by Benjamin J. Kirby
I'm heading up 66th Street, late for my meeting with Josh Shulman, the Democratic nominee for State House in the new District 69, which is a lot of Saint Petersburg, Gulfport, all the way up to Kenneth City and Pinellas Park, over to the beach communities, and all I can think about is the Republican Convention. I am struggling, desperate for an idea on how to begin my conversation with a local candidate running for an important state office using something other than the obvious national -- global -- get-together happening just over the bridge.
"So," I say after the brief, breathless introductions, me an unforgivable ten minutes late, "How's the campaign going with this big convention deal going on up the road?"
He'd get a more thoughtful, better framed question from the newspaper staff at a high school. I am embarrassed already.
"I was just at an event with a group of doctors, 'Patients Over Politics,'" he smiles, "I recognize the irony there -- I was the only politician around -- but we had a wonderful conversation with these doctors, largely talking about the Affordable Care Act. It was a good start, but there is more to be done, and a lot of it is work we can do together on a state level."
He hasn't missed a beat. And I haven't even cracked the notebook yet.
The conversation has begun.
I try and settle in. Josh, a 36 year-old financial planner with an easy smile and a manner that is direct, but not threatening, seems eager to continue.
What do you want to get done when you're elected? It seems like a better question, something to get us moving in the right direction, at least.
"To slow things down. To stop bad legislation, and work across the aisle with reasonable-thinking Republicans on good legislation. We need to think strategically, we need to move Democrats back into the conversation."
In a way so natural you wouldn't notice, he nudges the dialogue away from the nakedly partisan, the overtly political.
"If we insist on looking at the government of Florida as a business, then let's look at what businesses want: a stable environment in which to invest. We need to find ways to compromise to bring about that stability. It's that stability which provides a good business solution, and makes Florida the kind of place where you want to raise your family."
I put down my pen and realized with a bit of melancholy -- but also a good bit of hope -- that this was the first time I'd heard a politician not just say those words, but engage in a entire conversation the point of which was to support that very idea.
I skip the coffee. The conversation was already too good for an interruption. More of it after the questions Josh was good enough to answer directly.
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What was life like growing up in the northeast? What I like most about the northeast is the wealth of diversity, opportunity, and the connection to our American history.
You held three jobs working your way through college -- what were those jobs? I worked three different jobs at the same time while in college. The first job -- my main job -- was as an office manager/optician/lab technician for a family-run optometrist. The second job was working nights -- 6:00 pm to 6:00 am -- as an EMT. The third was working for Lens Crafters as an optician and lab technician.
How long have you been married -- tell us more about how you met Jennifer. Jennifer and I just passed our fourth anniversary; we were married on August 8th, 2008. We liked the date because the number 8 represents infinity and the idea of two independent circles connected together. I met Jennifer through a blind date. I was volunteering for the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society and met a couple who knew Jennifer's family and thought we would be a great fit. They were correct.
You have a son -- Jacob. Is it hard running for office and raising a baby? I think this question is more for Jennifer as she bears the lion's share of the work. Outside of the actual work it takes to raise a baby, the hardest thing is not being there. Often I leave the house before anyone gets up and come home after he is in bed. Jennifer has him playing with pictures of me in campaign materials. She says, "Go tell Daddy something," and he goes to the card on the refrigerator and picks it up. It felt strange when he did that while I was there, but it was also very funny. We just call him "Flat Daddy." Jennifer and I are both working hard for this campaign; we know that we are doing this so that he can have a better Florida.
Talk a little bit about what inspired you to get started in politics/elected office when you did. What first brought your attention to politics and government? I first decided to run for St. Petersburg City Council because I saw that the decisions made by government have lasting impact, long-term impact on our community. I wanted to help shape the community and the city we live in for the better. There are many ways to get involved in the community, whether it is through civic organizations, non-profits, or just helping a neighbor in need. I felt that running for office allowed me the opportunity to do the most good for the most people.
What has inspired you to run for State Representative? Like many Floridians, I have been troubled by the extreme agenda and one-sided, unilateral decision-making coming out of the Florida House over the last two years. I do not believe that much of the legislation reflects the attitudes and ideas of most Floridians, instead it has been playing to a vocal and well-funded base of constituents, and we deserve better government.
Who are some of your early political influences in American politics? Growing up mostly outside Philadelphia, you cannot understate the impact of being surrounded by American political history and the context in which our country was founded. I am awestruck by the courage, convictions, and even the human failings of our Founding Fathers. They have left us a tremendous legacy and we owe it to them to live up to their sacrifice and struggle. I grew up a huge fan of Thomas Jefferson. His words in the Declaration of Independence so eloquently struck to the heart of what it is to be free. As I learned more about him and his Presidency, I learned of the internal struggle between his personal ideology and the responsibilities of a President; he did not always do what fit his personal nature and ideology, but instead did what he though was best for the position he held , this is a model I hope to follow. We have lost that ability to look past our own ideology and embrace the bigger picture of a world that is bigger than ourselves. I hope to change that.
What is the most surprising thing you've learned about how politics (ie, campaigns) works? What surprises me most is how dissimilar the role of campaigner and the role of Representative are. Before I got into this race, I thought about what it would take to do the job of representing some 160,000 Floridians, how I would balance their needs, wants, resources, and risks. Ultimately, I felt that I had the skills necessary to be an effective Representative, someone people in the district would be proud to speak of. You quickly learn in a campaign that those skills and views in no way are what it takes to GET elected. Growing up, we are taught that we hold elections to select candidates; we select them based on qualifications, views, ideas, personality, etc. The truth is that we actually elect people based on two things: money and messaging. I am not surprised by this, more dismayed that we all take for granted the system that others struggle so hard to give us.
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, at least in your race? The upsetting part about negative politics is that it works. Campaigns deploy those tactics because they are effective at casting doubts in people's minds. If they didn't work, they wouldn't be used. In order for us to make a break from pettiness, the voters need to make it clear that they will not stand for it. From my standpoint, I have nothing bad to say a about my opponent. I applaud her desire to represent the people of Pinellas. There are distinctions about how we see Florida, where we are going and how we get there. I hope to focus on those differences.
What issues translate for you from a national level to a local level, as you look at what people in the new District 69 are talking about? The economy is the biggest issue on the minds of Floridians. The economic slowdown is not just affecting Florida, it is affecting the nation and most of the world. Businesses want a government that is stable, policies that have staying power, and costs that are consistent and predictable. If we can deliver that, then we can bring more businesses here, which helps everyone. Businesses also need customers. We need to focus on helping the middle class. The more disposable income in the middle class, the more they buy and do; the more they buy and do, the more businesses make money; the more businesses make money, the more they hire which then creates more customers. Henry Ford said that he wanted to keep the price of his cars affordable and pay his workers well because then his workers will buy more cars. We need that sort of mentality in Florida.
If you were the King of Florida -- or even just Governor -- what would be the first things you change for the better? I would universally change how we handle our education system. I am a product of public schools; however, I am a product of public schools in a community that truly has made education a priority. We need to invest in our students. The strength of our society, future business opportunities, community cohesion, and overall health of Florida all starts with how we support and nurture the education of our youth. It is so important that we have written it as a mandate into our Constitution.
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 child? Florida needs to look past the politics and issues of the day. We spend too much time focusing on short-term issues, while completely neglecting the long-term impact of our decisions. We must get past the moment and keep our eye focused on the bigger picture. We must also put political ideology aside. Arguing over issues that divide us will not allow us to come together and we need to come together to solve the bigger problems we face. I hope that Jacob and others growing up here will see Florida as I do: a beautiful environment, with beautiful people, limited only by our own imagination and willingness to do better.
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"My hope is that my time in the legislature would be a transformative time for the state, a time where we come together. We need to gain a balance."
He's talking about the kind of government he wants to see -- the kind of government we need. I ask him what he'd tell the people of District 69 if he could communicate with every single one of them at one time. He's got the answer locked down.
"Balanced government is better government."
He delivers the line with such conviction that I'm momentarily taken aback. This guy is a true believer.
So many politicians run for the sake of running. It is clear to me that Josh genuinely believes in public service.
"There are some things, though, where I won't compromise. I won't tolerate hate. I won't tolerate those who represent anti-GLBT issues. My door in Tallahassee will always be open -- there won't even be a door, we'll take it off the hinges -- but those people who represent hate don't even need to come by. We have nothing to say."
Elated beyond words at finally finding a candidate who recognizes the value and importance of compromise, and yet has core values and ideals, my mind wanders a bit. I realize I've interrupted him.
I've launched into one of my old campaign war stories and about half-way through, I realize I have entirely lost the point I was trying to make. I finish it for the sake of telling it.
Josh is smiling, to be polite, yes, but he is genuinely engaged as well. I end up asking something about timing.
His smile grows, "You know, it's 69 days until Election day. 69 days in District 69."
He's right, of course. It's Wednesday, August 29th. Only 69 days to go.
Josh Shulman is going to continue his important conversation in District 69 for the next 69 days. It's too important a conversation not to have, so I hope you'll join him.
Please support Josh and his campaign for the balanced government we all need, however you can.