This piece is part of a new Forge series — What’s Your Power Analysis? — in which veteran organizer Deepak Pateriya talks with organizers and movement leaders about the power analysis that guides their work, the power they’re trying to build and exercise, how it’s going, and how they know. 

 

For national progressive organizers and activists, Florida sometimes registers only as the bane of our political existence. See: Bush v. Gore (2000) and Nelson v. Scott (2018), to name just two major election disappointments. For consumers of liberal-minded national media, Florida sometimes registers only as the site of the latest outrageous act by right-wing and white supremacist factions.  See: the “Don’t Say Gay” law and the “Don’t Vote (if you’re Black)” crusade. 

But Florida isn’t only a place where federal Democratic candidates fight hard and lose. It’s home to over 20 million people, nearly half of them people of color — and to some smart organizing. It’s also home to the Florida For All strategic alliance of key community and labor organizations that have worked together for years to define a shared political analysis and a long-term strategy for building statewide power. One of the members of that Florida For All alliance is Florida Rising (the newly renamed organization resulting from the 2021 merger of two strong grassroots base organizations in the state: Organize Florida and New Florida Majority). 

On some levels, Florida reminds me of California, where I spent close two decades as an organizer, campaigner, and alliance builder. Okay — those of you who know me might be thinking… “Sure, but all it takes to remind you of California is eating a flavorless salad at some allegedly brilliant DC restaurant and pining for the always-better California produce. Are you ever not thinking about California?” 

Maybe not, but hear me out.

Florida and California are both enormous in population and physical space. In how many other states do you need to hop on a plane to get from the state’s largest population center — and biggest concentration of people of color — to the state capitol? Both states are also made up of such a large number of dramatically varied communities, populations, regional economies, and political geographies, that you’d think they were consciously designed to defy any attempt at building statewide progressive majority governing power. 

I don’t mean to suggest that California movements have figured everything out (they haven’t) or that Florida movements should follow some “California playbook” (they shouldn’t). But I do mean to suggest that Florida, like California a couple of decades ago, is an essential place to be “figured out.” How can a progressive, multi-racial movement ecosystem in Florida build and begin to exercise power at the scale needed to bring about justice for its people (and yes, to play its critical role on the national stage)?

Having collaborated with many of the Florida for All member groups on statewide voter engagement programs with a base building and leadership development orientation, I was excited to talk with Andrea Cristina Mercado, the executive director of Florida Rising, and Ivanna Gonzalez, the director of campaigns, about the intersection of their local issue campaigning and power analysis with their statewide governing ambitions.

This isn’t an interview about analyzing, messaging to, or turning out Florida voters. It is about the dynamics of power in different local communities across the diverse political geography of the Sunshine State and how some really smart local organizers are working with members, activists, and allies to try to figure it out.

Editor’s note: Deepak interviewed Andrea and Ivanna separately; we have edited, condensed, and combined the two interviews into one piece. 

 

Florida Context & Statewide Power Analysis

Deepak Pateriya: How would you describe your power analysis of Florida at the state level? What power do you need to build in order to implement your vision? And talk a little bit also about how your city and county level work is important in this.

Andrea Mercado: So the right has controlled the Florida legislature and the Governor’s office — with a trifecta — for 20 years. Currently in the State Senate, it's 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats and in the House of Representatives, it’s 77 Republicans and 42 Democrats. There's no path to flipping the State House or the State Senate in 2022. But there is a path and a trajectory to shifting the Florida legislature over the next few election cycles. Also, in elections for statewide offices, time and time again, we come within razor thin margins of winning statewide office. The current Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, won by only 30,000 votes in 2020. Current Republican US Senator (and former Governor) Rick Scott won his seat by only 12,000 votes in that same election. This is in a state with 23 million people. So those are the thinnest of margins.

Pateriya: Am I right that Democrats have picked up a few seats in both state chambers over the past few election cycles, but the Republicans have had safe majority control for some time? 

Mercado: This is the challenge. We gain ground in some cycles, but it's like a few steps forward and then a few steps back. For the 2020 election, which we should talk about a little bit, the Biden presidential campaign chose a different path to the White House. They invested enough in Florida to keep the Right distracted here, but they didn't really believe that they could win Florida. That came at great political cost in the state. So, even though we made some important gains, winning a $15 minimum wage and electing some champions at the local level, the Republicans gained seats at the state level. Our goal in 2022 is to prevent a Republican supermajority in the state legislature. Then in 2024 and 2026, we believe we can make really important advances.

There are also the other statewide offices. The Commissioner of Agriculture, Nikki Fried, is the only current Democrat to win statewide (elected in 2018). In 2022, you have Aramis Ayala running for Attorney General. Aramis was the first Black prosecutor in the state of Florida who ran as a progressive. If she is elected Attorney General, that would be the only check on Governor DeSantis’s power.

Pateriya: You’ve identified a broad but strategic set of counties and constituencies as part of your basic statewide math — not just to win statewide elections but to eventually move policy in the legislature. Can you go a little bit further there on that power math? 

Mercado: We believe that the governor's mansion is really the most attainable. I mean, you saw Andrew Gillum come within 30,000 votes of being the first Black governor in the South running on a progressive platform. There’s a real possibility that DeSantis is overreaching with his hardline politics. Because the Republicans have had power for 20 years, they've created maps that favor them. We can come within a quarter of a percent in statewide elections, but you still see their power in the State House and the State Senate. In the congressional maps, they just eliminated two majority Black districts and are creating congressional maps that favor their power federally too.

Out of the 67 counties in the state, 12 counties make up 80% of the Democratic vote share. So a lot of the progressive organizing and infrastructure building that's happened in the last 10 years has focused on these 12 counties. Through the Florida For All alliance, we have been building inroads into other counties and more rural counties around the state, particularly with a faith organizing strategy. And there's two million young people and people of color who are eligible but not registered or registered and not voting. So we see a lot of our work as continuing to expand the electorate. Florida Rising alone has registered over 200,000 people to vote since 2016. We aim to register another 100,000 people this year.

We're also seeing shifts in the populations. There is an increase in the numbers of people of color in more counties, which is creating a stronger electoral block and new majority coalition in places like Central Florida. In the near term, we actually believe the State House is where we have more opportunity than the State Senate. So, we’re working steadily on State House races over time.

Pateriya: Can you say a little more about key constituencies in different geographies or counties and how that connects to the statewide power analysis?

Mercado: So we did this as part of our merger [of New Florida Majority and Organize Florida to become Florida Rising]. It really pushed us to think more about this question of strategic geographies and what it looks like for us to staff the organizing work. We actually did county by county assessments of the Black population, the Latino population, the total people of color population, and the total people of color registered voters. Then, who are the unregistered Black voters and the unregistered Latino voters? We then compared that to the number of our existing members and current organizers in each county. We wanted to have a logic and a theory around, what does it take for us really to make inroads with our organizing? It won't be shocking to you to hear that we decided to invest in a lot more organizers in Miami-Dade, given the size. I mean, it's by far the largest county in the state. There are really strategic opportunities there [and in South Florida more broadly]. The people of color population is growing in Broward County and Palm Beach. We also have been really looking at Central Florida population shifts. When we look at population estimates in these core counties, there are around 12.8 million people in our core counties and over half are people of color. 

Pateriya: Let’s focus in on that local city and county level of the power analysis. 

Mercado: A lot of our work has been around flipping county commissions to Democratic majorities. Miami-Dade just went progressive after almost 20 years of right-wing control. We now have the first Black mayor in the city of St. Petersburg. In the last few cycles we've also flipped Hillsborough County [which includes Tampa] and Orange County [which includes Orlando].

Then the counties of Pinellas [which includes St. Petersburg], Leon [which includes Tallahassee], Broward [which includes Ft. Lauderdale], Palm Beach, and Alachua [which includes Gainesville in Northern Florida] also have Democratic majorities. So, it's really interesting — in these places where we're focusing, we do have Democratic majorities locally. That raises the question for us of how we show people that it matters when we elect people who support our agenda. 

There have been a lot of really important shifts that we've been able to impact at the local level. But the challenge for us is that the kind of policy we want to move at the local level then gets preempted by the state. So it’s really just trying to figure out the dynamic between local power and state control.

 

“Justice on Every Block”: Local Power Analysis & Issue Campaigning 

Pateriya: Can you tell me about Florida Rising’s “Justice on Every Block” campaigns?

Ivanna Gonzalez: We went through this process of agenda setting with Florida Rising members in many of our local areas — just big brainstorms. We called these our “Justice on Every Block” agendas. People said that justice on the block has to mean a roof over your head but also walking to a grocery store with healthy food. That you could walk to that grocery store and not get harassed by the cops. Our vision of housing justice has to be an inclusive vision. And so that's why you ended up with Miami-Dade saying the air in our neighborhood has to be breathable and not toxic. And so you end up with the anti-toxic waste incinerator campaign on their agenda. 

There were some consistent things that we were able to identify across regions. The biggest being landlord accountability through a landlord registry and a landlord accountability board. In Miami-Dade, we just won the Office of the Tenant Advocate through the amazing campaign led by our ally, the Miami Workers Center. Another common thing across counties was the demand to declare a “housing state of emergency” so that you could then try to pass rent stabilization through a ballot measure, which is basically the only way to pass rent control in the state of Florida. All of the other pieces of the “Justice on Every Block” agendas vary by county but are all under the header of a tenant bill of rights 

Pateriya: If a county declares there's a housing state of emergency, then you can do a ballot measure to generate some money? Or can you also do the restrictive stuff on landlords or the anti-eviction stuff?

Gonzalez: The county commission declaring a housing state of emergency, by state law, then triggers a requirement that the county take action to mitigate it. The commission would have to put rent control on the ballot. And right now, this summer, we're coming up against a deadline. If it doesn't happen very soon, it won't have time to make it on the ballot for November 2022. That's why so many of the county commission members are delaying.

We're also saying to the elected county commissions, the best defense against state preemption is the will of the voters, which would put our opponents in the state legislature in a position to undermine rent stabilization specifically and the will of voters. 

Pateriya: And that hasn't happened anywhere yet — the declaration of the emergency?

Gonzalez: No, everywhere else they've stopped short either by pushing a study or doing something else, like a one-time $5 million into the emergency rental assistance fund instead.

Pateriya: Let’s pick one city or county to dig in on.

Gonzalez: Let’s talk about the city of Tampa, which is in Hillsborough County. So while we were getting ready to launch, Robin Lockett, our Tampa Bay regional director, was mobilizing almost 100 people to a city council meeting where she had everybody show up in the same colored t-shirt. We were organizing Florida Rising members, but it was also a coalition mobilization, including Planned Parenthood, Fight for 15, and others on all of the organizations’ issues. What Robin did in the lead up to that meeting was she mapped out the city council members. She was like, these ones are allies. These are the people that are movable. She didn't bother with two of them because “we're not going to move them.” She organized weekly canvases where she really dove into a specific district. And she was like, okay, this is my ally. So I’ve got to make sure that there's 20 people from this district at the council meeting. And she made sure that she had her 20 yeses and then she moved on to the next one. She had a six-week lead up to that mobilization so that she had representation across the board from those districts that she assessed were essential. She also did specific call-in days. So she was like, “Okay, it's the District 1 call-in day today. District 1 members call your council member and tell them you're going to be there on this date.” So it was all very intentional. 

Once we did this big showing, we had 100-plus people with this beautiful visual of everybody in red shirts; two weeks later, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor comes out and announces that she's going to create an expansion of the emergency rental assistance fund — a $5 million expansion that's coming out of the city's own budget. We were like, this is amazing; we won a thing and that's what publicly went out. But Robin and I were also like, that's not what we wanted. We were demanding they declare a housing state of emergency. We were demanding landlord accountability through a landlord registry. What the Mayor did was create a temporary band-aid. The $5 million is just a handout to landlords, and it is going to run out unless we put some controls on rent price-gouging.

Pateriya: That’s a tough spot — we’ve all been there! How did you handle it, campaign-wise and power-wise?

Gonzalez: We ended up trying to shift messaging and call it an organizing victory. But we didn't successfully do that in the public narrative. It was like, “The mayor did a good thing.” Whatever! Then we moved on. Robin continued to organize member meetings, doing one on ones. The thing that's mostly unseen in Tampa is that Robin is a lifelong Tampa resident. You walk around town, and people call her Madam President. People know who she is. She cannot walk anywhere without being recognized or acknowledged. And she's got basically every City Council person on speed dial. She's constantly texting them. They call her for her advice. We sometimes talk about power as: they cannot do something without knowing that it's okay with you. Robin has that power. 

Pateriya: What's the source of that influence and power?

Gonzalez: Robin's been around for a really, really long time. She's a lifelong resident. She knows her shit. She's super savvy politically and from a policy perspective. And when she doesn't know, she goes and gets the answer. And she's consistent. She's at every council meeting. She’s there at night, she's there at 9:00 AM without fail. 

And she brings people with her. Robin is not a lone wolf. She always brings people with her, and she preps them to speak every time. She is a diehard builder of organization. She comes from Organize Florida. She believes in that. With the organizational merger, we are working on the transition of these power relationships and political presence to be institutionalized and identified with a broader base of member leaders and the new organizational brand of Florida Rising.

Pateriya: That makes sense, what you've just said, from a power analysis view. In Tampa, there is a base of people and activists and leaders — and people on the City Council see that. You also mentioned that what the Mayor did in reaction to your campaign, it actually wasn't what you were demanding. And some parts of it were not great, seeming like a bailout for landlords. So is your take that that move by the Mayor was an organized, conscious effort to do something to take the wind out of Florida Rising’s sails? Was that a deliberate counter move by some opposition forces?

Gonzalez: That's such an excellent and important question. I don't think it was.

Pateriya: What do you think it was?

Gonzalez: Some Democratic electeds are playing a balancing act to appear to be taking action on key issues for their base (like housing) while not actually undermining the corporate power they also feel accountable to. In many of the places where we've flipped local county commissions, they play to the housing emergency rhetorically but do not respond in alignment with our policy goals. That's the next frontier of alignment, co-governance, and power. It's how we model that, when we win elections, we can convert that to real structural wins that make the lives of our members better.

We missed an opportunity because I think that if we had been fast and smart enough, we would've been there on day one, ready to say, oh, you want to give away $5 million, great. Mandate that if landlords take the money, they have to commit to not evict somebody for a year and that the buildings have to be up to code. And we didn't do that. We didn't place the demands on the money. That would've been the way that we call the bluff.

Pateriya: That’s a really insightful mid-campaign reflection. Let’s look briefly at the campaign in Miami-Dade County and the power analysis there. Now for counties in Florida, there are also Mayors of the County along with an elected County Commission that’s like the legislative branch — similar to a Mayor and a City Council, right?

Mercado: Right. In Miami-Dade County, a woman who comes out of running a social service organization in our ecosystem for many years became County Commissioner and then became the mayor: Daniella Levine Cava. She’s the first woman mayor and the first Jewish mayor. She's brought a lot of compassion and clarity to the county commission. 

Under Cava, Miami-Dade was the first county in the state to fully spend all of its rental relief dollars from the federal government. And then we went on tour to pressure other counties with Democratic majorities to make sure that they were getting those resources out the door to renters. [We need to] make sure that when we do have wins at the federal level, they're getting implemented and that we're claiming those victories at the local level and people can actually experience them.

The Miami Workers Center has been the strong lead on the tenant Bill of Rights campaign here in Miami-Dade. They’ve been packing the county commission meetings. And we're seeing the results. There was just a letter released yesterday with faith leaders in support. In the Miami-Dade County Commission, it is a narrow margin: it's seven Democrats and six Republicans. So, it's not a massive mandate. We are undeniably in power,  but it's a situation like we have in Congress, where we need all seven of those votes.

 

The Opposition and Its Power

Pateriya: Let’s look more closely at the organized opposition. Can you share more about the opposing side — what power they have and how they are exercising it?

Gonzalez: There's the Apartment Association. There is the Realtors Association, which is super active politically. They put a ton of money into affordable housing campaigns. That makes them look good, but it also puts more money in their pockets. And so they have an interest in telling a story that the pathway out of a crisis is basically home ownership — which in our mind is only one third of the puzzle. We need a pathway to home ownership. But we believe we have to address abusive landlords and the eviction crisis. 

The Florida Realtors Association was also this close to leading a ballot initiative on this year's ballot to enshrine in the Constitution the funding levels of the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund [a state mechanism to invest in developing and preserving affordable housing]. And so that was a really difficult situation for us politically because, are we going to throw down with the Realtors Association about affordable housing? Yes, we believe that they shouldn't have slashed the Sadowski fund. But we also believe that only focusing on home ownership doesn't address skyrocketing rents, the eviction and abusive landlords piece of it — and they're fighting tooth and nail against anything anti-eviction, locally and at the state level. They even pumped a bunch of money into a legal challenge to the CDC eviction moratorium. 

The other dynamic that we have in Florida is the Associated Industries of Florida. And that's the big shady industry group. We only have piecemeal info on who its members are. We know some big ones are Florida Power & Light, GEO, and Disney. But our assumption is that the various corporate landlord groups and realtors are all a part of it. 

Pateriya: Talk a little bit about the interplay between the state power analysis and your local power building and campaigns.

Gonzalez: It's very hard to move things locally because the cloud of preemption is just over everything. So with this example of the housing state of emergency, you go talk to somebody on a city council or county commission — even our most progressive allies. They’ll say, we're going to concede that there is a legal pathway to rent control via declaring a housing state of emergency. Even the people who are actually opponents on the local bodies — they're not denying that it is in black and white; there's a legal pathway. But the second thing they tell us is, “Look, I'm on your side, but the second we make this move, they're going to come after us. So we’ve got to cross all our Ts, dot all our Is, and a way to do that is to do an 18-month study of the housing market so that we have proof that there's actually a state of emergency.” Then we get stuck in this black hole forever. And it's like that with pretty much everything. 

In the last legislative cycle, they tried another bill that basically allows a corporation to sue a municipality if they can prove that there is a 5% hit to their profit as a financial impact statement. And so nobody's tested it yet, but we think that it's going to undermine every climate and environmental justice campaign. Landlord's are going to be able to use it if anybody tries to do anything that actually costs them money.

Pateriya: Wow. What other ways does the opposition exercise power? 

Gonzalez: Our allied elected officials often tell us they get calls from groups like the Apartment Association, from landlords and developers. And there are different messages they sometimes use... There are a set of people that are like, “that's not legal.” There's a set of people that are telling them, “Don't be dumb. The state legislature's going to come after you.” And then there's the third bucket of people where the narrative is very much like, “This is bad policy. Of course there's a housing crisis. But we just want to work with you to actually come up with solutions. There's going to be unintended consequences to this. And I, as a landlord, want to work with you on it.”

 

Local Campaigns & Statewide Strategy 

Pateriya: I want to ask one question about how you see the connection between these local issue campaigns and your statewide power analysis and electoral work?

Mercado: So, we are trying to maximize that connection. We have some local wins around eviction prevention and rent stabilization, and then we make that an issue in the governor's race. We can contrast the candidates running for governor. I think our role as a movement is: how do we advance a transformative demand and then push Democrats to show up and do more than they would have otherwise? At the state level, Republicans wanted to pass a policy called “fees in lieu of deposits,” where basically, instead of you paying a security deposit, they could charge you a monthly fee forever.

Pateriya: Oh, that you don't get back.

Mercado: Right, that you don't get back. It was wild. And by exposing it and putting all the pressure in Tallahassee, all of a sudden they felt like they couldn't sign it. Because they were too exposed. So, I think there is a lot of: how do we leverage the media and how do we expose some of the interests behind the housing crisis? But that's always the threat. Who are the super voters? Is it your homeowners or is it your renters?

We'll use examples of people who own one rental property, as opposed to the fact that the majority of people have multiple. So, we have to make sure that we organize homeowners. It's just like any campaign. How do you neutralize the opposition? How do you organize homeowners to stand with us? How do we peel off some good realtors?

After every election, we try to learn something and do it better. There's a real thread between what they do in the state legislature and then how we tell that story to voters. Not just fighting it while the election's going on, but also, how do we make that a story for voters who aren't paying attention? We have been doing radio in English and in Spanish and digital saying, “Instead of dealing with the housing crisis, Republicans are banning books and attacking our kids and eliminating Black districts.” 

 

Lessons: What Have You Learned About Power?

Pateriya: What do you know now about power in Florida that you didn't know five years ago? 

Mercado: Dude, I'm learning every day. I've learned so much in the last five years. I've learned — and I'm still learning — about how to not get so siloed into issues where we're missing the forest through the trees. What does it look like for us to look at what's really happening from a bigger perspective? In the state legislature or at a county commission, how do we follow the politics of the entire commission or state and not just follow one particular issue? So, I think we're moving towards another level of sophistication there.

In the state legislature, it’s been helpful that Florida For All has someone like Ida Eskamani on our team who works with all the member groups, overseeing not just one issue but looking at the meta-story. It's helped us to construct more strategic intersectional messages. Where it's not intersectionality for intersectionality's sake, but it's really engaging in politics in a different way.

What else have I learned? I think I've learned and I'm still learning what it means to keep our ear to the ground. Because oftentimes, what's playing out in the news is not actually what's happening on the ground. And there's a lot of discontent with DeSantis. Even in communities that you wouldn't suspect. Even from 2018 and 2020, there were things that we were hearing on the doors that, I don't know, I think we're still trying to figure out how we make meaning of it. How do we really hear what's happening on the doors in the communities and bring that in relationship to our statewide work?

Pateriya: Do you mean sometimes the power analysis that we think we have — or the support of the people in power right now — is thinner than it seems?

Mercado: Yeah. You know this, but we can run the biggest, baddest IE [independent expenditure voter turnout operation] in the world. But if the Democratic Party isn't strong, we're not going to be able to do what we need to do. So, a different understanding of the importance of inside/outside. And not just inside/outside but needing them to be good, strong, clear, focused.  

And that fundamentally a lot of Democrats don't care about us. They don't care about-

Pateriya: What do you mean?

Mercado: They don't care about Latino or Black voters. They don't really.

Pateriya: Don't care as in those people are going to vote for us anyway, or don't care as in that's not part of their view of how they win?

Mercado: Don't care as in that's not who they're beholden to. That's not who they have to deliver for politically once they get into office.

Pateriya: And who is it?

Mercado: I still think that there are... It's white supremacy in our politics. It's homeowners. It's middle class. I think many Democrats are still really obsessed with white, middle-class voters.

So I have a lot of reflections on what it’s really going to take for us to build independent political power where we're strong enough that we force them to concede some things. And we're not going to get everything, but how do we get smart about getting them to deliver the things that are going to matter to people and will make people in communities of color believe that voting matters and that it is capable of delivering real change?

 

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