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Finding Peace in Sarawak

We all landed in Malaysia exhausted. The Philippines was hard on everyone: the travel, the pollution and the long days had taken its toll on all of us. Don't get me wrong, the Philippines was a magical experience on many levels, but it beat us up physically and emotionally. We all showed up at the airport looking pretty rough, and excited that our travel day only included a dinner.

So we were a bit shocked when we got to the connecting airport in Kuala Lumpur to learn that we were meeting with the Deputy Chief Minister (think Lt Governor) of Sarawak, the eastern Malaysian state where we'd be spending the first half of our Malaysian trip -- and the visit was a "state courtesy call" meaning we'd need to be in business attire -- and the meeting was 45 min after we landed in Sarawak. Fortunately the parents of our host in Sarawak was kind enough to let us change at her house.

We headed to our first meeting not quite sure why we were in Kuching, the Capitol city of Sarawak. It's a smallish city located on a remote part of the island of Borneo, part of east Malaysia. It has a very tropical feel, located just 1 degree north of the equator, where the length of the longest day of the year and the shortest are separated by only 12 minutes. The weather is very Florida-esque and frankly, I liked the city the moment we landed.

Our first meeting was with the state government. Their power structure is highly centralized, though not autocratic. They talked about the relative lack of poverty and racial strife in a state that is home to 26 different ethnic and tribal groups. The government is hyperfocused on development: industrial farming, hydroelectric and aquaculture - and essentially they use development to buy peace in their state. The leaders were amazingly on message, deflecting any hard question we asked, and the press was very controlled. One paper included a quote from a colleague which bore no resemblance to what he said. That being said, they had a clear idea of what they were trying to accomplish.

The next day we met with opposition leaders who spoke of widespread corruption and a lack of civic participation and discourse. Many of their observations matched my gut feeling about the meeting with government.

However, what was most interesting about the several hours we spent with these leaders was the fact they came from all walks of life: a Muslim woman running the women's empowerment division, their elected leaders represented several tribes who were Christian, while their young social media maven was Chinese. Their platform actually endorsed both naming Islam as the official ceremonial religion of the country, and further enshrining religious freedom in the constitution.

Wandering around town I saw the same thing: extreme diversity coexisting in total peace. Mosques right down the street from churches, Buddhist shrines located in the parks across the street from Hindu places of worship, and young women wearing the hijab would walk down the street with Chinese boys in shorts. I imagine a poll of this town would have found widespread confusion why there was even a debate in the US over whether a mosque could be built in downtown New York City. Here you could almost imagine Christians offering to help their Muslim brothers build a Mosque, while maybe the next week they'd all go work on a Buddhist temple. It's a outward display of religious freedom not frequently seen. Frankly, it was very cool.

Our visit here was much more casual than the Philippines. We went to a cultural center, toured a museum, attended church for a high school band concert and walked through the market. But more than anything, our gracious host Sharon Ling arranged for us to share meals with real people, and gave us time to explore this really interesting town.

On our second to last morning, I went for a long run, made much longer by my getting very lost. I ran down neighborhood streets, by the bus station, along the river, through a park and generally anywhere I thought would get me back to the Hilton. Despite being conspicuous (running white guy in a bright shirt), it's easy to feel very at home here, because everyone here is different.

Cultures are married here. I met a Brit, turned Kiwi who decided to settle in Kuching after working a project in town. He said the town celebrates every holiday, and I saw it with my own eyes. My colleague Nathan Dahm, a Republican state senator from Oklahoma and I walked a few blocks in the Christmas Parade, blending in with a group from a local church, and lining the streets on a dark rainy night were plenty of Muslims and Hindus.

And the band concert we attended was at a local church, though it seemed from the attire of the parents there to see their kids, that the vast majority weren't Christian. You are getting the idea.

It began to make sense why we came. This part of the exchange wasn't supposed to be like the Philippines, which was formal and official. Rather this was pure cultural exchange, a chance to immerse in a town for a long weekend, bond as a group, have meaningful conversations with real Malaysians, and just be a part of it all.

What is amazing about this uniquely unremarkable town is its a place where all of the things that cause conflict around the world manage to survive in peace, because it seems these people have decided to embrace their differences and revel in their diversity. As a result, even though we were clearly outsiders, we all felt very comfortable here, and it showed. We marched in bands, some of us danced at a reenacted tribal ceremony, ate really amazing and exotic food, and some even did karaoke with a Malaysian lounge act, which among other things, performed history's most amazingly horrible rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. It was easy to let your guard down here, because seemingly guards aren't allowed here.

Kuching isn't perfect. There's plenty of dirt around the edges, it's worn in many areas, and the city could use a good pressure wash and paint job. Further, there seems to be widespread agreement -- and in some circles, acceptance that the government does enrich itself. It's also not fancy, as the aforementioned Brit/Kiwi said, "it's a three star town." You will never see it in a travel magazine, and it won't blow you away. But there is something about it.

The people who live here are relaxed and happy, and they content to trade a few luxuries in exchange for peace, mutual understanding and middle class prosperity. After three days here, I get it. Hope to see you again Kuching.

Onward to Kuala Lumpur.



The week in metro Manila has been amazing, but the last full day brought home the true blessings of being an American.

The unique relationship between our two counties is often forgotten on our side of the fence, but in the Philippines, the relationship brings immense pride. The Philippine population living in the states is four million strong, meaning you hardly meet anyone who doesn't have family in our country. The country feels like a bridge between east and west, a marriage of Asian, Hispanic and American influences, though the identity is clearly more west than east. They know our national issues -- sometimes better than us, embrace much of the culture, and watch our sports, particularly the NBA.

At times, at least in relative terms, our trips were sterile. We traveled by embassy bus, often under escort (for traffic navigation, not safety) and met with government officials, many of whom had prepackaged presentations. And everywhere we were greeted with a fanfare and distinction unworthy of our traveling motley crew. Banners greeted us everywhere and most of the time it felt like we were being followed by paparazzi, with 10-20 fotogs recording every handshake and every expression.

But nothing matched Manila, where we were met City Hall with a red carpet and the city marching band playing Stars and Stripes Forever, as literally hundreds of people - surely mostly curious, watched from the sidewalk or their windows. It was a moment I'll never forget. In Manila, we were also escorted by the historical society director on a tour of the historic walled city, and met with the country's youngest Senator, Ban Acquino, who in his historic family's legacy is very bright, thoughtful and committed to good governance. In a country where birthright dictates political prominence, there is no doubt he is on a path to the Presidency and frankly, in my short hour with him, he showed the tools of a great leader of his country.

Yesterday, we also ran into poverty on an unimaginable scale. Shanty towns built inside flood drainage tunnels by the river, old barges and boats permanently docked as housing for construction workers, naked children diving from an abandoned crane into the polluted river to swim -- the same river adults were bathing in 100 yards away, while others fished for their dinner down stream, and everyone collectively living in a smog that literally chokes off a complete breath.

What was stunning is rarely did public officials speak of this, and until the last 48 hours, I was afraid to ask. It felt as though poverty was a "don't ask, don't tell" issue. But as I got courage, the answers were interesting, from stock "economic development" to more thoughtful ones. Senator Acquino was easily the most versed in actual policies to create opportunity through education and micro economics. Many of their solutions hardly make sense viewed from a US right - left ideological lens, which also created in reverse interesting questions. One woman flat asked me why our country, as rich as we are, was even debating whether everyone should get good health care. Forgive the editorial comment, but frankly after being in the Philippines, it's hard for me to understand that question either.

That being said, you can't come here and not come away with a more fuller understanding of how lucky we are as Americans -- and how the vast majority of people here look to us to be the world beacon. Yesterday I found my Philippine sea legs, often walking away from the group and finding people to talk to. Everywhere people would talk of their dreams to visit or ask about something happening with their family in the states.

At City Hall, I met four young college students, each studying tourism, all who wanted to see Disney World. At a historical site, I met a woman who had visited 30 states to see her "almost 500 relatives" in the states. And even the photographer from the National Movement of Young Legislators, who escorted us the entire trip, talked of coming to the states to one day see his son box.

But one particular moment got me. I was boarding the "coaster" (our bus) and this lady was standing on the sidewalk about 50 feet away waving, holding her child. She was obviously quite poor, but smiling ear to ear. I walked over to greet her, and as I got close she pointed at me smiling and said to her kid "America." I touched her kid's hand, who looked by development to be 16-18 months old and said to the mom "he's beautiful -- how old?" Two and a half she said. Despite the obvious love of his mother, poverty had clearly stunted this boy's development. I choked back a tear before walking away.

The Philippine leaders haven't always had the right priorities. Senator TG Guingona, who chairs the equivalent of the Senate Ethics Committee estimates that 40 percent of all government revenue is lost to corruption, a number that if even half right is stunning. And we certainly met at least one local leader who seemed more than willing to let that persist. One even blamed anti corruption laws for slowing economy progress. But most real people I talked to held the opposite view, that the country's woes, from poverty to infrastructure were a direct result of corruption.

But for all of the problems, this not a sad place, in fact, it's quite the opposite. In the face of gripping poverty, there is a contagious vibe here, and we met countless young leaders committed to better governing and innovative progress. And with 40 million people out of 97 million living on less than 2 dollars a day, it's going to take those leaders to help move the country from developing to developed status. That being said, I found lots if reasons to be hopeful, surrounded by problems of a magnitude that our elected leaders cannot imagine.

One of the country's great former leaders Manuel Quezon once said words that can still apply today -- universally: "All that is necessary is that every public official, from President down to the last police officer, is to know that the office is not given to him for the purpose of his own personal aggrandizement or profit, nor with the idea of permitting him to abuse the powers of that office. Public office is given to a man in the interest of the people of the country." Leaving, I'm confident that a younger generation is truly embracing this, both here in Philippines, but also in the USA.

Most of the Philippines I didn't feel well, due to the combination of food, 16-18 hour days, bus rides that were indescribable (imagine weaving in and out of traffic on a motorcycle -- except instead of a motorcycle, you are riding on a bus), lack of sleep, poor air quality, lack of western sanitation standards and jet lag. For two days, I subsisted on Advil, Imodium, Jamba Juice, Gatorade and Gu. But regardless, I definitely go to Malaysia a healthier person, with many new friends from a country that generally loves ours, and a renewed appreciation and pride of the blessing that comes with American birthright and citizenship.

Everyone in America should be so lucky to experience a similar journey.

Now Malaysia...


Making the change

Yesterday, we visited the embassy and spent several hours in briefings.

The challenges facing the Philippines are staggering when compared to our own, namely 42 percent of the population living in poverty - at a poverty line of 2 dollars a day. And the poverty is everywhere, you can't miss it.

Along with the poverty came an interesting statistic: only 20 percent of the population uses banks.

The visit to the City of Quezon City was an insight into how governments are addressing both of these. Quezon City, with a population of 3.3 million citizens, has nearly 65% of its population in substandard housing, due to a massive migration over the last 20 years.

So the city has taken two interesting steps:

One, they have instituted a tax on homeowners to create a corporation to move people out of substandard housing and into safe homeownership. Residents who qualify pay roughly 50 dollars a month for their new home mortgages, and the interest is returned to the taxed homeowners. The city appears to be having some issues meeting the demand, but it is an interesting concept for getting residents into better homes.

Secondly, working with USAID, the city is allowing its residents to pay taxes and other fees through their cell phone, and will begin paying employees through direct deposit. Along the same line, there is an effort to educate residents on saving and banking.

The challenges here are so different than our own, thus the solutions may seem a bit foreign, but it's fascinating listening to some of the interesting ideas that officials are trying to address problems that are seemingly intractable.

And the journey continues...


An Amazing Country

After a day to adjust, we set off for our first real day of work with a jammed schedule that took us to two provincial capitols.

The Philippines is a colorful place, with equally colorful people. Like other developing countries I've visited, it literally smacks you in the face, from the smog of an early morning run, the sight of cops with machine guns, the gripping poverty that borders the edge of every highway, or the traffic which is as ubiquitous as the tropical humidity.

But it's also home to absolutely wonderful people, who love and are proud of their country. I could spend a year here just visiting the people who in the last 48 hours have invited us to their homes and communities. One woman gave me a beautiful piece of art she had woven after simply talking to her about her community and craft for 5 minutes. I don't think you could spend time here and not want to come back.

Today was interesting in many ways. We traveled with police escort most of the day to help us get through traffic, which was a little like riding inside a video game. We met the populist and politically ambitious Governor of Cavite, who graciously spent well over an hour with us. And we stopped at Taal Volcano, one of the most stunning views anywhere in the world.

But nothing quite prepared any of us for our state visit to Laguna. The Governor of Laguna, Jeorge "ER" Ejercito, is a top Philippine actor, whose colorful character is only topped by the energy of his government's commitment to transforming his constituency. His ideas are bold, maybe even a little cheesy and crazy, but the guy is all in. And he's taking his skills and marketing his community like he'd market a movie. The music videos he's produced to market tourism in Laguna in a word are epic.

He spent nearly four hours with us and other leaders from his community. His Chief of Staff, Carlos Dolendo, could do stand-up. I've never laughed so hard through a power point. And his staff are tireless and there is a real spirit of can-do attitude.

And in a nutshell, that's been my Philippines experience so far. Bright people, with lots of energy, who love their country and almost universally love America. The challenges here are real and you can't miss them, but everywhere we go, we find leaders -- particularly young leaders, who are going to find a way to will their communities to a better place. It's inspiring, and in the absence of sleep, it's fuel to keep going.








Welcome to Manila

The adventure is finally here as our seven member delegation landed in Manila after 20 hours in the air.

Landing in Manila is like landing in Florida, the humidity just smacks you the moment you walk off the plane. We were met by Embassy staff, which made immigration a piece of cake, and off we rode to our hotel, driving through a lively and colorful suburban neighborhood.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the President of the National Movement of Young Legislators, our hosts here in the Philippines, who invited us to a party they were hosting in the hotel. Granted, we'd all been up 30 hours, but what was 15 more minutes?

After checking in, I wandered over to their party. They asked us each to speak (which none of us were prepaed for!) then my US colleagues and I wandered around to chat with the 60-70 leaders in the room. I met a ton of interesting and gracious Philippine electeds: a young man representing a community in North Luzon, who immediately offered to host me in his community, a young woman, April Marie Dayap, who represents one of the extreme southern islands, who was very helpful explaining to me the insurrection movements near her community, and a fellow my age, Dave Almarinez, a Harvard educated businessman who does work in Florida.

But one conversation will haunt me. I introduced myself to a young man, who I regret not getting a card from. He represented a community impacted directly by the Typhoon. He rode out the storm in a bathroom, and when I asked him if his family had made it through OK, he just shook his head no. But he went on to talk about the resiliency of his community and the response of the international community, and how the two combined give him nothing but hope about the future.

And in the end, that's what this is really all about. We are all just people, occupying the same space, living through triumph and tragedy, interdependent upon each other. The extra two hours last night at the height of exhaustion was well worth it.

It's truly an honor to be a part of this trip.



The Debate is Over

In late September, Representative Ray Pilon, a Republican legislator from Sarasota, filed a piece of legislation that makes an interesting, and probably unintended statement about the state of Presidential politics in Florida.

Representative Pilon's bill, House Bill 75, would change the way that Florida allocates its Presidential electors from winner take all, to an allocation by Congressional districts.  In other words, Florida would no longer be worth 29 electoral votes to the winner of Florida, but instead would be worth 2 to the winner, plus however many Congressional districts carried by the candidate.  

So instead of President Obama winning 29 electoral votes, he would have won 2 for carrying the statewide vote, plus 11 more for the 11 congressional seats he carried for a total of 13.  Mitt Romney would have won 16 electoral votes, for the 16 Congressional seats he carried.  In other words, despite losing the popular vote, Mitt Romney would have carried a three electoral vote advantage out of Florida, which is very similar to the advantage he would have had under Pilon's proposal if neither campaign had contested the state.

Notwithstanding the many issues with awarding by Congressional seats, the bill is an interesting admission:  Republicans are finally admitting some 20 years after Florida entered the pantheon of swing seats that the state is no longer safe GOP territory, but in fact, Florida might even lean a slight tinge of blue in Presidential years -- enough so that a few members of the legislature would rather trade the chance of carrying home a huge electoral prize in exchange for a guarantee of a small plurality every four years.

Why would they do this?  Well, under virtually any allignment in nearly the last 100 years, the GOP doesn't have a real path to the White House without winning Florida.  In fact, Calvin Coolidge was the last Republican to go to the White House without Florida, at a time when we only had six electoral votes.  They simply can not make up the 29 electoral votes if they lose Florida, but if they can guarantee a 3-5 electoral vote plurality -- even if they lose Florida, their math gets a lot easier.  At the same time, given the way Congressional districts perform, it would also mean Florida was as significant in the Presidential arena as Idaho or Maine.

I bring this up for this reason:  in my space in the Florida punditocracy, I feel like I've spent much of the past six or seven years debating the silly question of whether Florida is actually a swing state.  No less than Nate Silver openly raised this question between 2008 and 2012, and countless GOP pundits (that's mostly you, my brother from another party Albert Martinez!!!) love to spend the summer months of each leap year spinning the tale that the Democrats don't actually take Florida seriously in Presidential elections.  In fact, as late as a week before the 2012 general election, I was still having to make the case to both national and state press -- not whether we could win Florida, but that the state was even competitive for President Obama.  Frankly, as a few of my friends in the press corps know, I found that debate mindnumbing.

But here are the facts:

Since 1992, the Presidential elections in Florida have been decided by 2, 6, 0, 5, 3, and 1% margins, in that order.

The Democrats have won 3, the Republicans have won 3.  I'd argue one as a tie, but history gave it to the team that was the home team that year.

Since 1992, 39,134,751 ballots have been cast in Florida for President, and only 132,763 votes separate the GOP and the Dems -- with the edge going to the Democrats.

That margin is only .34%, within the margin of recount here.

In other words, despite the every four year debate, the facts are clear, Florida is a swing seat at the Presidential level.  

And my friend Ray Pilon, whether he meant to or not, simply confirmed it.






A moment of actual political courage

Five years ago today, something extraordinary happened.  A Republican Governor, working with the House Democratic Leader in the Florida Legislature, issued an executive order to extend early voting hours.

Reading the recollections of from my buddy Dan Gelber on his blog today, I wanted to write down my own.

I was in the midst of the dream ride of my life, running the Florida operation for then Senator Obama.  The blur of the previous four months had given way to reality:  early voting was open and people were voting.  In fact lots of people -- too many people for the capacity of Florida's early voting locations.

The enthusiasm for Senator Obama had literally flooded the first few days of early voting, and we were now facing a real issue, would people stand in line to vote, often four, five, even six hours? The evidence was that some would, but many would not.  I talked to our legal team as we considered taking legal action to force the state to lengthen the voting hours, but we honestly thought it was an uphill battle against the state, led by then Republican Governor Charlie Crist.

Late the night of the 27th, I was sitting on the dark floorboard of a campaign bus on a Joe Biden tour across Florida worried about this problem.  Our staff and volunteers were calling every minute of
everyday to flag the growing problem of the early voting hours.  With my perpetually low on battery cell phone plugged into the one cigarette lighter on the bus, inconveniently positioned pretty much
under the steering wheel, I did the one thing I often did when I wasn't sure what to do: call my friend and former boss Dan Gelber.

We talked for a good 30 minutes that night about options, none of them were very good.  Basically, in order to ensure the franchise of Floridians, our only option was a long shot legal case.  I didn't sleep much that night in the Holiday Inn Ocala, worried we could lose this election simply because our people couldn't vote.  The number 537 was basically imprinted on my forehead after 2000 -- and working the recount that followed.

The next morning, we had this very cool rally with about 5,000 people at a ranch outside of Ocala.  I remember it was an absolutely beautiful morning, and I was having a conversation with Senator Nelson
about the voting lines, when Dan called me back and said "why don't I just call the Governor and see if he will issue an executive order" to extend early voting hours.  With great skepticism, and probably a
caffeine induced sarcastic expletive or two, I said sure.  It was as good of an idea as any, but frankly, it had to be the longest of long shots.

Dan called me back about 15 minutes later. To my surprise, he had reached Crist and shockingly, at least to me, he was willing to do something.

Like many Democrats, I had found Crist to be a reasonable guy, but clearly on the issue of voting, he had to toe the party line, right?  I mean, this is a guy who just two months earlier was on the short list for VP of the guy we were trying to beat.

Turns out, Dan had found an executive order from 2002 which Jeb Bush had issued when a shibacle with voting machines in Broward had led to voters being turned away or standing in long lines.  That order extended voting hours, and created a precedent.  It was enough for Gov Crist to issue his order:  four more hours of voting each of the last five days of early voting.  When Dan called me that afternoon, I was shocked.

Almost immediately, Speaker Marco Rubio suggested the House might challenge Crist's ruling, but in the end, I am assuming decided that even if he succeeded in reversing the Crist order, it could come at
great political peril.

The rest is history.  People continued to turn out in literal droves. In many places, the lines were still very long, but the opportunity to cast a ballot was much less cumbersome.  The extension of hours had a secondary impact:  it meant more than half of people who would vote in 2008 cast their ballot before Election Day, making that day run much smoother.  The three day drama of 2012 did not happen in 2008, in large part because Election Day was a breeze.

It also gave me a very cool personal moment.  The sheer number of people who had turned out before Election Day meant that our likely lead going into November 4, 2008 was likely bigger than McCain could overcome, giving me the opportunity to tell then Senator Obama on  November 3rd in Jacksonville that we had likely already sealed the deal here in Florida.  And with the last Republican to win the White
House without Florida being Calvin Coolidge, winning Florida meant it was pretty much game, set, match.

Fast forward four years, and we all know what happened.  Long lines, created by shorter voting periods, an Election Day that was in several places, a complete mess, and a Florida election once again a punch line on late night TV. The current Governor chose not to take action.

The politically expedient move Governor Crist on October 28, 2008 would have been to hit ignore on the phone when Dan Gelber's number came up, and simply to say there was nothing he could do.  But he took the call, and worked with a member not of his party to solve this problem, just as he had on big issues before and just as he would after.  He didn't check with his base, or run it by a pollster, or go out and do some focus groups.  Instead he simply took a phone call from a member of the other party and made a decision that he knew many in his own party would not like.  

Unfortunately for him, and frankly unfortunately for America, too often these days, elected officials are measured only by their blind party loyalty. In the end, because of his bipartisan approach, his party base basically threw him out.  This isn't just a problem in the GOP -- though it seems more acute their today, it is a problem in both parties.  The word bipartisanship in the political echo chamber is now a bad word, even though I am convinced Americans are begging for it.   I truly worry that rank partisanship on both sides is slowly tearing apart the fabric of our country.  

Dan used to say about his Republican friends in Tallahassee that when they bucked leadership it took real courage and should be celebrated.  On that day, five years ago, Charlie Crist showed real courage, the kind of courage that is rare today, in any state, and sadly, by either party.


Remembering Matt

I don't use this space to write about personal stuff much.  Today I will diverge.

Today is my friend Matt Grindy's birthday. He is 33.  Or well, he should be.  Instead he left us, just a few days before Valentines Day in 2008.  He barely saw 27.

I met Matt, like we all meet so many people in our lives, simply by chance.  In the summer of 2006, I went back to graduate school. I had initially signed up for a class at FSU in the Political Science department, but a friend of mine, Trevor Kincaid, suggested I take a political communications class taught by Danielle Weise in the Communications Department.  So I did.  

I walked in the first day and I was both the oldest one there, at the ripe age of like 31, and one of only 8 grad students in a class mixed with graduate and undergraduate students.  I was in a suit, and rather stuck out in an afternoon summer class at FSU.  I am sure you can imagine.

Matt Grindy was a PhD student in the class and on that first day, introduced himself, probably mostly curious what this guy in the suit was doing.  Tall and casual, the look of a lifelong grad student, I liked Matt immediately and we started to hang out.  And when the class was over, we would occasionally meet for coffee, debating things like who would be the next Democratic nominee for President.  I liked Obama.  I think he was more a Richardson guy at the time, but think I helped him get there on the junior Senator from Illinois.

About that time (I may have calendar a bit wrong), Matt found out he had a rare and rather devastating form of cancer.  He spent a lot of time getting treated at Shands, and spending a lot of time on the road, I started to go see him, typically as often as I could get an hour or so off the interstate in Gainesville.  I often stopped too so I could update our mutual friend, Alex Acosta, who was living in Mexico about how Matt was doing.  It was about that time that I met his wife Amber Bell, who if there is ever a book written about caring for a loved one, should be the subject.   Unconditional love doesn't even start to describe the way she cared for him during that time.  

Matt's treatment was brutal.  They threw pretty much everything they had at it.  It seemed every time they would get close to some new treatment that might get him on a better path, he would have a setback, and by the time he got to Moffit the last time in 2008, he was in bad shape.  Anyone who has walked the cancer journey with a loved one knows this story all too well.

But this isn't a story about death. Its a story about living.

The whole time Matt struggled, he kept those around him in good spirits.  And he never stopped chasing his dream, finishing his Ph.D.  While undergoing some of the hardest cancer treatments around, he co-wrote a book, finished his coursework and dissertation and never lost hope that he would live.  Simply, he never stopped living.

I remember going to see him in Tampa maybe a month before he passed.  He was surrounded by old friends who had come to be with him in this apartment near Moffitt where he lived between treatments. All he seemed to want was to go home.  His pain was hard to watch. Yet even as he would squirm in his chair trying to find any comfortable spot, he was quick witted with his friends.  And while the drugs didn't seem to matter to his comfort, going home did.  That was his wish.  And he did, on a journey that Amber once told me was probably as hard as a lot of his treatment. 

I got to see Matt a few more times before he passed.  But like the 50 or so others that were there, I'll never forget the last time.  See FSU's administration had learned how sick he had become and knowng that Matt had completed his requirements for his Ph.D., much of it done while surviving cancer, made the determination that he was ready to graduate.  But since Matt had no chance to living until graduation, the President of FSU came to his room, with his Major Professors, and graduated him in his hospital bed.  He had done it. 

I tried to go see him one more time and Amber said it wasn't possible.  In the end, he lived two more days. 

Matt and I had talked over the couple years before he passed that maybe we'd work on a campaign together, starting by helping Barack Obama together in 2008.  I had this little dream that maybe they would call me and give me a shot to run it.  It wasn't likely, but it was fun for us to talk about those times in the hospital, or in the coffee shops in downtown Gainesville.  He'd always say "why not you" or "why not go after it -- what do you have to lose?"

In the end, I did get that call, but he didn't make it that far.  Had he, Matt probably would have been the first guy I hired, just because I liked him that much.  And trust me, when days got tough in that campaign, I'd often walk into the little park across the street from our office and think about Matt.  In fact, I still often do.

In life, we are shaped by the people we meet.  You never know when the next new person in your life is one who will have a profound impact.  Meeting a friend like Matt was the last thing on my mind when I walked into that classroom in the University Center in May of 2006.  

In the end, I knew Matt less than two years.  But his impact on me, like so many others who he met, will last a lifetime.   In the end, even in his hardest days, he never gave up, he never got angry, he never said why me, and he never, ever, stopped chasing his own personal rainbows.  A lesson for all of us.

Amber - Thanks for letting me part of your family for those two years and Matt, thanks for your friendship and I can't wait to go find a cup of coffee with you one day.


Takeaways from the Amanda Murphy win

Amanda Murphy's win in Pasco County last night was significant.  But just how significant?  As can be expected, everyone has an opinion on what it means.  From my view, its less about what it means and more what are the lessons that can be learned.  Here's my take:

1.  Candidates Matter.  Candidates Really Matter.

I am certain that the Republican nominee, Bill Gunter, is a good guy. I truly like GOP Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran and if Richard vouches for him, that's good by me.  But by most objective standards, the new State Representative Amanda Murphy, wins the bio test.  She has a long record in the community, is a businesswoman and strikes a really good profile in a swing seat.  Candidate quality is important in swing districts, far more than partisans want to admit.   It was they key to our success in 2006 when I worked for the Democrat's House campaign effort, and it was why the Democrats won this race.  This became a race only when Murphy got in the race, and in this case, her profile overcame a major financial disadvantage to win crossover voters, including Pasco's most important swing vote:  Mike Fasano.

2.  Mike Fasano is ridiculously popular in Pasco County.  Like crazy ridiculously popular. 

Longtime legislator and current Tax Collector Mike Fasano has numbers that any public figure would die for.  In this district, in polling I saw, his fav/unfav was 86:9.  I am not sure George Washington could carry those numbers.  One Republican said to me: "he could beat Jeb there" and another said, with nothing but respect: "Pasco voters would elect him Overlord for Life if he wanted."  Fasano leaned in hard and it was clearly a difference maker -- if not the most important factor.  If I go to war in Pasco County, I want him in my corner.

3.  The GOP brand has seen better days.

Just by turnout alone, Gunter should have won.  But the atmospherics for the GOP are not good.  When the voting happened, soft Republicans bolted to the Democrat, as did Independents -- and that is why the numbers worked for Murphy in this special election.  Moderate Republicans are clearly not comfortable with where the party is today, and more than likely, the shibacle in DC contributed. But typically Republicans are more loyal to their party than Democrats, at least in Florida, which is why my GOP friends need to pay attention to this: this time their frustration led them to vote for a a centrist Democrat.  My party saw some of the same issues in 2009 and it didn't work out well for us in 2010.   The moderates in the GOP don't want the same thing as their base, and they showed it in HD 36.  If that continues forward, I don't have to tell you what that means for 2014.  St Pete Mayors race will be the next indicator.

4.  This isn't a predicator, but it is a canary.

Every election means something.  In this one, a well qualified centrist Democrat backed by several key moderate Republicans overcame a massive money advantage and turnout disadvantage to beat a Republican who ran a fairly typical partisan message.  Swing voters in this district in the data I saw liked Crist and liked Fasano, both seen as more independent minded.  Does that alone mean Charlie Crist beats Rick Scott? No.  Does it mean something?  Well, you do the math.

5  Voters are still trying to say something.

We've been on a political see-saw for the last nearly 10 years and I think it is for a very basic reason:  Most voters aren't as ideological or partisan as their elected leaders or the political class in general, and they are clearly frustrated by the direction of things.  Don't believe me, just look at polls.  But voters can't force partisans to compromise and work together, so when politicos retreat to their camps,  voters can only reject what is in front of them.  Based on some polling I saw here, the swing voters here were frustrated with Governor Scott, frustrated with Congress, and frustrated with the direction of the nation and state.  They had an alternative that seemed less partisan, so they went for it.  

6. My party has gotten its act together.

It hasn't been a pretty two months for my team, but in the end, elections are what matters, nothing else.  They recruited well, took advantage of opportunities and got the W.  GOP House Campaign wizard and my friend Frank Terraferma, who I think is the most underrecognized political mind in the state, is going to have some actual competition this time -- and competition breeds better candidates, better campaigns and better legislators.  We are a free market nation built on competition and when we get it in the political world, I strongly believe that's good news for America.


The Lesson of Allie Braswell

Two things happen when political death occurs:  The opposition beats their chest and allies start pointing fingers.  The unfortunate case of Allie Braswell for statewide Chief Financial Officer certainly fit the bill.  Braswell's unfortunate decision to announce his decision to run for CFO without doing all the required homework led to probably the shortest statewide campaign in history. Predictably, both sides pounced on the Democratic Party's inability to recruit strong statewide candidates.

I try to use this space to write about objective matters -- data and trends.  I try to avoid writing about my clients and certainly have avoided writing about the mechanical ups and downs of the Florida Democratic Party.  But I thought this was a good opportunity to share a little context.

In my seventeen years in this industry, I've worn a lot of different "hack hats," including candidate recruiter.  Quite honestly, it was easily the most challenging job I've ever had, and in some ways, the most rewarding.  Seeing someone who you encouraged for months actually take the plunge, then thrive as a candidate and win is truly an amazing joy. 

But recruiting is very hard. Failure is the only given -- you will hear "NO" far more than you hear yes.

And candidates matter.  I knew in 2006 on the last day of qualifying that we would pick up seats in the Florida House -- something my party hadn't done for 14 years, simply because we had put better players on the field.  Most of the time, voters get it right -- meaning that in a competitive open seat election, they will choose the better resume.  I have a lot of friends who subscribe to the "we need a candidate in every seat" strategy, when in fact, history shows we need really good candidates in the seats we can win.  

If I had a nickel for every time I heard "FIRSTNAME LASTNAME is a phenomenal candidate BUT..."  in my time working at the Party, I would be retired to a lake house in North Carolina.  If you have to use "BUT" to describe your candidate, in the words of my friend Bernie Campbell, they aren't a great candidate.  If I have a critique of my party over the years, there has been a tendency at times to take what raises their hands, even if there was a "BUT" in the resume, or trying to make those candidates into something they are not. 

In 2005, when I was recruiting for 2006, as a one man shop with 120 seats on my radar, I had two choices:  really focus on opportunities or focus on everything.  I chose the former -- even if it meant recruiting where there candidates existed.  Luis Garcia won a seat in Miami that no one thought we could win because we decided --- despite the early entry of another candidate -- that he was the only one who could win that seat.  We could have walked away from it and focused finding candidates in other, less winable seats.  Again - and academic research bears this out, candidates and candidate quality matters. 

So here are a couple of things to keep in mind about candidates:

1.  Most sane and qualified people will initially think you are nuts to suggest running for office.  I am a big believer that the best candidates for office in swing seats are the community leader types who have spent a lifetime running for office and never knew it.  This is surely because that was the model from my first boss, Doug Wiles, who had done about everything imaginable in community service except put his name on the ballot.  But a lot of these types don't want to run.  They abhor partisanship, they think they can make a bigger difference locally and/or they don't want to take the time away from their business and family.   I had people hang up on me, others who said "Are you F'ing kidding me" and many more who just couldn't get their arms around the idea of politics.  I also had districts where I talked to 30-40 people, all who said no.

It is especially hard when you are recruiting people to run as Democrats.  Again, understanding the type of profile that tends to win in swing seats, the idea of serving in the minority is not appealing to many.  Add to it the need to go to war every two years to get re-elected and it can be a hard sell.  It isn't an excuse -- it is a reality.  I do think this changes some if a Democrat is elected Governor.

2. Term Limits impacts everything.  There is now a ton of academic research which demonstrates how term limits impacts the decision of candidates to run for office.  Incumbency is a pretty big deal.  I can't remember the exact number, but fewer than 20 incumbents have lost in the Florida House since term limits started in 2000, and on the State Cabinet, you have to go back to 1998 to find an incumbent who was defeated (Sandy Mortham in a primary) and back to 1994 to find a Cabinet member who lost re-election in a general election. If you assume that most successful candidates are rational actors, they can use the Google and find this out as well.  Rational candidates don't typically engage in high risk or fruitless endeavors.

3.  When it comes to campaigns, people in politics make decisions based on their interests, not their party.  Pundits, observer and activists tend to talk about candidates in the abstract -- he or she comes from X region, or has x background.   But often people for get, as simple as it sounds -- and to steal a concept from Governor Romney, candidates are people too.

Take for example Jack Seiler, the Mayor of Fort Lauderdale.  I think Jack is one of the brightest and most talented elected officials in our party -- a view shared by a lof of people on both sides of the aisle.  Jack could be a strong candidate for Attorney General or CFO (or for that matter, Governor).  But I am also confident that Jack will not be on the 2014 ballot?  Why?  He has a great job that he loves and he has a family.  Running against an incumbent is an uphill climb and my party has a history of being unkind to candidates who run and lose.  So why risk it, when he can wait four years and run when there is no incumbent. 

For this reason, I don't buy into the lack of bench argument for either party.  One of the other laws of politics:  things are never as bad or as good as they seem certainly plays in here.  Without going to deep in the weeds, I could think of a dozen Democrats like Jack Seiler who would be strong statewide candidates for one of the three Cabinet positions.  And none of them are likely to run.  Why?  Because they don't have to.  This is less of a bench problem than it is a calendar problem.   Do I wish some of them would step up and run?  Absolutely -- competition is at the heart of and vital for democracy.  That being said, do I understand their decision to sit these races out? Completely I do.  In democracy, you decide when and where you want to raise your hand.  

And I don't suspect this is a conversation we will be having in 2018. 

Which takes us back to Allie Braswell.  I run into a lot of Allie Braswell's on the road -- well intentioned people who say "why not me" when looking at running statewide.   They underestimate the sheer size and scope of Florida, the challenge of raising money, and the scrutiny that comes from the magnifying glass of public attention.  I've worked on four statewide campaigns and one other statewide operation, and until you've done it, you simply can't comprehend just how big Florida really is.  I basically gave up sleep for entire years -- and I wasn't the one on the ballot.  Dan Gelber once said that running downballot is like running for Governor on a State Senate budget and campaign. And as Dan proved, if you pick the wrong year to run, there isn' t much you can do anyways, since downballot candidates often lack the name ID to separate themselves from the political tradewinds.

Therefore, when I get a chance to talk to these folks, I lean in pretty hard on these points, and always encourage looking at another office.   Running statewide when you are not ready and losing by a huge margin isn't good for you, or your party.  

Was the Braswell candidacy an utter disaster?  Yes.  Does it mean the end of Democrats in Florida?  Hardly not.  And for my Democratic friends, while I think 2014 could be a good year at the top of the ticket for the home team, it isn't going to be a huge year down the ballot.  The open seats in the legislature aren't great either.  But as you look to 2016 and 2018 and beyond, more doors open.  People say politics is about timing and opportunity -- and i would add one more, preparation.  So don't stress about the Allie Braswell deal -- start focusing on where the opportunities exist on the future calendar.  And don't take my word for it -- look at history.  It is how the GOP went from the sidewalk to the penthouse.