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Tuesday
Jan192016

The New State Senate

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me in the last two weeks what the new State Senate maps mean for the partisan balance of the State Senate, I wouldn't need to play Powerball.

There is no question the maps are good news for Democrats. But how much good news? Well, that is the question I hope to take on in this piece.

The reality is pretty simple: The Democrats will do as well as they recruit good candidates and run smart campaigns.

So lets take a look at the map. For reference, the seats below are all new district numbers, and for the most part use Obama 2012 numbers, since every seat will be contested in this Presidential cycle. For the more competitive seats, I'll try to take a more broader view. And yes, I could argue that some in the "safe" category might still be winnable for the other side, but then again, I might one day shoot 65 on the golf course:

Safe GOP Seats - 16 (most Republican to Least):

District 2: The Gaetz v Gainer showdown. (Obama -47)

District 5: After helping to Free the Growler, Rob Bradley comes back in an even more GOP seat. (Obama -43)

District 1: If Evers doesn't run, a spirited GOP primary will await (Obama -32)

District 4: Senator Bean's seat doesn't change. (Obama -32)

District 28: The primary between Matt Hudson and Kathleen Passidomo will decide the next Senator in this seat (Obama -26)

District 12: Alan Hays seat will remain solidly GOP. (Obama -22)

District 26: Senator Grimsley's seat will remain solidly GOP. (Obama -20)

District 7: Travis Hutson's will run for his own full term in an Obama -17 seat.

District 27: Senator Benaquisto's Lee County based seat will also remain GOP (Obama -16)

District 17: The Workman/Mayfield primary will play out in an Obama -15 seat.

District 21: Senator Galvano will return in an Obama -15 seat.

District 10: Wilton Simpson won the legislative lottery and comes back on an Obama -14 seat.

District 23: Doug Holder starts out as the heavy favorite in his primary to win this Obama -8 seat.

District 14: Dorothy Hukill's seat is largely in GOP-trending Volusia, should stay that way (Obama -7)

District 9: David Simmons seat could be competitive over the next few cycles with continued Puerto Rican migration, but is not there yet (Obama -7)

District 22: Senator Stargel's seat leans much more Democratic in a Presidential year (Obama -2) than non (Scott +10). Getting an off year lottery number should keep it that way.

Safe Democratic seats (14) -

 District 35: No seat is more partisan leaning than the one held by incoming Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon (Obama +68)

District 33: Perry Thurston and Gwen Clarke-Reed face off in this exceptionally Democratic Broward seat (Obama +63)

District 38: Senator Margolis will be running in a contested primary against Daphne Campbell and maybe more for re-election in this new heavily & heavily minority seat. (Obama +51)

District 19: The race to replace Senator Joyner will take place in a solidly Dem seat (Obama +37)

District 11: Former William & Mary basketball standout Randolph Bracy is the odds-on favorite to replace Senator Thompson in this Orlando seat (Obama +29)

District 31: Future Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens will have a decidedly easier race than his first one in this Obama +28 seat.

District 6: Until Congresswoman Brown decides her next step, Audrey Gibson will remain in this safe seat (Obama +21)

District 32: Barring unforeseen changes, Lauren Book should cruise to victory. (Obama +20)

District 34: One of the more interesting primaries this year: Jim Waldman and Gary Farmer compete in this Obama +19 seat.

District 15: Victor Torres should win this seat which is a safe Dem seat in Presidential cycles (Obama +17)

District 30: Bobby Powell and Emily Slosberg face off in this seat that is roughly 30% Black in a Democratic primary (Obama +15)

District 13: Dean Asher is a good GOP candidate, but this seat is almost certainly a pick-up for Democrats in left trending Orlando (Obama +13)

District 29: A potential race between Joe Abruzzo and Maria Sachs awaits in this Obama +11 seat.

District 3: Senator Montford's seat will remain Democratic in one of the rare seats that performs better in off years (Obama +11)

The Battleground seats (10) - Keep in mind, these are ranked here because of Presidential performance.

 District 8 - This is the new Gainesville seat, which could be a showdown between former Senator Rod Smith and current Representative Keith Perry (Obama +1)

District 16: Senator Latvala, who set the growler free in 2015, will run for a 2 year seat in this Obama -2 seat, potentially creating an interesting pick-up opportunity for Democrats in 2018.

District 17: Dana Young, another original craft beer champion, has laid down a fundraising marker in this south and west Tampa seat that Obama won by a point.

District 20: Senator Lee's seat is in an area getting more Democratic in Presidential years, but where there isn't much of a bench.

District 25: The incoming Senate President's seat is more competitive than you think. Obama lost it by 2, and in 2020 (if Negron is still there) it will be a real battleground.

District 24: Senator Brandes' seat gets slightly more Republican, but remains a seat Obama carried narrowly.

District 36: Rene Garcia's seat, like a lot of Dade, really moved Democratic in the last Presidential. Could be one to watch in 2018 when it is open.

District 37: The seat held by Miguel Diaz de la Portilla could very well be the first Republican State Senate seat to tip Democratic, particularly if the D's can convince Jose Javier Rodriguez to make the leap (Obama +7).

District 39 and 40: Putting these two together, as the two incumbents here, Dwight Bullard and Anitere Flores have to sort it out. District 39 includes the Keys and is a seat Obama won by 5. District 40 is Dade based and is a seat Obama won by 10.

So what does all this mean:

The Democrats today start at 14.

While a lot on my side (me included) would love to see a quick flip of 4-5 seats to get within one or two votes of a majority, the road from 14 to 20 will still be hard fought.

They will have to work for it, but the D's should hold one of the two South Dade seats (39 or 40) once Bullard and Flores figure out where they are running. Dade is tilting faster than the GOP can keep up and this should add a few points these seats in 2016.

So 15 should become the new floor. From here, the path is less clear:

The next best opportunity is the other Dade seat, District 36, especially if Jose Javier Rodriguez runs. Followed by the Gainesville open seat, if Rod Smith runs, and the Tampa open seat, where Dana Young has announced. The challenge here will be choosing wisely - as I learned in my partisan caucus leadership days, often there are more seats than money, and the fastest way to fall short of opportunities is to overreach.

Down the road, the Garcia seat, the Negron seat (run Larry Lee!!), the Latvala, and the Keys seat all provide Dems with real opportunities in open seat scenarios in either 2018 and 2022.

Add all those up and you are in the majority. Add up most of those and its a very close Senate.

The others are bigger challenges, given that the incumbents don't term out before redistricting, and beating an incumbent Senator is no easy feat.

So it boils down to this - can the Dems get to 20 by redistricting? Absolutely they can. Will they? That is a function of the quality of candidates, fundraising and the winds of political change.

Where does it land this year?

 Frankly it is too early to say. But if I was still making the calls, my drop dead goal would be plus 2 -- in other words, I would do anything I had to do to gain 2 seats. As the cycle evolves, +3 could become a real possibility, if candidates and races break their way. Much beyond this, absent a huge influx of money, is probably asking too much without some real change in the atmospherics. The incoming leader Senator Braynon is working very hard and running a smart program, but he is going to need some big donors who have never cared about state senate seats to really, really need to care.

The good news for Democrats - the future open seat cycles provide continued growth. There is six years until the next map. Play it smart and there is a very real possibility that someone elected this year could be the first Democratic Senate President of my political career.  But it starts with getting a first down this year.

Thursday
Dec102015

So you want to work in politics?

Most years, I spend a good chunk of my December talking to kids getting ready to graduate and young professionals looking to get into politics. It is one of the more enjoyable things I do. Of all the things I’m proud of in my career, the biggest achievement isn’t the wins or mentions, it’s seeing the success of so many of “the kids” I’ve worked with along the way.

This is my 20th year in the business, so for the aspiring young politicos out there, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, and a few things I look for in a young hire.

1. This isn’t rocket science.

If politics was rocket science, trust me I wouldn’t be doing it. Most people who succeed in this do so, as a commercial from my childhood used to say: “the old-fashioned way, by earning it.”

That being said, you don’t learn this business by getting a campaign degree, watching an endless stream of cable TV or reading a bunch of blogs. You learn it by listening, getting your hands dirty and just good old-fashioned experience.

So don’t tell me what skills you have, because you probably don’t have any real ones yet. Tell me you are eager and willing to do anything to learn, and show me you have a decent head on your shoulders. You will learn the rest.

2. Find a campaign where you can actually learn.

Glory is up the ballot, but learning comes down the ballot. In 1996, when I was out of college, I could have probably found my way into a field job for the presidential. Instead I managed a major state legislative race, where I had to figure out and learn every aspect of a campaign – and more importantly how to manage. The former would have gotten me a cool T-shirt or picture, the latter gave me the foundation for a career. My first presidential race came 12 years into my career – and because of all the soil that was tilled leading up to it, and just like my first job, I was hired as a manager.

Find a job where you can really learn. It might not be as cool as some others out there, but in the long game, you will benefit.

3. Just work.

Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity – make your opportunity. Show up at the office and do anything. Kick down doors until someone takes you in. Work for nothing until you become so vital they pay you. Build yard signs, stuff envelopes, make coffee, run errands, anything – just work. The harder you work, the more responsibility you will have and the more your opinion matters. But remember in your first job, your opinion isn’t why you got hired.

Along these same lines, please don’t tell me your salary requirements. Do you want in or not? I was probably making less at 30 than most of my old college friends, but I guarantee I was having more fun. And it’s not worth doing if it’s not fun.

4. Watch your social media.

This goes without saying, but for me it’s really basic. Even if we are just meeting for coffee, I’m gonna check you out, and not only will I look for basic signs of maturity, I’m going to get a sense of your personality. No one wants to work with a know-it-all jerk, so don’t be one on Twitter or Facebook.

5. Learn the Golden Rule. Live the Golden Rule.

If you don’t know what it is, google it.

The corollary to this: Don’t be a jerk and don’t lose your self-awareness.

6. Strap in.

This career isn’t for the faint of heart. Most of the people you see on TV reached the upper levels of politics after living similar lives of sleeping on couches, having to win to be able to pay their rent, driving 40,000 to 60,000 miles a year, and being unemployed for long periods. If you want stability, then this isn’t for you.

Along with this, understand that there are highs and lows. In my time I’ve seen the mountaintop, and I’ve had to dig out of valleys. It’s not a career ladder: It’s a career roller coaster, which is why point No. 5 becomes so vital. And if you don’t believe that now, you will when you lose for the first time. Oh, and losing, it will be the best thing that ever happens to you. Trust me.

One more thing about losing: keep a list of the people who call you the day after you lose. They are your friends - not the ones who start calling a few weeks before the election. I'll walk through fire for those people who had my back when the chips were down.

7. Never stop learning.

Read all the time. Talk to people. Ask questions. Learn to write. Don’t be “just a campaign guy” or “just a policy person.” You are never an expert – there is always someone smarter – find them, listen to them, and keep learning.

Particularly learn from your losses. Every job where I’ve had great success followed an experience where I learned from failure.

8. Build relationships and collect mentors.

I like the vast majority of people in politics. Most people in the game are focused and driven, but because of the nature of the business, are also accessible and interesting to talk with. So meet new people – especially when you don’t need anything and expand your network. It’s part of the advice from the previous bullet, but also, you never know when that relationship might be your next job or contract. And do this regardless of party. I probably have more close friends in this business who aren’t on my side than I do on mine. I learn from them just as much as I do from those in my tribe.

Constantly look for smart people who can help you. I have had several mentors. Some are former bosses, but most are people I’ve met along the way. To this day, I still ask for advice and counsel.

One addendum to this, when you get to the point in your career when you are hiring, surround yourself with people who can do your job. Leadership isn’t about being right or getting the credit, it’s about having a plan and figuring out how to climb a mountain. But remember, all good mountain climbers have Sherpas who keep them from falling into crevasses. If you lack the self confidence to hire people who can tell you when you are wrong, then you are only doing a disservice to yourself and your project.

9. Be yourself.

Life is too short to try to be anyone else. Sure I know plenty of people who have succeeded by conforming to conventional wisdom, though most of them my age are miserable. If you work hard, build a good name, and aren’t a jerk, you will be just fine.

Understand, however, this doesn’t mean you can be an idiot.

10. Never lose sight of why you got in the game.

When I lecture at colleges, one of the first things I say is “if you are getting into politics for any other reason than to change the world, get out.”

I usually get a few odd stares, but I think it’s vital. The world doesn’t need more people looking at politics as a way to make money. It’s easy to get cynical, but don’t. I’m not naive, this is a maddening game and I’m tempered by a sense of reality. However at 41, I might be more idealistic today than I was at 21, because in the end if you get to work in this space, you are participating at the core of the greatest experiment in self government in world history, and that is damn cool.

So as you ride the roller coaster, remember what drove you to couch surf through that first race, living off fast food, coffee and alcohol, and never let it out of your sight. I promise it will both keep you young and keep you driven to move ahead.

Wednesday
Nov252015

Thanksgiving in America

Often, we all take for granted the basic promise of America: If you work hard and play by the rules,you can earn a comfortable living and ensure you and your family can get ahead.

It is more than just the American Dream - it really is the compact that comes with American birthright. Sure, it isn't perfect, and for some, the mountain is a lot steeper than for others, but at its core, the pathway exists for all. Look no further than our current President as living proof. All partisanship and ideology aside, his success in life is testament of the greatness of America.

It is easy to view everything through that lens. Just work hard, get a good education, live by the Golden Rule, etc., and all will be fine. It is the universal promise, right?

Then you go to Africa.

As my friends and followers of this blog know, I just returned from nearly three weeks in sub Saharan Africa. It was a trip that I've dreamed of going back to my earliest memories, and one I've actively thought about for almost two decades. Now that I've been home for a week, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what the experience.

And the best I can do is parrot the words of a friend, who said to me during the trip: "there is an old saying the longer you are in Africa, the less you know and can say for sure."

There are a lot of people who will stay in my memories for a long time, the little girl in a Botswana village who was dreaming of being President, the city manager in Windhoek who taught me how he learned to forgive after apartheid, the local tribesman who was a server at our bush hotel - who spoke at least four languages fluently, or the baggage valet in Johannesburg who had to quit school and abandon dreams of being a lawyer because of the wars in the Congo. Everywhere you turned, there was a story - a story of struggle, perseverance, and survival. But more than that, these were people largely stuck in place.

The one person who probably encapsulated the experience as well as any was the last person I really met, Xolsia, the head bellman at our last hotel in Cape Town. He was a big, happy man, the kind you'd see at most upscale hotels. He was quick with names, and always happy to help - the classic 'just get shit done' kind of guy, I think we were about the same age and I liked him almost immediately,

Under apartheid, his tribe was limited to a specific area of South Africa - some two days away by bus. Like many, he had come to Cape Town in search of a better life - and also like so many people there, he was multi-lingual, spoke Africaans, English, as well as Xhosa, his native language (its the clicking language). He tried to teach me a bit of it, which was frustrating for me, and probably entertaining for him. He's one of those guys for whom in the US, the American Dream is designed for.

But when he told me where he lived - the almost soul crushing slum/township that you try to ignore when you leave the airport in Cape Town, it was like getting kicked in the stomach.

You can do everything right there - you can go to school and get a good education, you can learn a skill, you can speak multiple languages, you can move hundreds of miles away from your family in search of work, and when you do all that, often times good work is working in a hotel, or driving a cab. and living in substandard housing. The promise which is at the foundation of our country is only a hope in the places I visited in Africa.

On our last full day in South Africa, we took the boat to Robbin Island. Seeing Mandela's prison was one of those things I've just needed to do in this lifetime. When you go to the prison, you are guided by former political prisoners of Robbin Island. Touring Robbin Island isn't a quick trip - it takes 45 minutes by boat to get there, often in pretty choppy seas, another 45 minutes to an hour by bus to tour the island, and another 30 minutes or so to tour the prison. The guides were invaluable to providing context to the life on Robbin Island. We had two - one who was in the first wave of political prisoners on the island, the other who was one of the last to leave.

Prison life on Robbin Island was miserable. It's has a beautiful view of Cape Town, but otherwise is a cold, nasty, windswept place, The cell that Nelson Mandela called home for 18 years is maybe 2 meters by 3 meters. It had no bed - just a mat on the floor, and no toilet - just a bucket in the corner. Many of the men who work as guides endured the same hardship, locked away for the crime of wanting the basic God-given freedoms that we enjoy here.

At the end of both tours (the bus, and the prison), the guides took questions, and most were about life there, what was Mandela like, etc. When the Q&A ended, both answered the question that no one asked - but that we all thought about - "So why do you do this? Why do you come back to this horrible place and back to these memories, every single day, to give tours to people like us?" Get ready for another kick in the gut --

Because it was the only job they could get. Basically, these men were still in prison.

The longer you are there, the less you can say for sure.

So on this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for a lot. I am grateful for family, for friends, for good health, for the opportunity to work and grow, and for the privilege to travel, but maybe more than anything - and probably the one thing that makes all of the previous possible, for the blessing of American birthright. More than anything, that is what I learned after almost three weeks in Africa.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday
Nov232015

Quick note on NPA registration

Late last week, my friend Steve Bousquet wrote a lengthy piece about the increase in the number of voters who are registering with no party affiliation. 

This issue deserves more time than I will give it on this short blog - perhaps more for a later blog, but I wanted to address one myth that is out there about the rise in NPA voters:  that this rise equates to a less partisan environment and voting.

First, for the record, I wish this was the case.  In fact, quite the contrary, as more voters spurn the two major political parties, voting in Florida has actually gotten more partisan.

For the sake of this brief exercise, I will simply look at the results at the very top of the ticket:  The race for President and the race for Governor.  These races in Florida attract the most attention and the most resources. 

And granted, this is just a snapshot, but I do think this data is instructive.

Between 1994-2004

In 1994, Democrats held an advantage on Election Day of just under 500,000 voters, with roughly 91% of all voters in one of the two major political parties.

In 2004, Democrats advantage on Election Day was just under 400,000 votes, with roughly 79% of all voters in one of the two major political parties. 

The elections broke down like this: D+2 (94), D+6 (96), R+11 (98), R+0 (00), R+13 (02), R+5 (04) -- or an GOP advantage across elections of +3.8.

Between 2004-Today

As stated above, in 2004, Democrats advantage was just under 400,000 votes, with roughly 79% of all voters in one of the two major political parties.

In September of 2015, Democrats held an advantage almost identical to 2004, just under 400,000 voters, with now only 73% of all voters falling into one of the two major parties.  

In fact, over those 11 years, both the D's and R's have added about 300,000 new voters, while the ranks of the NPA/minor party has grown by almost 1.2 million.

Yet, as the electorate has gotten "less partisan", lets look at the elections:

R+7 (06), D+3 (08), R+1 (10), D+1(12), R+1 (14)  -- or an average GOP advantage of +1.0.

In fact, if you add up the roughly 33 million votes cast at the top of the ticket in those five elections, the total partisan delta is roughly 161,000.  Doesn't get any closer than that. 

Now I get there are all kinds of variables, and some challenges in mixing different election cycles, plus there are a ton of other to look at it.  But all that being said, there is plenty of evidence to show that as voters get less partisan in their registration, they are actually getting more partisan in their voting.  So yes, the voter profile is changing, but I am not convinced that alone is leading to a "reshaping" of Florida's political scene.  In fact, quite to the contrary, it feels like voters are actually retrenching into their camps as they run away from the organized parties.

Just something to keep in mind as all spend the next year parsing what the changing electorate means for Florida in 2016

 

 

 

Monday
Nov092015

Reflections on Botswana

It's hard to not notice the kids. They are everywhere. Something like 60 percent of the population is under 35, but it feels like 50 percent is under 18.

Yet it is the kids here that give Botswana great hope. Every secondary school kid we met was optimistic, forward leaning & ambitious. As I told our hosts, it's easy to be optimistic about Botswana after visiting schools. But the mountain to economic opportunity for all is still steep, as our trip to Dibeke demonstrated.

On the last Saturday of the trip, we traveled two hours or so to the small village of Dibete. The road from the Capitol feels like most two lane roads in the southwestern USA, endless miles through desert and scrub brush, before turning off the road and walking into a place seemingly stuck between the modern and traditional world.

This was the visit we spent eight days waiting for. We had come for a traditional Kgolta, essentially a town meeting convened by the tribal Chief. Typically Kgolta's dealt with local community issues, airings of grievances or even criminal justice issues, but on this day they came together simply for our visit. It felt like the whole village showed up for our official visit. I'm sure for most, it was the pure novelty of their guess - surely for 99% of Dibeke residents & children, we were so different that we might as well have been from Saturn.

The scene upon arrival was jarring. The heat & the poverty hit you immediately. There's no grass, and the only pavement is building where the Kgolta is held - that and a 20 spot parking lot that the government had built for some inexplicable reason. The parking lot was so useless the village fenced it off.

And then there are the kids. Everywhere.

The villagers here lived up to the Batswana tradition of friendliness, and for the three-plus hours we were there, in spite of their lacking, they cooked us food, provided us water & performed for us.

A local politician heard about the gathering, stopped by and gave a nice speech, but it's clear that other than glad-handing, government services - other that the parking lot - are mostly nonexistent. They are on their own. You feel driving around that by and large, the Botswana government is failing the people.

But it's the kids that day who I think we will all remember. Universally well behaved - imagine most 5 year olds you know sitting through a 2 hour meeting in 100 degree weather - they were happy and curious. Many just wanted to touch us, and it was clear from people wanting to feel our hair and touch our skin, that not many white people had ever been there.

One woman reminded me of a lady I met in the Philippines, who similarly asked me to come close to the child in her arms, so the kid could touch me, as if somehow that brought good luck. Others ran away. It's experiences like this that drive home the true blessing that is American birthright.

There is a real path forward for these kids. One thing the government has done well is making education compulsory & students here have access to school. The schools we saw were taught by competent teachers. Diamond royalties make college free for all, so those kids have a real shot of breaking the poverty cycle, if the economy can generate enough jobs. That's the big IF.

But back to the village, kids here travel a mile or two to school, but when they come home, there is no library or other place to study. And the one room homes many call home aren't conducive to homework, nor is the 100 degree heat. In face, the town doesn't even have a computer or a printer. People asked for my card, but had no idea what email was. They left us with a laundry list of polite requests for help.

But their lacking of things hardly means they lack for talent. Most people were at least functionally bilingual - particularly the kids, and the drama troupe that performed for us had kids that could make a living in the US in the arts. Ask any kid what they want to be, and the most typical response is some kind of scientist.

Later in the day we headed to Stepping Stones, a bilingual school that prepares kids from all walks of life to learn in the US. We held a mock political debate with them, and again, were amazed by their skills. One student living in that rural community who I particularly bonded with - see selfie above -told me he aspired to be a scientist after at studying Yale. I wanted to take him home.

So many of the kids we met would be on a trajectory for great success if they lived almost anywhere else. But simply working hard here is not a recipe for guaranteed success. It's just not that easy. There are major structural problems with the government, which many fear could fall apart if the current President refuses to leave office at end of his term. It's hot here, and the drought is draining the country, quite literally. An economy that is entirely dependent on mining and tourism has led to a nation where unemployment and inequality are way too high. One study showed 30 percent of Batswana went without sufficient food in the last year. Traffic laws are seen as suggestions, not laws. The place, as I told a friend, feels raw.

That being said, in someways unlike Namibia, there is a real sense of nation here. Even though tribal affiliations are rightfully important, being Batswana means something. You see the flag everywhere.

And there is evidence of change. We saw a younger generation of emerging to break the one party strangle on government, while other young leaders inside the ruling party are working to reform that institution. We met a pair of opposition leaders, one a graduate of Harvard, the other from Wharton, who have teamed up to mount the first significant threat to the ruling party since independence. And like Namibia, NGOs, like our wonderful hosts at the Organization of Youth and Elections in Botswana (OYEBO) are being stood up by locals to address areas where government has fallen short.

There isn't a ton of time. Over the next decade, roughly a million Batswana will join the workforce, arguably better educated & prepared than any before them. The economy is no where near ready for that. Tourism is a real hope, but it's going to take more than that alone, particularly if the diamond mines, as some fear, start to run dry.

That being said, it's a place really worth rooting for. As one of my colleagues on the trip said, Botswana is the great underdog story. The people here are proud, friendly and welcoming. Even the immigration officer at the airport as we left asked why we were leaving so soon and when we're we coming back. I think we all left there truly wanting to see them succeed and trying to figure out what more we could do - particularly for those kids.

As I told many and wrote here, coming to Africa for me has been a 30 year dream in the making, and I understand today better than ever how and why people who come here just want to come back. I'm truly grateful for the American Council of Young Political Leaders for the honor of escorting this trip, the first such trip for the organization to Botswana, for the friendships made within the delegation and in Namibia and Botswana, but mostly for the chance to live out a dream.

Thursday
Nov052015

Hope at the end of a dirt road

Botswana is Africa.

If Namibia is, as described "Africa Light," it didn't take long after getting here to realize that this place was different.

It's gritty and worn.

The Capitol city of Gaborone (Gabo-row-nee) is built out of the desert bush, and by build out of it, literally everything that isn't building or pavement still is desert bush. There is no grass. Drinking the water isn't an option - not even to brush your teeth, rolling blackouts occur, and walking around at night is strongly discouraged. The 3* hotel might pass for 2* in the US, though thanks to being in a hotel, at least we aren't subject to the severe water rationing in the rest of town. This isn't Kansas.

That being said, the more of this work I do, the more hopeful I am for humanity. People here define friendly. The town, in spite of its rough appearance, is clean and welcoming.

On Thursday, we did the usual spate of meetings, toured the House of Chiefs, an interesting body which convenes the tribal chiefs a few times a year to consult on key issues. More than just a sign of respect, I suspect in the early days of the nation, the Chiefs were needed to convey legitimacy on the government.

But on these trips, there are always those unique experiences that define the journey, and on Thursday, we found one at the end of a dirt road, some 70km west of town.

We drove out to a village to visit a public secondary school (high school). We arrived about 2 hours after school ended, but in the 'library' we're about 50 kids, representing multiple schools - all in their uniforms.

Now to put this in some context, rural Botswana is poor. Very poor. The metrics which measure income inequality in a nation ranks Botswana in the top 5 worst. And you can't miss it. You could forgive a rural Matswana girl for lacking hope.

Yet in that classroom we found kids just like kids everywhere, full of energy and hope. Students stood up and talked about their dreams of growing up to be accountants, lawyers, doctors and one girl, of being the first woman President of Botswana.

That girl actually rose to thank us for showing the courage to come to her village. I challenged her. It doesn't take courage for a guy like me to come up Africa, it just took someone giving me a plane ticket and understanding clients. No I responded, courage is being a girl from a poor village strong enough to dream of leading her country - a place that is sadly quite tough on women seeking public office.

In a lot of ways, this place is far worse off than Namibia. Even though per capita GDP is much higher here, it's due to that inequality. And you can see it everywhere. Parks are just dirt fields, traffic is much more third-worldish, and public and private buildings are worn down. For example, in spite of having similar populations, the budget of Gaborone, Botswana is roughly 1/8th the size of the budget of Windhoek, Namibia.

But there seems to be a stronger sense of national pride. Granted the country is 30 years older, but even during its years as a British protectorate, it managed to avoid the same racial discrimination policies that places like South Africa & Namibia will be dealing with for generations, thus you don't sense the same huge fault lines here that you see Namibia.

Or maybe it's just harder to see those same challenge after spending an hour with the kids of Thamaga Secondary School.

 

Wednesday
Nov042015

Goat heads, chicken feet, and moving forward

"You must forget to move forward"

The last night in Namibia, we were invited to a traditional meal in the Apartheid-era township of Katatura, a place whose very name translates loosely to "the place where you don't want to be." Dinner that night consisted of all kinds of unique tastes, such as goat head, tripe, chicken feet, and a healthy dose of Windhoek Lager, the town's surprisingly good beer.

Joining us were a cross section of community leaders, electeds & government officials. More than a handful were former Freedom Fighters, and I ended up spending time with one such man, who by this time wholly responsible for my elevated blood alcohol level. He eagerly told the stories of pictures on the wall from that era, and as a white man, I listened uncomfortably as described being beaten by South African police. Remarkable, he bore no sense of ill will. So I asked - how do you move on, to which he says, "you must forget to move forward."

This is a place where bad things happened - and not that long ago. Yet in 25 years since independence, they've built a country that is safe, functional and growing.

The City of Windhoek symbolizes that growth. At the time of independence, 80,000 called it home. Today official population is 320,000 - though driving around, it's much bigger. One city official pegged as "probably over 400k."

The city is clean, public services are delivered efficiently, the police are trusted, and it's very competently run. Yet the challenges there are remarkable. Several hundred people a week move into the informal settlements, fleeing the rural areas in search of work. With each new arrival, the city must absorb them, provide security as well as basic water & sewage. And the scope of their work here is immense, Windhoek itself is one of the world's largest cities in terms of geography, and a classic case of urban sprawl.

But like everyone else here, they just seem to figure it out.

The CEO of the city is another Apartheid-era freedom fighter, a former school teacher who went to college after independence when he was 40. He is a self described technocrat, though the word is an unfair descriptor: he was easily one of the more charismatic people I spoke with.

He summed up Namibia's progress & challenges in one sentence: "We've spent 25 years building a country, now we must build a nation."

You can see where it could fall apart. 90 percent of the wealth is held by 10 percent of residents, and not surprisingly, that falls largely on racial lines. As the Prime Minister described it: "we are a rich country of poor people." Unemployment is over 20 percent, and over 40 percent among youth. Housing costs are shockingly high: a three bedroom in Windhoek can cost $3 million Namibian, or roughly $250k in the US - arguably more pricey than my community of Tallahassee, despite being a nation where per capita income would fall at about 70% of the US poverty line. Gender-based violence is a major issue. Way too many people have HIV. Access to sanitation here is worse than places like Angola, and the percentage of undernourished people rivals failed states like the DRC and Zimbabwe. There are major land reform issues to be resolved, a looming water & power crisis, and as one elder described it, a "restless youth." You can sense corruption remains a problem. It's a staggering list. It's understandable to predict a bad outcome.

But I don't think it will suffer the same fate as many of its neighbors. There is a commitment to democracy here and freedom of press. It's not transparent by western standards, but it is by African. But most importantly, I think it's going to work because everyone here seems committed to its success. There is a real pride here, a sense of community key to the concept of national identity. The boundaries here were drawn by foreigners, but again, Namibians seem willing to forget.

People should come here. It's a beautiful country, with warm and welcoming residents. The food is amazing. It's easy to get around and plenty safe. Now I'll admit, it's a little of to see streets named after Castro and Mugabe, which pay homage to those dictators that supported the revolution. But this place isn't like those. You should also come here because they've earned our support. They is largely a free market, democratic state.

The Windhoek CEO also was a big beer fan (if you are a non-drinking vegetarian, this place is not for you). As he kept plying me with even more Windhoek Lager, he left me with another thought: "we must just keep moving forward." And that's the sense you get from everyone.

The nation is overwhelmingly Lutheran, which as one observer suggested, probably has made reconciliation easier. But I think it's more basic: there is almost a chip on the shoulder of leaders, a sense that they have something to prove. I'm willing to bet on it.


Monday
Nov022015

The Namibian Conundrum

Our ACYPL crew has only been here two days, but a couple things stand out about Namibia: It's complicated, it faces huge challenges, but nonetheless it is working.

In the 25 years since independence, Namibia has gone from a poor undeveloped nation with little infrastructure to a functional place, with improving infrastructure. It's also reached "middle income status" meaning that per capita GDP is over 6,000US a year.

It's clear that one of the keys to success is the intentional effort to empower NGOs, who could supplement government spending by accessing grants designed to support countries that are on the path to development.

And in many ways, it's a model for Africa. The place is competently run, they've had multiple peaceful transition of power, corruption doesn't seem to be as bad as other developing countries, and education & youth empowerment is a priority.

Foreign investment is at the root of much of that success.

Here's the thing: That success has put Namibia in a tough space. They no longer qualify for much of that funding because of the aforementioned middle income status. Their success has turned off the spigot that helped them get to here.

And here's the problem: despite that income number, there is no discernible middle class. Poor here is as bad as I've seen in Manilla or Guat City, but because of the income growth at the higher end, the average fails to tell the story. As a result, both the government and the NGOs stand to lose millions that would allow them to do their work.

This really is a hopeful & innovative place. Yet the future still feels tenuous. They haven't dealt with inequality or land reform, issues that have felled success elsewhere. But there seems to be a commitment to make it work.

From kids working on HIV prevention to others building leadership trading programs for new officials, there is a forward lean to the place. And it's a warm & welcoming place.

But what does the next 25 look like? Will the international community continue to invest? Can the country deal with the big issues?

It could go either way & hopefully the next two days will give some clarity. There is definitely a risk of the Zimbabwe model taking root, though I don't think so. This feels like a place to bet on, if for no other reason that this government endorsed NGO structure seems determined to get them to the promised land.

Saturday
Oct312015

Africa

Some kids look into the sky and dream of riding in a space ship, but for me, my sky was a globe, and my hours were spent dreaming of places that were so far from a child's life in Kankakee, IL that they might as well have been the Moon.

For some reason, I've always been drawn to the obscure & remote places of the earth, far more curious about the rougher corners of the planet than I've ever been about places like London or Madrid.

My "bucket list" has always had far more places like Timbuktu and Tibet than its had Tuscany or Tahiti.

While I've spent countless hours researching travel to places like that, alas life got in the way of much of that. I never did the study abroad or Peace Corps thing. Nikole was good enough to pacify my curiosity with a ten day trip to Guatemala (and more pedestrian locales like Ireland & France), but for most of the last 15 years, I was to busy chasing professional ambitions to chase any personal dreams.

A couple of years ago, I took an ACYPL trip to Southeast Asia, which rekindled that spirit of adventure. But there remained a big hole in the dreams of that kid - Africa

A couple of hours from now, probably 35 years after I first dreamed of it, starts a 17 day journey across three countries. We start in Namibia, then go to Botswana & my journey ends in South Africa. And despite a lifetime of planning, I have no idea what to expect.

But 6 hours from landing in Africa, I'm as excited and curious as I was when I was a kid with his globe, in his upstairs room on Budd Blvd.

Hope you will follow along.


Sunday
Oct252015

The 10 week journey of a lifetime

Cross posted at Florida Politics: http://wp.me/p5cd4C-OfB

For me, it started in September 2008.

Barack Obama had just selected Joe Biden as his running mate, and I was to staff the new VP candidate in Tampa, at a rally at the University of South Florida.

Now prior to this day, I had grown quite cynical about Washington, so I just assumed the whole Biden thing was an act. And frankly, with the task of managing a 600 person staff, about the last thing I wanted to do was go to a rally with him that day.

During that campaign - and many before and after it, I've been lucky to live with my sister Colleen and her family in Tampa. As a result, I could spend a lot of time playing my favorite role in life, Uncle. On this day, I decided to give my then thirteen year old nephew Connor a day off from school, thinking he could keep me company.

After getting to the Sun Dome early and doing the usual walk-thrus, Connor and I waited in a back stage hallway, just outside a locker room where political types and donors were waiting for a photo op. Soon Senator Biden walked in, sporting his trademark aviators. I reached out my hand to introduce myself, but he blew right past me and walked right up to Connor, put him in a headlock and gave him a noogie. Both Connor and Biden lit up. And in that split second, I realized I was wrong about the guy. He was the real deal.

During that campaign, I staffed him a few more times, witnessing moments that he's surely forgotten, but that I won't. Time and time again, he showed an unusual sense of kindness and humanity. He would linger on the photo line to listen to a story, and when it came to members of the military or law enforcement, he always had time for a handshake and a picture. And in a business where so many are looking over the shoulder of the person they were talking to, he was one of the rare ones who seemed oblivious to all but the person he was talking to.

I always got the sense that Joe Biden, a kid from a rusting blue collar town not unlike the one I grew up in, lived every moment almost with the sense of "I can't believe I get to do this" (another thing that I can relate to). I've never met a person who met him who didn't like him, and even more so, everyone who ever worked for him would seemingly walk through fire for him. In 2012, I had the honor to meet his son Beau, who was indeed everything everyone ever said about him.

I was pretty sure I would sit out 2016, I was willing to do my part to help out the nominee, but after five consecutive statewide Florida cycles, I was ready for a break. But that changed for me in last July and early August of this year, when it became clear Biden was giving it real thought to a run, I was a Joe Biden guy, and if he was even thinking about running, I wanted to be there. As more and more stories got written, I also grew tired of reading all these quotes from "unnamed" sources saying he should get in. While I get that sometimes people have to talk background, this was one of those instances where I hated the DC way of doing things. It was time someone stood up and just said - Hey Joe, if you run, we are with you. So I did.

My friends - even those who privately wanted him to run, thought I was nuts. Frankly, I didn't think anyone would really care.

Nonetheless I "made news" by telling Jonathan Martin of the New York Times, who had just written a Biden piece that I would be for him running. He wrote a little piece for their campaign blog, which led an old Florida friend, Carol Lee, now of the Wall Street Journal, to ask me if I would join the efforts to draft him into the race. I said sure, honestly not to aware of what that meant. A few hours later, while having a beer with a GOP buddy of mine, State Representative Ray Pilon, her story went live on the WSJ website, and within seconds, my phone literally exploded. Once MSNBC had "confirmed" my news, it got picked up by the Drudge Report and seemingly everyone else. Over the course of two -- OK, maybe three beers, this had turned into a full fledged dumpster fire, and while Ray was totally entertained, I actually wondered what in the world had I done.

That started a chain reaction that plunged me, almost entirely by accident, into a rather unique journey. Funny enough, it almost ended right there for me. The first morning my news blew up, I actually cancelled every single scheduled television interview and stopped returning calls - much to the dismay to the Draft folks. The last thing I wanted to do was do more harm than good. Through a friend, I got a nudge of encouragement. So I did two TV interviews that first day, which turned into three the next, four the day after. In fact, for 15 straight days following Carol's piece, I appeared on some national or regional television show talking about the Vice President. It was all a blur. I even got bumped off Anderson Cooper 360 for Donald Trump, actually twice!

Now first of all, if you haven't ever done remote TV, it isn't exactly the world's easiest medium. To try it at home, sit in a chair and pick out a light switch, maybe 15-20 feet away, and have a conversation with it, without losing eye contact, and while looking natural and relaxed. To complicate the fact that I wasn't totally comfortable being thrust into this role of one of the movement's unofficial spokespeople, I was also still learning to be comfortable in that chair.

After the Vice President's truly remarkable interview with Stephen Colbert, our work on the Draft Biden side went to a new level. It became clear overnight that we were now in the middle of something bigger than all of us, and with it came a heightened sense of responsibility. We all felt it - the man who gave that interview was different than any other politician in modern times, and it now fell on our shoulders to give him every chance to succeed if he chose to run. We all had to up our game.

The more he talked openly about his own process, the more emotionally invested we all became in our mission. I could hardly think of anything else. We just kept leaning forward, arguing with the skeptics, and lining up more supporters. Many days started at 5:30 AM for morning shows and ended well after midnight. Along the road, I kept using the word "surreal" to describe it, though frankly, I am not sure that gave it justice.

For me, with each passing day, I felt a growing sense of obligation to represent him well. While admittedly I was having a blast, I tried to get better at my job, because as the folks on the team knew, I never felt comfortable with, nor did I feel worthy of the role I ended up playing. I was terrified that I would say something that would diminish the Vice President or do something that would fail to honor his public service. I would spend hours rehearsing in quiet by myself, visualizing every question.

My friends would sometimes say that in particularly critical moments of that 10 week journey, they could see the stress on my face. They were right. Here I was making the public case for a man who had been in public life for 42 years, who had endured a very public tragedy for the second time in his life, and whom I had not spoken with in three years. I was just a hack from Florida, one that despite meeting him several times, I doubt the VP could pick me out of a line-up, and pretty sure I was one of the last people on the planet they would have picked for the role I was playing. I definitely felt the weight of that.

But until someone told me to stop, I wasn't going to quit, even as time was starting to run out. In the three days after the debate, I did 18 or 19 TV interviews, and talked to probably another 50 print reporters. Like everyone, I was exhausted, and hopeful he would decide soon. But we had to run through the tape.

Fortunately the Vice President also knew what we all knew, it was time. The plane needed to land.

That last morning, I got a little heads up - a text saying "Turn on a TV." In my gut, I had known since Monday morning where the plane would land. While the selfish part of me that has long dreamed of helping a man like Joe Biden complete his dream of being elected President hoped my gut was wrong, I went ahead and texted "He's not running - find a TV" to a few friends, then turned on my own TV and waited the 5-10 minutes until he walked out into the Rose Garden, ignoring my phone that was in a constant state of motion from the calls, texts and emails from people & press trying to find out what was going on.

He stepped up to the mic and got it right out of the way, then proceeded to give an inspiring speech that represented why so many of us felt so strongly about him as a potential candidate. He laid out a strong justification for running, and talked about things that really bother me these days, namely the fact that in politics today, we've forgotten about friendships and respect. But in the end, we weren't going to be making that case. It was over.

I stood there alone in my living room, watching him remind the American people why he truly is one of the finest examples of public servants that our country has ever seen. I wasn't sad that he was taking a pass - frankly in spite of all my selfish ambition, given that we had reached late October, he made the right decision. As he finished, I collapsed into a chair completely spent, and cried for longer than I want to admit. It wasn't from sadness, rather it was final relief of all that pressure I had put on myself. I know at the end, I personally didn't have anything left.

The silence that follows the end of any campaign is always shocking, and while I have never really gotten used to it, over the years I've grown to using it for reflection. As I wrote on my Facebook page the day after he announced, the whole thing was both physically and emotionally grueling, though because of who Joe Biden is - and for the kind of politics he represents, I woke up every morning excited and ready to do my little part. Looking back on the last two months, nothing seems real. Trust me, the idea that I would end up in that chair, day after day, as one of the guys making the case for someone like the Vice President of the United States of America was as patently absurd to me as it was to many observers.

I am grateful for the friendships I made along the way, guys like Josh Alcorn and Brad Bauman, two people who I met for the first time three weeks after this all started, and whom today are brothers. I am thankful for Sarah Ford, who essentially managed me for two months in spite of the fact we've never actually met, as well as the many others who worked on this that would rather me not name them in this blog!

Three months ago, I accepted an invitation to lead a delegation of young political leaders to Sub-Saharan Africa for about two weeks in late October and early November, a place I've longed to visit since I was a teenager. I've spent most of the last two months wondering how I would actually be able to take this trip if he got in the race, but after spending decades looking at a globe, reading countless books, and imagining visiting there, I was going to go regardless. In the end, as if ordained by providence, this trip which starts on Thursday will be a perfect transition back to my day job. But I leave for Africa full of pride, knowing that for ten weeks of my life, largely by accident, I got to stand in front of millions of Americans and honor Joe Biden. That really was living the dream.

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