Some races you can't take your eyes from. The Florida state house race for District 114 in South Miami was one of them. Ross Hancock, a political newcomer and marketing executive, took on GOP State Representative Erik Fresen.
Fresen was state legislative leader of last year's campaign to bring full scale gaming to Florida. He has been a leading proponent for charter schools, an industry in which his family is substantially involved. (I donated $100 to Hancock's campaign.)
Hancock raised $11K for his campaign. Fresen, a land use consultant, raised nearly $300K but also may have benefited from PAC funds independently directed to his campaign.
Hancock won 49 percent of the popular vote in a newly drawn district and came within 3 percentage points of defeating a legislator who walks the party line with GOP causes. The race should have attracted media attention; the more so, because the result appears to defy conventional wisdom on the power of money in local politics. I interviewed Hancock by telephone:
How did you make decision to get involved in race for Florida State District 114?
My values are mainstream values that are important to people: keeping South Florida a vibrant place to grow, to raise families, and to create economic opportunities. In my district, the Democrats had no candidates. I just think it is important that people have a choice. I also feel strongly that we have an obligation to participate in our democracy. The University of Miami campus is in this district. There have thousands of brand new voters, voting for first time. If I wasn’t running, the Democrats would basically have had nothing after the federal races.
What did you learn from the campaign that defied your expectations, as a first time candidate?
I thought that if I had a platform that was pro-labor and pro-social justice that I would have support from labor unions and the Democratic Party. It surprised me that I didn’t.
Do you want to speculate why?
It is still a total mystery. I did the math. The race was winnable in a newly drawn district. Early in the election cycle I was invited to a meeting of Florida Victory for the Florida Democratic Party. No one has ever told me why the Florida Democratic Party came down here to have a meeting, where they said that this race should not have a Democratic in it.
I could show why someone should run. We could have won. I spent $11K on the campaign. My opponent spent nearly $300K, not counting independent PAC money. I won 49 percent of the vote. For the state party to direct the labor unions to not endorse a candidate who was standing for labor? I don’t understand their thinking. One labor union ended up contributing to the Republican anti-labor candidate, Erik Fresen.
When you made the decision to run, what did you think your priorities were and how you were going to do it?
I needed 30K votes in a newly redistricted district. I was looking at the projected make-up of the district and I thought that if I didn’t really pay attention to negative information I was getting, that all I really needed to do was get 30K people to vote for me, and I thought I could do that if I really put some effort into it.
What kind of effort did you anticipate you’d have to do, and what did you end up doing?
I ended up doing what I thought I should do. I have a marketing and advertising background, so I looked at it in terms of a new product launch or something like that and I knew I’d get the most bang for the effort by talking to individual voters compared to direct mail, robocalls, or direct advertising. It seems like the candidate talking at someone’s doorstep was 100 times more effective than a volunteer.
In March I loaded the voter database into an iPad, and every day after work I’d walk a section of the district. The iPad told me who was in the house, age and so forth, voting history. I did that from March from until October, almost every day except for bad weather day… if it was raining, and there was a lot rain for periods this summer, I learned that people thought you were insane if it was raining, and you knocked on their doorstep and wanted to talk about politics.
Working against the clock. It became a very, very simple struggle of resources with the clock ticking, just to try to do enough doors.
The other thing I had going for me, I met Bob Welch who is a city of South Miami commissioner; I made a little video about what he does. He ended up volunteering for our campaign. He was extremely helpful.
Did you expect more people to help come with your organization?
I didn’t expect a lot of people to help out. We did get a huge amount of help from the Democratic Club of South Dade. They made office space available to me and Dr. Jeffrey Solomon (running in an adjacent district) and they had people canvassing and making phone calls and volunteers and working the polls, during 8 days of early voting. That was a very big help to campaigns of Joe Garcia, Ross and Doc Solomon.
Did you approach the business community for support?
I went to Florida Chamber, where they hosted 50 lobbyists in hotel in downtown in Coral Gables in spring 2012. I told them, the Florida Chamber is opposed to expanding casino gambling (Fresen, Hancock’s opponent, was the leader of the casino issue that the Chamber and its members spent millions to defeat), so I’m your guy. But they didn’t do anything. I contacted other Chambers and never heard back from them.
I did go to a lot of community town halls, community type meetings, West Miami, civic meetings, Concerned Citizens of Cutler Bay, attended by Mayor and council members, and citizens forums. I was going to meetings like that to get a sense of what was on people’s minds.
What about debates?
There were only two debates. There should have been more but there don't seem to be many forums for state races. In both cases, Fresen confirmed attendance and we waited for him to come but he never showed up.
The Miami Herald never reported that.
I get my news from Eye On Miami and The Daily Show.
So do a lot of people at the Miami Herald. How did people respond to quality of life and environmental issues?
In my district, an affluent coastal swath of land from Coral Gables to Cutler Bay to east of Galloway, people are very, very concerned about sustainability of community, concerned about climate change and impact on home values. They way they understand these issues is in terms of economic diversity, jobs, windstorm insurance, and traffic. These are the kinds of things that the government should be involved with, and so it was a good match. Sustainability message was what I give most of credit for success that we did have. People really do want that.
One of things that surprised me a lot: the power of money is more limited than everyone feared. The second thing: it has become safer for people to talk about climate change.
You mean, the candle of Fox News has blown out?
People respect people who talk about climate change, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, and immigration. These are thing that Democrats were very shy to talk about, four years ago, and we saw the president being very effective and no longer stuff that has to be said in a whisper. You can quite openly talk about abortion and climate change and rights for immigrants and gay rights: these are mainstream popular ideas.
Did the Cuba issue ever come up in your campaign?
Talking to people, there is no bandwidth to discuss pro’s and con’s of issues for state legislative candidates. You knock on a door and whoever answers is not going to want to talk about the Cuba embargo. They are curious about someone who wants to be elected to office.
People are more concerned about government ethics and they have a general suspicion of everyone in government. Really just meeting them is what counts.
For example, I wanted to be a voice for the environment. That doesn’t have very many spokespeople. The environment used to be an issue that people talked more openly thirty years or forty years ago. I would introduce myself, and obviously not backed by the Koch Brothers. But I didn't come out with policy positions. I asked them questions. I wanted to know what they cared about.
Before you run for office you have this idea you are going to make a lot of speeches, was I on the right side of this or that issue, but that is not what it was to run our campaign. It is all just brute force. All about numbers and canvassing.
When you went door to door, did you sense people knew who Erik Fresen was?
In certain neighborhoods, like where a charter school owned by his family with a huge number of students was put into a private neighborhood in Coral Gables. A third of petitions I needed to run were signed by Republicans around University Baptist Church. They couldn't wait to sign my petition. Many of those neighbors had their fill of Fresen and felt that it was an insult for their own state representative to do something that benefited his own family in a way that really damaged their interests. In those cases, everyone knew who he was.
After that, most people don’t even know what the deal is with the state legislature. People are not very well versed. A lot of people didn’t know the difference between state legislature and county commission.
The number of people who talked passionately about state legislature has to be 1 percent of the people. It is not on anyone’s radar.
I really think that people have more stress and less ability to be attentive about basic democracy than they used to. There are a lot more distractions. So it is a lot to ask for people to pay attention.
You need to understand the down vote. Many people who voted for president did not vote in other races. They stood in line for three or four hours yet didn’t fill out the complete ballot. In my race it should have been an easy choice: two candidates with very different world views. We need to do a better job getting people more engaged.
So who is responsible?
Well, I do blame the media. Look, even when we did the Miami Herald endorsement screening: it was all inside baseball. They didn't want to hear about my position on issues. It was clear from the first moment they didn't think I was viable. The media treats politics like betting on sports. I had a friend who wanted to help. He is a writer and a painter: he thought he would be writing up speeches. There is no venue, no platform for discourse.
Voters have a full plate of issues, what they are looking for a sense of trust more than any particular issues. They don’t know themselves what the answer but they would like to have someone that they trust versus someone who was on the take.
You very nearly defeated someone who had been chairman of the Republican party in Florida’s most politically influential party.
The Republicans knew Fresen was in trouble.
Did the Democrats?
I never heard from the Democrats. From the campaign reports it looks like the state GOP paid about $9K for a poll about three weeks before the election, then right after they put $30K into his campaign. He went on TV. I couldn’t.
Would you consider running again?
Yes I am going to run for Coral Gables city commission next April. When I was going to town hall meetings, I became convinced that given the state and county governments are very ineffectual and very compromised by campaign money and ethical problems… I think the cities and towns are emerging as more important to people’s political issues, the ones that really matter to them.
For instance, in Cutler Bay, citizens were really unhappy with quality of public schools. The city became very involved in providing resources to create a new magnet high school and middle school. So it was the city investing, working in partnership with Dade County public schools. Taxpayers are putting money into because it is worth it; good schools improve the tax base plus they will have new schools are going to be the best schools in the county. This was the state and county’s responsibility, but it was the town of Cutler Bay through its local leadership that made that happen.
What advice would you have to encourage people to run for political office?
Get involved in city government where regional issues will be better addressed than the county or the state in foreseeable future. The cities are ready to fill that gap.
If there is one lesson, a simple lesson from what we did: if you want to run for office, you don’t have to know what you are doing, you don’t have to follow rules or listen to anyone else, if you work hard and if you are going to represent the people, then you don’t have to be scared of money or power or anything else except for too much rain when you are out knocking on doors.
I'd still like to hear from someone in the Democratic Party.
Thank you, Ross Hancock.