Rick Kriseman was pissed off.
It was Thursday, September 2, and the Democratic Representative from Florida's State House District 53 was fed up with Republican inaction on the oil spill, and he was ready to cut another YouTube video. That same day, another oil rig in the Gulf would explode.
First, the background.
On April 20, 2010, the British Petroleum oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded, killing 13 and injuring more. Nine days later, Kriseman and his House colleague Democratic Representative Keith Fitzgerald, issued a press release calling on the Florida House to "end the debate on oil drilling."
In Fitzgerald's quote, one felt a transcendent, magnanimous attempt at correctly elevating the issue beyond political borders while still tattooing it with the urgency of the moment:
“Now is the time to revisit the question of drilling close to Florida’s shores. We call upon the drilling proponents to renounce their plan. We commend Governor Charlie Crist for recognizing the implications of drilling and hope the proponents have similar wisdom.”
In Kriseman's quote, the complete disdain for the Republican leadership's inaction was palpable, and perhaps more disturbingly, prophetic:
“This is a debate that should have never been started and must now end. We have seen enough. Had this disaster occurred three miles off our coast, our beautiful state and our economy would be in ruin, our future in peril. Representative Fitzgerald and I, along with many of our colleagues, experts in the field, and millions of Floridians, have sounded this alarm for over a year now. It’s time for Representative Dean Cannon to listen.”
It would not be the last time Kriseman called out Dean Cannon by name.
As the destroyed Deepwater Horizon well spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Kriseman continued to ferociously promote the cause of ending the practice of oil drilling off the coast of the shores of a state which relies on tourism to survive. He put out a May 6 press release essentially acknowledging the addition of candidate for Governor Alex Sink and Attorney General candidate Dan Gelber to the cause. He issued a May 21 statement offering information related to the spill. On May 26, he posted a link to the live feed of the oil well leak. On May 28, he issued a statement offering "more thoughts" on oil drilling and renewable energy. He again called out Florida House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon by name on the issue of oil drilling in a June 8 statement.
After more than two months of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, Governor Charlie Crist, a relatively newly minted independent seeking a U.S. Senate seat, heeded their cry and called a special session for July 20-23. Kriseman acknowledged this with a statement, the headline of which spoke for itself: "FINALLY".
Kriseman and Fitzgerald co-sponsored and introduced House Joint Resolution 7C (Kriseman's statement on his legislation is here; his campaign site now has more than half a dozen statements on this issue).
On Tuesday, July 20, House Speaker Larry Cretul adjourned the Florida House of Representatives after just 49 minutes with no action taken. This was viewed with a bitter irony inasmuch as it was the Republicans who lamented the calling of a Special Session ostensibly due to the prohibitive cost to the taxpayer. Instead what the taxpayer got was an expensive day of sending legislators to Tallahassee, only to send them home again in under an hour. There was barely any time to look at any legislation, much less consider it or vote on it.
The final history of HJR 7C is described in coldly procedural terms: Died, Not Introduced. While technically true, this phrasing must have felt depressingly poignant to supporters of banning off-shore drilling like Kriseman. The images of dead and dying wildlife were as ubiquitous as the televised suffering of the shrimpers, fisherman, hotel owners, and shoreline natives. Was this the very best the Florida Legislature could do? What else should the chief legislative body of a state do if not this? Is there any issue not driven solely by political consideration?
Even after such a profound disaster, the answer to the last question stubbornly remains: apparently not. With low expectations firmly in place, it was nonetheless hard not to be disappointed, not just in the failed Republican leadership of this state, but in the process as well. While the Republicans plotted 2010 campaign politics, oil continued to pour into the Gulf. It was the three month anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
This time, it was Fitzgerald who seemed to speak for the team, and even the state:
Some of my colleagues in the legislature claim that in ‘the shadow of a disaster’ is ‘no time to make these kinds of decisions.’ Well, I think it is exactly the time to make those kinds of decisions – I thought it was time to make those kinds of decisions back in May when I urged the governor to call this session.
We had an opportunity to send a signal to small business owners in Florida and to tourists who want to visit some of the best beaches in the nation that we are not an oil state. Instead, the House leadership in the special session not only wasted the time and resources of the legislature by calling us together for less than two hours in total, they also sent a signal to those small businesses and tourists that Big Oil is still king.
Near the fourth month of the spill, even Kriseman had to acknowledge that interest in the issue was waning.
Then, on September 2, a second oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana.
That same day, Kriseman uploaded a YouTube video, and this time his rage was unvarnished:
It's clear this fight will likely continue, at least on some level, into the next legislative session. This is good news, because there is ample evidence that this is an issue which Kriseman cares about. It is certainly one he seems poised to fight.
Then again, Kriseman doesn't seem to be afraid to get out in front of an issue if he believes in it. He is the prime sponsor of an initiative to urge the repeal of federal "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. And when he and his family lost their house to a fire, he is environmentalist enough to have built a new "green" home.
Indeed, Kriseman's house is as good a jumping-off point as any to this second installment of this Profile & Interview with Representative Rick Kriseman.
This is the second of a two-part series -- read the first part here.
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Talk a little about your new house and how it came to be.
While on a vacation in Virginia in 2008, we received a call from our family advising us that our home was on fire and we needed to return immediately. After returning home and seeing that the home was not salvageable, we knew we would have to build a new home. As the Ranking Democrat on the Committee on Energy for the past three years, and having learned so much about LEED and green building during that time, my family and I felt that we should put our “money where our mouth was” and try to build our home as green as possible. While both the contractor we hired, Deslandes Contracting, and the architect we hired, Roney Design, had never built a green home, both were excited about the prospect of doing so. We then hired Darren Brinkley of Real Building to assist our team in all aspects of building a green home, including our effort to have the home LEED certified. After 6 months of construction, the house was completed and we moved back in to the home. We are awaiting results from the LEED inspector.
You served on the St. Petersburg City Council. What were some of your highlight moments?
There is much that I am proud of during my time on council, and I feel very fortunate to have served during the city’s renaissance. My goal was simple – I just wanted to make St. Pete a better place to live. Specifically, a highlight was leading the effort to expand the city's Human Rights Ordinance. I always enjoyed being the guy who signed the St. Pete Pride Proclamation. Mayor Baker was never comfortable with it, but it was an honor for me. I spearheaded the city’s efforts to become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with my efforts culminating in the implementation of those “countdown crosswalk” signals you see around the city. Fighting for “government in the sunshine” meant a lot to me. I was responsible for putting city meetings online. For some strange reason, it took years to get the support to do so.
I may be most proud of casting the deciding vote on the sale of city-owned property in Hernando County. As a result my vote, the property was permanently dedicated by the State of Florida as preservation land, and the city was able to set up an endowment fund from the sale proceeds, which have been used to provide greater recreational and park amenities, including the building of five dog parks, two skateboard parks, and the renovation and expansion of the Gisella Kopsik Palm Arboretum, all at no expense to taxpayers.
Why did you make the jump from City Council to State Representative?
I’m careful not to do things just because they are a logical next step, but this particular decision was an easy one. I had a long involvement with District 53 and West St. Pete before running for the seat, starting with managing former Rep. Lars Hafner’s campaign in the late 80s. After serving 6 good years on council, I felt I was the best person to take on the bigger issues that the Florida Legislature addresses.
Who were some of your early political influences in American politics? What about on the world stage?
When I was growing up, I loved reading books about Abraham Lincoln. His leadership at difficult times, and the positions he took during those times, were inspirational to me. I also have been influenced by both John and Bobby Kennedy. Last, but not least, was Martin Luther King, Jr. What a brilliant man he was. On the world stage, Golda Meier and Ghandi have had an influence on me.
What politicians influence you now? Are there political ideas from non-traditional sources that influence you?
I strive to be an ‘ideas’ guy. This was something I learned during my involvement with the Democratic Leadership Council. For me, the DLC wasn’t about dividing the Democratic Party and having a separate strategy and message – it was about having ideas that appeal to people across the political spectrum. The DLC publishes a local playbook of ideas, and some of the things I learned from that playbook have made their way into law in both St. Petersburg and in Florida. One example is Service Learning. SL integrates community service into a classroom curriculum, and vice versa. This was something I learned about from former Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland, and brought the idea to Florida. It’s now law.
There’s not a single current politician that I follow or aspire to be like – I just hope to cut my own little path.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about how politics and campaigns work?
I guess the most “surprising” thing I’ve learned about campaigns is how much more difficult it is to ask for money for yourself than it is to ask for money for someone else. I found it easy to raise money for Joe Lieberman and John Kerry and Barack Obama. I find it much more difficult to raise money for myself. I also find it surprising how it is much easier to ask for contributions from strangers or acquaintances than to ask for money from family or longtime friends.
Having said that, what is most disappointing is the role that money plays, not only in elections, but in government in general.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about how government works that perhaps you didn’t know before?
On the state level, one thing I’ve learned is that it sometimes takes years to make good things happen, but bad things seem to happen overnight. It also doesn’t seem to matter how good the policy is, instead, it seems to only matter which party is putting the policy forward. I’m also constantly surprised, though I shouldn’t be, by how shameless some legislators can be. There are a lot of times when I think to myself “They just don’t care” about the public’s opinion. Senate Bill 6 and the Oil drilling constitutional amendment are the most recent examples.
This election year looks to be contentious. Is there any sense in this political cycle that we will get away from some of the nasty, personal pettiness and move on to the issues that matter?
No. And unfortunately, it seems to be getting worse. I’ve been in elected office for almost 10 years. This will be the 5th time my name has been on the ballot, and I’ve yet to pay for or approve a negative mail piece, or have one sent on my behalf. Even when hit pieces have gone out against me, I’ve stayed on message and continued a positive campaign. I don’t see a great benefit in negative mailers and prefer to focus on the issues at hand. My experience is that voters prefer it that way. I wish others felt the same way.
What issues translate for you from a national level to a local level, as you look at what people in District 53 are talking about?
I think my constituents share the concerns of most of America – they want the economy to improve and they want a better education system for their kids, which also happens to be an economic issue. There are some issues that matter on the periphery, things like clean energy, the environment, and oil drilling, and issues relating to equality and fairness. But when you’re hurting financially and both your child and their school are receiving poor grades, you don’t care too much about anything else. I think this is true around the country.
After serving a couple of terms, are you still able to bring a fresh perspective, or has the process jaded you somewhat?
It’s natural to get jaded, especially throughout the course of a session, and especially as a Democrat. By Day 60, you’re really fed up and beat up. You feel disillusioned because for 60 days you’ve seen a broken government up close. But then I come home, take a deep breath, and prepare to fight again. The idea of passing quality legislation or helping kill bad legislation keeps me going, as does knowing that I’m giving people a voice. It’s still an honor to know that people have entrusted me to look after their interests.
If you were the King of Florida – or even just the Governor – what would be the first things you change for the better?
Everything changes for the better if we pass sweeping campaign finance laws, which means abolishing the 527s, ECOs, CCEs, etc. Less money and influence will equate to better policies. From there, I’d have a bit of a laundry list, starting with public education reform, the closing of outdated tax exemptions and the closing of corporate tax loopholes, the creation of a new economic engine through clean energy, and allowing gay couples to adopt. I’d also pay more attention to how we’re treating our elders in this state. Right now, a nursing home resident on Medicaid receives a $35 a month allowance, among the lowest in the nation and unchanged for 23 years now. This needs to be addressed immediately.
Looking ahead five, ten, even twenty years ahead, what are some things that Florida needs to do now to make it the kind of place you’ll want to continue to raise your children?
It’s time for legislative leadership in Florida to decide what its priorities are and provide adequate funding to address those priorities. Personally, I believe education should be at the top of the list. But to fix our broken educational system will take more than just funding; there must be the political courage to address the root problems in the system. Parental involvement, discipline in the classroom, competent teachers who are supported by administration, and adequate support staff – all of these issues must be included in any education reform initiative. If we fix education in this state, we provide the economic engine needed to attract new businesses, employ people in high paying jobs, and change our state’s current disastrous path. Our state government must also do more in the way of long term planning. Local government does long term planning very well. Tallahassee – not so well. Because there is no real long term planning taking place, decisions are made which, in the long term, often cost the state more money. These are merely two things which must take place here in Florida.
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Rep. Kriseman was good enough to have me at his house for a one-on-one, on-camera interview. When I walked in, his aide, Kevin King, immediately took me to the attic, which was less than ten degrees warmer than the rest of the house. There is a thick spray of insulation coating the entire inside of the roof. And that's just one of the remarkable things about their "green" house. The Kriseman House is truly amazing. You can watch Kriseman give a tour of their house: Part I, Part II, Part III, and I thank him for having me over.
In our interview, we covered a range of topics -- everything from the oil disaster to the environment to state politics to local politics. Rep. Kriseman seemed to enjoy the interview. I certainly enjoyed asking the questions. Hope you enjoy watching.
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It was an honor to interview and write about Representative Kriseman. I want to sincerely thank him once again, along with Kevin King and David Flintom for their time and effort. Don't forget -- you can read Part I of our interview here.
I hope you'll support Rick Kriseman for State House.