders as well. Bernie Sanders really lit the spark. Jeremy Corbyn’s influence really kept things going. And so when we got back to Florida […] we joined our local DSA chapter, which was a small upstart here in St. Pete. And that got us to where we are now. We just kept organizing for about four years until the opportunity to run for office. And that’s how I ended up here.

ROBINSON:

Before we get to your current campaign, I understand that you worked on the successful effort to boost Florida’s minimum wage.

FLOYD:

Yeah, it was a DSA endeavor in coalition with the “Florida For 15” coalition. And it was a lot of  progressive non-profits and labor unions. But really the main people were SEIU, ‘cause they lead the Fight For 15 campaign and they set up a lot of infrastructure for us to do texting. They got in touch with me because I had been a DSA leader and they were like, “we know you have volunteer manpower.” And so I led a volunteer recruitment effort and coordinating the volunteers, getting to work. And we sent over 3 million texts to voters across the state. And it was interesting because Joe Biden lost [Florida] by three points. In Florida politics, that’s an ass-whooping. And so he really didn’t do too hot here. But the minimum wage still passed with over 60% support. And so we were texting people who were saying wild stuff back to us like “Trump 2020, get out of my texts, communist,” and then we’d be like, “Well, actually, this is about the $15 minimum wage. How do you feel about that?” And they were like, “Oh yeah, I’ll vote for that.”

ROBINSON:

You know, Florida is fascinating politically. And I think probably [most of our readers] are going to be outside of Florida and they have an impression of state politics as fairly right-wing. Because obviously the governor gives the nation that impression. But it’s more complicated than that. Because, as you say, well, Bernie struggled in Florida but you won overwhelmingly with the $15 minimum wage. And I want to ask you about your thoughts on Florida in general and St. Pete specifically as territory that the left can actually advance in.

FLOYD:

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.

And so if we can speak directly to working people’s issues in the state, 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.

ROBINSON:

You mentioned the Gillum campaign. I actually just recently interviewed someone who had worked on that campaign and was incredibly frustrated because he felt like it could have and should have won. And Gillum was saying a lot of the right things early on, but the Democratic Party in Florida is not a powerful and organized apparatus. And so there’s this big hole in Florida politics, as you mentioned, and if we do manage to get organized, it’s a state with a weird amount of potential.

FLOYD:

It really is. Like I said, so many people who are disillusioned and just have nowhere for them to turn is how it feels. And I mean, that’s not necessarily the case in St. Petersburg. We’ve really been sort of a bright spot pushing back on state policy. You know, I don’t encounter a whole lot of opposition when I’m talking about my real social values, because a lot of people in this city like to think of themselves as progressives that are fighting against the state. It’s a blue city, like a lot of other places. So it does create potential and weird dynamics there as well.

ROBINSON:

For our listeners and readers, tell us a little bit about St. Pete and the political landscape there, and what the important issues in the city are at the moment.

FLOYD:

We’re a city like any other, so we have typical city issues. Our housing is pricing everyone out. And that’s the biggest thing that comes up, really. But we have other things as well that are unique to us specifically. We’re a city that’s surrounded by water on three sides, salt water. We have extreme vulnerability to climate change. We’ve had a red tide epidemic here, I would say a horrible red tide here—our city cleaned up 1,200 tons of dead sea life this week alone. And so it’s been really bad. Our environmental situation here has been struggling a lot lately.

We [also] have a really unique situation here where our baseball team’s lease is up at their stadium in 2027. That’s a huge issue in the city because we’re going to try to redevelop that land. And we want to make sure that the profits actually go back into the community specifically, because that land was taken through eminent domain and buyouts of an African American community that lived at the site in the first place. And so we have to make right on stuff like that. And they were promised jobs at the site and whatnot. And it was just a baseball stadium. It was really messed up, which is a typical thing for a city.

So [those are] the issues that we have, but the politics of the city are relatively progressive. We have a majority-Democratic city council, although it is non-partisan. And it does behave in a nonpartisan way a lot of times, but there’s just not as many like “big players” in the city. The newspaper doesn’t cover issues, the way that they used to labor density here is like 4%. There’s no real machine politics. And so that’s what presents an opportunity for us. We knock on doors. We talk to people in a way that other people just really haven’t.

ROBINSON:

I noticed in your campaign materials that you put environmental justice as your number-one issue. And I’ve been distressed since I moved out of Florida, watching things unfold there. I’m very fond of—and I actually just wrote an article about—the Florida manatee. It’s just a beautiful harmless creature. And they’re dying in huge numbers. Unprecedented numbers this year [because of the destruction of] the seagrasses on which they feed. So it’s really, really bad, and of course climate change is making everything worse. So I was pleased to see you put that out front because it’s so secondary, even sometimes on the left we can lose sight of that.

FLOYD:

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. But the way that the state was founded was basically developers coming here saying “Buy a little slice of paradise” to people outside of the state, and then having them come here and really they’re getting a mosquito-infested swamp that’s been developed and [a bulldozer has] destroyed all the biodiversity—all of the amazing things that we have here—in order for them to just sell the land. And it’s not changed since the day that the state’s been founded, honestly.

ROBINSON:

We talked about the reasons for believing that you can, as an open leftist, even though you would only be the second elected socialist since the early 1990s, have some confidence that it is possible for you to win. But obviously you still do face a serious uphill climb because you’re doing something that’s nearly unprecedented or very rare. So how have you thought about how to campaign effectively as a leftist, how to present a leftist message in a place where people aren’t necessarily used to hearing a candidate say they are democratic socialist or leftist?

FLOYD:

So I think there’s two things to that. One is: this is local politics and it’s a non-partisan race. 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.

ROBINSON:

I watched your campaign ad and I really liked the way you had framed it. […] You had this very kind of optimistic or positive [message.] You’re like “Lots of great things are happening here.” There’s good development that’s occurring. There’s a lot of wealth being created, but we have to make sure that that wealth goes to working people. And I really liked the way that you tailored a left message for the local community. Maybe you could talk just a little more about how you’re doing that.

FLOYD:

The first thing that I would say is that the campaign is about a positive vision for the future of the city. 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. And that’s what involved me in left wing politics. I saw Bernie Sanders giving a positive vision of what America could be—about free college and free healthcare and taking care of people who need it. And so that’s what the whole campaign has been about is our positive vision for the future of the city. 

And I mean, there are class lines drawn up. I talk about how we only take small-dollar donations. We aren’t funded by the interests that have been funding every other politician, and that’s how we’ll be able to act independently. But really it’s more about inspiring people in the first place to believe anything can be accomplished, because we have to motivate people to come out and vote and come out and volunteer and that’s the only way we can do it.

ROBINSON: 

As a city council member, if you succeed in getting elected and then you look over into the next—how long would your term be? 

FLOYD:

Four years. 

ROBINSON: 

Four years. Okay. If you look out over the next four years, what is it that you believe that you’d like to be able to accomplish for the city of St. Pete?

FLOYD: 

Like I said, we have had good things go on in the city. And the city has been relatively progressive. It’s more about follow-through and getting everything that we can out of these ordinances. So for example, the city’s had things like an apprenticeship ordinance that says if we have development in the city, we have to use a certain number of apprentices that are working for these building trades companies and unions. And so what that does is that increases unions’ abilities to be able to bid on the contracts because unions are the people who have the most apprentices. Okay, well, that’s something basic. So we expand upon where the labor movement has actually been involving itself in city politics. And we say, “Okay, what’s the next step to that?” Okay. The next step to that is if you have a city contract, you’ll sign an agreement that says you’ll be neutral in union negotiations and bargaining efforts and organizing efforts. And so then you start to make it easier for people to unionize at job sites. 

One of the things we have in our platform is we have an ordinance over labor standards in the city that can create a fair workweek. So that hospitality and service sector workers get their schedules ahead of time. And so it’s things like that. They’re not massive programs or anything, but things that will make a difference in working people’s lives in the city. Those are things that can easily be accomplished. If we just have good governance and we work together, even with people who may not agree with me ideologically, I think we can get some of those things across the finish line. 

Now there’s bigger things than that, like housing, where it’s going to be a battle. If I go out there and I say “Okay, we’re spending a lot of money on trying to make housing affordable in the city, but right now it’s going to subsidizing development and subsidizing landlords’ private profits, because we’re just subsidizing rents that are expanding out of control forever.” And I say, “I think we need to change a lot of our subsidies to our public housing and have a community land trust that keeps the housing affordable.” You know, it’s gonna be a battle to take the subsidization gravy train away from the interests that are on it right now. And so there are some things that are low-hanging fruit, [where] we can make real solid change in people’s lives right away. And there are some things that are going to be a big battle because we’re up against the forces of capitalism that every city is up against. 

ROBINSON: 

[Your background is as a teacher.] I wonder if you could tell us about issues that you think are important in the realm of public education that come out of your observations of the Florida school system.

FLOYD: 

So you just opened up another half hour of this interview. I’m just kidding. 

ROBINSON:

I thought you’d probably have thoughts on this.

FLOYD:

The school system here, specifically in our county—in the state as a whole, but in our county—it’s just not working for the people at the lowest levels of income. This county’s school choice system is a Republican’s wet dream. Every school you have to apply to. And then if you have connections, you can get into the fundamental schools. If you don’t, you’ll end up at the school with the students with the most poverty. I taught at a Title I school in town and the things that I saw were just so depressing. 

Really the most stressful thing I’ve ever done was teaching at the school. Kids who missed three days of class, and I’m like “Hey, where have you been?” And they’re like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I had to babysit my little brother last week because my parents couldn’t get a babysitter.” This kid is 11 years old telling me this. Or kids coming to school and they’re hungry and they don’t get food on the weekends and their parents have troubles. And there’s one mom with eight kids and they’re not getting enough support at home. And it’s just absolute neglect among some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Then on top of that, on top of that, they’re tested to no end. There’s weeks taken out of the school system where they’re tested and the teachers are judged based off those test results, when I’ve been in class just trying to make sure that people are getting along, not killing each other, socializing, reasonably have support and are in a safe space. I mean, there are so many things wrong, just so many things wrong with the school system. [But] as a city councilor… 

ROBINSON: 

Yeah, are there any ways in which the city council could influence that? Or is it like the school board [with the power]? 

FLOYD: 

It’s a school board and a state thing. The state is really the one doing it. The Republicans don’t give a damn about the students here. And it’s very obvious to anybody who’s paying attention. And so the things the city council can do are the things that we’re talking about in our campaign: bettering the economic conditions of the working people in our city. We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make their lives easier and better. And that’s going to trickle down to the students because child poverty is much higher than adult poverty in this city. And so families have a harder time feeding themselves than single people do. And so we really need to make sure that we do the best we can for the working people of the city and that’ll have effects in the classroom. But then there are things that we can do. We can expand rec center hours. We can expand library hours and services. And those are things that are public goods that are real left-wing demands that you can really rally the community around. 

ROBINSON:

One of the exciting things as I was looking up your campaign was that there’s an article in Florida Politics about one of your endorsements from a present city council member. And it mentioned that you’ve actually managed to line up some unexpected endorsements for being a DSA member. You know, the Florida National Organization For Women (NOW), the Democratic Progressive Caucus. The incumbent in your seat is supporting you. Maybe you could tell me how you managed to get that kind of support from people who are not necessarily as far to the left as you are yourself. 

FLOYD: 

I think it goes back to something I was saying earlier, which is you just have to really participate in your community as best as you can, and let people know who you are and exactly what your plans are. Because I know it’s something that you’ve said before, but the left just has good ideas. There’s the element of class struggle to it, but really if you’re a reasonable person and you’re out saying left-wing ideas that are reasonable, people are gonna be like “Yeah, that sounds fine to me.” And so, I mean, you’re not going to get the hardiest partisans in your town to agree to the things that you say, but a lot of people in local politics aren’t partisans and can easily be reached by just a message of, “Hey, I’m a community member just like you. Yes, I’m a member of DSA, but I’m also a member of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and the Central Oak Park Neighborhood Association. And I’ve worked hard to make sure that the place that we live is a better place for everybody.” And it’s just a message that I don’t think people are going to shy away from now. 

You have to still draw lines, like, “Well, I don’t associate with this person because this is how they’ve influenced politics with their financing and stuff.” But, again, the positive message coming first makes a huge difference and actually being involved in your community. And I think it’s the same in any organization. The left is always concerned with labor organizing and things like the rank and file strategy. Well, the biggest thing that you can do when you’re organizing at your workplace is to be a good worker and a good coworker. The biggest thing you can do in electoral politics and your community is to be a good community member and work hard for your community in the first place. And when people see that they’ll come on board.

ROBINSON:

As I say, it would be tremendously exciting if you won, but it would be the beginning of a very, very large project to transform Florida politics. You would be one of the first people, but it wouldn’t be able to succeed unless we have hundreds more Richie Floyds in cities around the state, unless we had people on school boards and in state government. And so maybe you could talk about how you see yourself in the context of a larger political project locally and statewide.

FLOYD: 

Like Bernie Sanders said, this isn’t about me. This is about getting a movement of working people to stand up and say “Enough is enough” and we’re building something new. And so that’s what we’ve been trying to accomplish as much as possible. We have a large volunteer base. We bring people in, we train them. Our campaign is run exclusively by volunteers who are passionate about this work. Almost all of them are DSA members and we’re learning how we can actually interact with our city government and our political system in the most efficient way possible. And we’re keeping notes and we’re sharing it with everybody in the state that agrees with our politics, so that we’re really building out a strategy and a plan for how you can run campaigns in a place like this. And that’s one of the main goals, as well as winning the election, and that’s all we can do, and we’re going to continue to share that information and organize and inspire people as best as we can.

ROBINSON: 

And so when’s the election?

FLOYD: 

So, interesting thing is: there’s a primary and it’s August 24th. And the top two from the primary will go to the general election, which is November 2nd. The majority of people in Florida vote by mail and it’s an overwhelming majority in our city, especially in local elections. Mail ballots got sent out two days ago. So we are basically like in election time right now. 

ROBINSON:

So it’s right now! 

FLOYD:

Now, right now, the election is going on. I was doing voter contact before I got on this interview and get out the vote and we have volunteers out canvassing right this second. Yeah, 75% of people are going to vote by mail and the mail ballots are already out. So it’s going on right now as we speak. And it will climax on August 24th and then the mail ballots go back out again, September 30th. And so it’s a quick turnaround to that general election.

ROBINSON: 

Well, I want to let you get back to getting in touch with voters, but where can people go to find out more about you, give you money, et cetera? 

FLOYD:

RichieFloyd.com. It’s got our campaign platform on there. You can sign up to volunteer. If you’re not here [in St. Petersburg], you can phone bank. We do host some phone banks and you’ll be on the email list if you sign up for volunteers. And yeah, absolutely donate. Because this is a city council election, but the general election is citywide. It’s going to take a lot of money to reach the amount of voters that we need to reach. This is the fifth largest city in the state. And we do have relatively decent voter turnout in our city elections. And we’re up against the capitalist class, so they could easily just drop money on us and put us out of our misery real quick. And so we really do need to raise money. So if anybody can help us out there, it’d be greatly appreciated.

ROBINSON:

Well, Richie Floyd, thank you so much for talking to me and best of luck to you.

FLOYD:

Thanks for having me. 

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