Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam, who recently announced his candidacy for president of the United States. Mayor Messam happens to be from the same area I grew up in, the Glades area of Florida, on the Southeast shores of Lake Okeechobee. The Glades is a rural agricultural area, with a large African American and Latino population. Mayor Messam went on to star at Florida State University as a wide receiver, then established a successful construction business in Miramar, a city of 122,000 in Broward County, Florida. Below is my conversation with Mayor Messam, which has been edited for clarity.
MAYOR WAYNE MESSAM: I'm on, how is everyone?
ARMANDO: I’m very good. Mr. Mayor. My name is Armando Llorens. I'm a contributing editor at Daily Kos, but more importantly I also am from The Glades and I'm very excited to talk to you about your run.
MESSAM: Oh, wow. Which Muck City are you from?
MESSAM: Oh, wow Pahokee. I was born in the hospital there.
ARMANDO: Thank you for indulging my walk back down memory lane. Mr. Mayor. Congratulations on the launch of your campaign. I’d like to start with this question. I read about your college debt forgiveness plan. It's very impressive. I have a question, though. And I don't know if that has been fleshed out in the details of your plan. Your plan takes care of what's happened in the past. How do we look to control college debt and cost for students and families of students going forward? Do you have ideas on how to address that?
MESSAM: Well, obviously, you know, once we forgive all of the debt it actually will serve as a stimulus in our package and we can get the actual plan emailed out to you specifically, but obviously we have to address the high cost of higher education for today’s borrowers. We have to support our public institutions as well as other vocational institutions, as they’ve done in California. We are promoting programs that would make state colleges and community colleges and vocational schools tuition-free. It will follow those individuals that are looking for career opportunities through that path to help reduce the cost, but we have to ensure that we lower the cost for higher education. But when you think about the plan, the plan is really to eliminate the $1.5 trillion [in student debt.]. And once we do that, on average that will save about $400 a month in actual debt payments that could be used for other things—whether it's to invest in a business, to invest in retirement, to buy real estate—economic activity that will help drive the economy.
ARMANDO: It's not just to address a problem. It's also in your way of thinking of a way to stimulate the economy from the bottom up.
ARMANDO: Right. I mean one of the things that I don't know if you've taken a position on, the Green New Deal, one of the things that they talk about is how it's going to be a driver of an economy for the future. Have you taken a position or considered taking a position on the Green New Deal?
MESSAM: Well where I stand on the Green New Deal is that I support the urgency in the end goal of the Green New Deal. Obviously, there's no question that we must take immediate action and urgent action when it comes to climate change. In fact, this current administration's own report states that if we don't take immediate action on climate change, in 10 years we could have irreversible consequences to the air quality, the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. Obviously the proposal of the Green New Deal has been front and center in the headlines and I think that's a positive thing to highlight: the urgency of this issue as we continue to endure the challenges of climate change. So I definitely believe in the necessity of [understanding] the scale of the crisis, and then I would support a plan and would propose a plan that meets the urgency and the end goal of the Green New Deal.
ARMANDO: Okay, let me turn to a different green: the green algae problem in Florida. And I'm going to take a pivot that you might not expect, which is when we're talking about this green algae situation, it became at least in my view easy to blame the agricultural culture around Lake Okeechobee where we come from. And this made me think about it: they don't worry about what the implications of what they want to do would be for the tens of thousands of people who depend on the agricultural industry for their livelihood, for the ability to take care of their families. We talk a lot about rural voters, but sometimes forget not all rural voters are white. Do you have a view on this with regard to the idea of concern for the rural American who's not white? That the concern was for the people of the Florida coast, with little regard for the nonwhite rural voter from the Glades?
MESSAM: Well, obviously coming from the Glades, I have an affinity toward the people that live there along with other concerns for rural America and in this specific case, the Glades area. But I think it's not a zero-sum game in terms of when we look at our environment. We have to treasure our environment and we have to coexist. Obviously with the agricultural industry that provides jobs and opportunities for the residents of that area, it doesn’t mean that to solve the issue of this algae bloom that is impacting our bodies of water in a way that is detrimental to our environment, we can't solve these problems while the industry continues to be successful.
The challenge is that when we're not enforcing our environmental policies, we need to have policies that will lead to healthy environments, with the ability to permit industry to be able to continue to be successful while providing jobs. But more importantly, I'm ensuring that we leave behind an environment for generations that can continue to prosper. To know that we have a problem and to not address the problem and working together, regulators and government along with the private sector, I think we do a disservice onto ourselves. So, my position is that I support the ability for rural America to be able to have job opportunities, and we have to force industry in the agricultural companies to operate in a way that that is environmentally sensitive so that we can continue to have an environment that is prosperous for the American people.
ARMANDO: If I could just follow up, I think it's worth discussing: the notion that to understand the American voter, we have to understand their cultural anxieties, their fear of change, and the nonwhite rural voter is not even a part of the discussion. In the algae bloom discussion, the concerns of the nonwhite rural population in the Glades was not even a part of the discussion.
MESSAM: Oh, yes. I mean as I said before, I think whenever you're making a big decision in general you have to factor in all the stakeholders, and I think when we approach our challenges from a sense of clarity and not political talking points again, as I said before to solve this issue and for example the algae bloom situation, to solve it does not mean to put the agricultural industry out of business. So, the concern for those rural voters is that well, if industry is saying for us to solve this, it puts us out of business, if that's the message. I think that we need to revisit that and look at that. How do we solve this challenge while allowing companies to be to be successful so they can continue to produce the jobs? So, I think when we take an honest approach about solving these challenges, we can factor in the concerns of those who will be impacted as well as working with industry to make sure that we leave an environment that generations can enjoy the same way that we are enjoying it. Because to do nothing does not guarantee that success.
ARMANDO: Yes, thank you very much Mr. Mayor, for that answer. Talking about your tenure as mayor, what would you call your biggest accomplishment as mayor of Miramar?
MESSAM: Well as mayor of Miramar, we've been very very successful. We passed a living wage for our workers. We're taking jobs away from China. We have the most Fortune 500 companies in any city in the tri-county area that includes Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. We are leading the state right now in a lawsuit that’s fighting for the right of municipalities to have more of a voice in terms of gun control in our cities.
Right now, I'm actually talking about the environment. We are fighting an application to have a permit to drill oil right outside of our city, threatening to Everglades as well as our drinking water supply which, by the way, would impact over 8 million people who are living throughout South Florida. So, when you think about our city having one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, our effectiveness and in serving our residents to make our community safe.
We have a lot of things to be able to bring to the discussion. And really one of the reasons why I'm running is because the problems we're solving in Miramar are problems that are being faced across this country, and because Americans feel that and know that mayors get the job done. We don't really get as bogged down on issues like in Washington. We don't see the solutions coming out of Washington. Our local infrastructure is failing and we as municipalities have to fix that on our own, with or without Washington. So, I'm looking to have that very unique discussion to bring to the debate stage and I'm very proud of what we've been able to accomplish in Miramar
ARMANDO: Okay, thank you. Just on some bigger-ticket items that may seem far-fetched, there have been some discussions on a couple of issues, and I don't know if you are taking a position on them yet or plan to. The question of the reforming the Supreme Court as a result of the loss of the Merrick Garland seat: Have you thought about that? And if so, have you taken a position?
MESSAM: I have not taken a formal position on that yet.
ARMANDO: On the issue of either the Electoral College or the national popular vote compact. Have you given some thought on that particular issue?
MESSAM: Well, obviously Americans feel that their vote should be counted. It's been in discussion. So, we're studying the impacts of that but what I will say is this is that you know, every vote should be counted.
We should be doing more to encourage voting and opposing the suppressing of votes, and you’ve seen that across this country. So whatever we would decide to do and as it relates to the voting process, we have to be a nation that encourages and fosters an environment where every American can freely register to vote and actually cast their vote without the barriers and restrictions that are being forced right now. Like for example in Florida, we passed an amendment that enfranchises ex-felons that have paid their debt to society, and yet the Florida legislature basically is trying to create a poll tax so that those ex-offenders can't register unless they pay certain fees and outstanding costs for certain things. That is counter to what the voters chose in the last election. So it is those type of actions, when they take place we have to call it out, and it is infuriating to experience. It's upsetting. If someone has paid their debt to society for indiscretions that they've done in the past, they should be able to re-enter society, and what better way to reenter society than having the simple right to vote?
ARMANDO: As I understood your student loan debt forgiveness program, you are looking to use part of a reversal of the Trump tax cuts to fund that. Are there other projects that you would be looking to fund from that type of reversal tax policy?
MESSAM: Most things cost money. How I address things is to look at what is hampering the ability to achieve the American Dream—whether it's to buy a house, whether it's to have access to health care, whether it's to lower the cost of prescription medicine, whether it's to address gun violence. I'm in our community to address the student loan debt crisis. All of that boils down to having the political will to do it. Obviously, these things cost money and the fundamental question we have to answer is that, folks will say well, why are you going to repeal the tax cut? Well, the whole thought and notion of the tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest of Americans is that you know, they say that it'll be reinvested the companies and businesses will give back to the American worker. But we see that that is not happening when you have individuals that still have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet. Washington is broken.
The system is broken when you see folks don't have access to health care and we're not treating health care as a matter of right. The system is broken. So, the question is what we are going to do to fix these issues, because corporations are not being the stewards that people said that they would be. Yes, they gave them a thousand-dollar bonus right after that tax bill was passed, but right then turned around and laid those individuals off, bought back stock positions in their companies, and did not raise wages, to the point where people still have to work two or three jobs. Benefits aren't to the place where they need to be where people feel like they can take care of their families. So, we as a nation have to decide on what type of nation we want to be, and do we have the political will to provide these resources to the to the American people to create an environment where people can be successful? So they can have a great education, have an opportunity to invest in businesses, and opportunity to have safe streets without the threat of being shot by assault-style weapons.
So that is what I'm focused on and any proposal that I would release—I just launched [my campaign] and I launched with substance—I said what I wanted to do in terms of student loan debt crisis. I proposed a plan. I said how it would be paid for. I even gave a path on how we can move forward. So, we'll make sure to get that plan out to you so you can get a chance to take a look at it. And that would be the same approach that I would take for any big issue and big idea that we would look to in helping Americans achieve the American dream.
ARMANDO: I wanted to circle back. I know our time is limited, but just to connect your mayoralty with two big items that I think ... you've taken steps on, and that's the living wage issue and I believe gun regulation, that you also took some local action on that. Do you think that the approaches that you have proposed and implemented in Miramar are scalable both on a statewide and national level? Are the things that you think are working in Miramar, things that can work in the entire country?
MESSAM: I think they can. For example, a living wage. Do we feel that that Americans should be properly paid for the work that they're doing, in that American families don't have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet? That's a question that we have to ask as a nation. We're solving that in Miramar. We feel there our city employees should be paid a living wage, and obviously each metropolitan area has their metric in determining that.
You know, local municipalities can not pre-empt state statutes, but we should at least be able to voice our concerns and be able to voice a position and to ask our residents if we think that our parks should be gun-free. That does not impact on the Second Amendment, right? It's just a matter of keeping the community safe. You know I have pledged by the end of my first four-year term that I want to reduce gun violence by 50 percent. That’s not a Republican or Democratic issue. I will accept any proposal, whether it's proposed by a Democrat a Republican or an Independent, that can help me get there and I'm ready to work with anyone who can help us get there. And by the end of my administration after two terms, to basically to eradicate gun violence. I think that we can do something about assault-style weapons. I think we as a nation can require universal background checks to make sure that individuals should not have guns, whether they're on the terror watch list or if they've been convicted of domestic violence, or have certain mental health issues. I think that's definitely scalable.
ARMANDO: I just want to let you know we have millions of Daily Kos readers. They are activists and donors. They want to hear strong progressive ideas such as the ones you're forwarding. Is there something that you would really want them to know about what we must have and what Wayne Messam will deliver if he becomes president?
MESSAM: When elected president I will give every effort so that everyone can achieve the American Dream, the same American Dream that attracted my parents to this country. That means whether they want to buy a house, start a business, have access to health care, a clean environment, safe streets. I will work every day tirelessly to ensure that we are delivering the promise of America because America belongs to all of us, not just a select few. And I think that when you allow people to be able to achieve their dreams, to be able to have an environment where they can compete and do the things that they want to do, Americans always step up. We always rise to the occasion for the decisions we make today, and the actions we take today will determine the status and the complexion of what we will be and leave for the next generation.