It’s Tuesday night—Election Day. Several dozen people are gathered outside of Punky’s Bar and Grille, an LGBTQ+-owned restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida, to watch general election results come in. They’re members and supporters of the campaign of Richie Floyd, a democratic socialist and candidate for St. Pete City Council who dominated his primary election in August.
Floyd won nearly 52% of the vote in the primary’s four-way race, in which votes were limited to residents of his district. For the general election, the vote was city-wide, massively expanding the number of votes he’d need to win.
As results are tallied on Tuesday, the crowd’s energy shifts from that of excitement to tension. The race is closer than anticipated. First, Floyd, then his opponent, is up by a razor-thin margin. Someone’s crying, and it’s impossible to discern why. It could be frustration, the heat, or the life of one hell of a campaign flashing before their eyes.
By ten o’clock, the race is still too close to call. All other races on the city’s municipal ballot, including four other City Council seats and a mayoral race, were called hours ago. People begin cracking jokes to break the tension. Ordering more alcohol. The anticipation in the air is palpable.
And then, there’s the win.
By a slim margin of just over 800 votes, 30-year-old Richie Floyd, a charismatic teacher, community organizer, proud union member, and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)-endorsed candidate won his election Tuesday night for an open seat on the City Council of St. Petersburg, a Democratic stronghold in central Florida.
By the end of the night, Floyd had earned about 51% of the vote, equivalent to over 30,000 votes citywide, making him the first open democratic socialist elected to office in Florida in over a hundred years.
“This win belongs to the working people of St Pete, and every single person that supported and fought alongside us!” Floyd wrote in a Twitter post, published just after midnight. “A better world is possible, and it starts in St Pete!”
All municipal races in St. Petersburg, including the City Council and mayoral races, are non-partisan. Floyd could have easily kept his political affiliation under wraps, facing off against “No Party Affiliated” Jeff Danner, a former City Council member in Floyd’s district who had the advantage of name recognition, plus the endorsement of Florida’s largest non-union newspaper.
But for Floyd, running an apolitical campaign devoid of his values would have been besides the point. “I’m a democratic socialist,” Floyd, an active member of his local DSA chapter, told Protean matter-of-factly, just days before his general election victory.
Running for office and winning a seat on City Council, Floyd said, was secondary. At the heart of his campaign, and his primary goal in running for office, was doing his part to help build a working-class movement. “[We’re] fighting for a brighter future for working people in St. Pete, Florida, and across the country.”
Florida is regularly described by politicos as “Trump Country”—an increasingly red state that’s fast becoming something like a lost cause for the corporate, moderate wing of the state Democratic Party. (Naturally, they blame it on socialism.)
In actuality, Florida is no stranger to socialist politics. Florida’s Socialist Party of America (SPA) has a rich history in the state. It thrived about a century ago, maintaining a strong presence for at least a decade. In 1912, for instance, more Floridians voted for labor activist and socialist U.S. presidential candidate Eugene Debs than they did for William Taft or Theodore Roosevelt, according to Robert Steven Griffin, author of a historical paper titled “Workers of the Sunshine State Unite!”
“Rising out of the turmoil of Florida’s manufacturing boom of the early twentieth century, the Florida Socialist Party provided an outlet for many Floridians’ discontent with the growing economic disparities that characterized the state’s rapid commercialization,” Griffin wrote.
From 1906 to 1912, several members of the Florida SPA successfully ran for office in the Tampa Bay region, including former socialist mayor E.E. Wintersgill of Gulfport, who was elected to office in 1910, and Manatee County socialist Andrew Jackson Pettigrew, elected to the state House in 1906. Florida workers saw stagnant wages in the early 1900s, longer hours, and a decrease in the number of wage earners across most areas of the state. These dispiriting developments, Griffin wrote, “encouraged radicalism” in workers. Florida’s population explosion at the time, too—attributed in part to an influx of immigrants from countries such as Italy, Cuba, Germany, and Spain—contributed to the ushering in of “socialist militancy,” as did the general disaffection of organized labor.
Today, union density in Florida rests at about 6.4%. Registered Democrats just barely outnumber Republican voters across the state. Nearly one-third of Florida voters are “No Party Affiliated” or belong to minor parties.
Suffice it to say, Florida hasn’t been considered fertile ground for socialist candidates for some time. Prior to Tuesday, there had been only two Florida DSA members in elected office: a member of the Orange County Soil and Water Conservation District and a member of the Hillsborough County School Board. Both offices are non-partisan, and neither campaigned as open, explicitly socialist candidates. Richie Floyd, himself a union member who’s well aware of Florida’s socialist history, wasn’t deterred by the lack of modern precedent in the state. “Our politics resonate everywhere,” Floyd told Protean. “The people who live here are just as exploited, if not more than anywhere else. They’re just as pissed off about it as anywhere else… What’s the difference in Florida than anywhere else? We’re all workers.”
St. Pete is a culturally rich city of roughly 265,000 residents in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, located just over 100 miles southwest of Orlando. Here, most voters are registered Democrats, outnumbering Republicans nearly two to one. Once nicknamed “God’s waiting room” in reference to its reputation as a retirement community, St. Pete is beginning to skew younger, with a median age of about 43, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Driving through, there’s no shortage of rainbow LGBTQ+ flags. Residential lawns, as well as bars and restaurants down Central Avenue, proudly display signs declaring “Black Lives Matter”—some of the last visible remnants of the protests that filled the streets and sidewalks of St. Pete last summer, with demands for police accountability and an end to racial injustice.
South St. Pete, referred to by some as the “South Side,” contains neighborhoods that are majority-Black, just below the bustling, liberal enclave of Central Avenue, and east of N. 49th Street. Here reside generations of Black families, some of whom are still waiting on the materialization of decades-old promises from local politicians—promises of good-paying jobs, rehabilitation, and economic opportunity. The adjacent Gas Plant District, a center of the Black community, was razed by the city in the 1970s for capital; it is now occupied by a ballpark.
Racial and economic justice, both issues that have been particularly salient over the last year (as they always are in the U.S.), were also central to this year’s Floridian municipal elections. On Tuesday, St. Pete voted in their first Black mayor in city history: Ken Welch, a former Republican, now Democrat, who campaigned on doing right by St. Pete’s historically neglected South Side.
Richie Floyd, who is also Black, didn’t grow up in St. Pete, but was born in Florida’s Panhandle. Matt Gaetz’s district, he admits, dryly. Floyd moved to St. Pete shortly after graduating college in 2017 for a job as a systems engineer in the defense sector.
This was a reluctant move on his part. “I needed healthcare, and I had student loans to pay off,” he shared. He was dissatisfied, cynical about the idea of working within the military-industrial complex. When a teaching opportunity at a local magnet school came up—a union job, no less—he jumped at it, eager to join the rank-and-file and get involved in the labor movement.
Today, he and his wife Miranda, who is also a teacher and active member of the Pinellas DSA chapter, are members of their local teachers union and delegates to the West Central Florida Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. “We came to leftism [and socialism] together,” Floyd told Current Affairs in an interview earlier this year. Both took inspiration from Jeremy Corbyn and Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaigns for healthcare for all and free college they credit, at least in part, with moving them further to the left.
A City Council seat, they both figured, was winnable—an achievable goal for someone like Floyd, who’d been embedded in the community for years as a teacher, union member, activist, and an all-around “good neighbor.” Those are his own words, and they are earnest and sincere. He’s a member of his neighborhood association, and, in addition to his organizing work with Pinellas DSA, he has done coalition work with groups like Dream Defenders, a civil rights organization that endorsed his campaign, as well as environmental and social justice organizations. He won the endorsement of his predecessor, Amy Foster, a Democrat, early on—even before his opponent in the General Election, Jeff Danner, had filed to run.
Of all four candidates who eventually filed to run for his City Council seat, Floyd was the first to declare his candidacy in late November of last year. Initially, he said, he and his volunteers mostly did a lot of listening.
“We didn’t come out with a platform until we had been canvassing for a couple months,” Floyd said, adding later that he and Pinellas DSA have made a solid effort of building relationships with community allies to instill a sense of camaraderie—even with those they may not always see eye-to-eye with politically. “If it’s influenced by the community, the community resonates more with it.”
Housing affordability, for instance, has been a central issue on the minds of people in Tampa Bay. Over the first half of 2021, Tampa Bay’s rent rose faster than any metro area in the United States. A surge in housing costs, widespread job loss, and the inspired militancy of the local Black Lives Matter-affiliated movement last year also spurred the formation of the grassroots, anti-capitalist St. Pete Tenants Union.
William Kilgore, the founder of the tenants union, enthusiastically supported Floyd’s campaign for local office. “He’s going to fight for working people, and he’s going to fight for our interests over the interests of industry,” Kilgore, a lifelong Pinellas County resident, told Protean on Monday. “We’re going to need a mass movement and collective action to meet the challenges of the housing situation.”
Floyd’s housing platform, like that of other socialists running for office, recognizes housing as a human right. He supports housing policy that would shift the city away from housing as a commodity, invest in public housing, strengthen tenant protections, and create community land trusts that would allow for homeownership and renting to be removed from the pressures of the marketplace.
Although they wouldn’t admit it, this is a big departure from housing policies proposed by most other electeds in the city. Friendly relationships between real estate developers and elected officials have, for years, brought with them promises of more jobs, as well as no shortage of luxury condos for the wealthy—further widening the gap between the St. Petersburg elite and everyday folks just trying to get by.
All municipal candidates voted into office in St. Pete on Tuesday, save for Floyd, accepted money from housing lobbyists this election cycle: namely, from Florida affiliates of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and National Apartments Association (NAA)—some of the biggest donors to the GOP “sedition caucus” that contested last year’s U.S. presidential election results.
“No other candidate in recent times has been willing to attack those prerogatives of the wealthy, and those who basically run and control our political system,” said Bruce Nissen, a 73-year-old DSA member, retired professor of labor studies, and longtime labor activist who’s lived in Pinellas County for years. Everyday working people, said Nissen, believe the rich are bankrolling the political system, buying politicians of all political stripes, and ensuring the political outcomes they want, further increasing inequality in the country.
Over the course of his campaign, Floyd, though he refused to take money from landlord and developer groups, still outraised his opponent nearly three-to-one, largely by garnering small-dollar donations.
With an unabashed focus on ushering in good, union jobs, bold housing policy, net-zero carbon emissions, and social justice initiatives, his campaign spoke directly to working-class Floridians who, over the last five years, voted for the restoration of voting rights for those convicted of felonies, medical marijuana legalization, and a higher minimum wage for Florida workers—with the latter proving more popular in “Trump Country” than both Biden and Trump.
Floyd, for his part, was asked last year to lead volunteer recruitment efforts for the statewide Florida for 15 coalition (primarily made up of labor unions, political organizations like the DSA, and progressive non-profits) to advocate for Florida’s $15 minimum wage ballot measure. According to Floyd, the coalition ultimately sent over 3.1 million texts to voters “of all political persuasions” throughout the state.
Addressing the material conditions of Floridians, Floyd told In These Times last year, was critical to the ballot measure’s success. “It was about telling working people across the state that there is a real choice on the ballot that can improve people’s lives… It was about focusing on what we can offer and how we can make lives better,” he said.
On a community level, Floyd was also involved in coalitional campaigns last year to cut St. Pete’s police budget, which did not materialize, and to decouple law enforcement from the city’s mental health crisis response—which, to some extent, did.
Over the course of his campaign, Floyd understood that his politics wouldn’t always align with every voter he came across. But it was finding that common ground, and opening up dialogue about bread-and-butter issues, that made his political affiliation, if not irrelevant, then misaligned with reactionary fearmongering.
“What’s really important in a municipal race is that you’re a good neighbor that participates in local life,” said Floyd.
Ultimately, Floyd’s platform, which prioritizes the needs and economic empowerment of everyday people, together with his personal values and his deep-rooted credibility in the community, spoke to thousands of St. Petersburg voters.
Floyd’s win didn’t come without significant ground game. All in all, Floyd estimates that his campaign, made up entirely of volunteers, knocked on some 32,000 doors, made 17,000 calls, and sent roughly 100,000 texts to voters across the city.
This began early. Before others had even filed to run, Floyd’s campaign was out canvassing neighborhoods in his district. About 95% of his volunteer base, Floyd estimates, were DSA members. Over the last year, DSA members traveled from as close as Tampa, just across the bay, and as far as Louisville, Kentucky to knock doors for his campaign, though most of the “regulars” came from his local chapter. One DSA member even made it out from Oakland, California. The Pinellas DSA chapter gained several dozen new members.
But it’s been more than just a campaign of comrades. Dream Defenders, for instance, ran their own, independent canvassing campaign for Floyd after endorsing him in June. Endorsements from the AFL-CIO’s West Central Florida Labor Council and SEIU affiliates, which represent thousands of workers across the state, came in one after another for Floyd. This made it clear to any still in doubt that he was a serious candidate, an advocate for workers who was worth paying attention to.
Unlike democratic socialist India Walton of Buffalo, New York—a former union member who struggled to get the support of organized labor during her mayoral campaign—Floyd had little trouble getting local labor behind him. “Richie has been a supporter of every labor campaign in West Central Florida for at least the last two years that I’ve been heavily involved [in],” said Kyle Milwee, a rank-and-file member of the Laborers Local 517 and chair of the Florida Future Labor Leaders. “I’ve got to back Richie,” Milwee, a self-described Independent, recalled thinking to himself, smiling. “No questions asked.”
Taylor Aguilera, a Democrat who’s also involved with Florida Future Labor Leaders, was similarly impressed by Floyd’s dedication to the labor movement. “Him being a union member and fighting for labor at the city level will be very valuable here in St. Pete,” she told Protean this past Saturday. “He has a good platform to help people, not just corporations in St. Petersburg.”
Other local Democrats similarly lined up behind Floyd. Three sitting City Council members. A member of the Pinellas County school board. And two fairly high-profile Dems who showed up for the final Saturday canvass: former SEIU communications director Eunic Ortiz, who’s currently running for State Senate, and Michele Rayner, a state Representative who became Florida’s first Black, openly LGBTQ+ woman elected to the Florida Legislature last year. (She’s now running for Congress.)
Rayner told Protean she’d worked with Floyd for years on criminal justice reform campaigns during her time as a civil rights lawyer and community advocate, and she knew he could be relied upon to fight hard for the working people of the city. Regardless of how you identify politically, she said, Floyd’s platform was “transcendent.”
“It’s not about what someone’s against,” said Ortiz. “It’s about what you’re for.”
After a night of mixed results for democratic socialists across the country, Floyd’s win has important implications for the viability of socialists running in the South. Both Floyd and DSA-endorsed City Council candidate Danny Nowell of North Carolina had historic wins on Tuesday—the first open socialists elected to office in their respective states in modern-day history. According to DSA’s national organization, nine other DSA-endorsed elected officials, mostly on a local level, currently hold office in the South.
For Floyd, his victory, as close as it was, wasn’t surprising. “We ran the entire campaign around a really positive vision,” Floyd told Protean. On Saturday, he pointed out, “People are hungry for politics that centers the needs of everyday people, first and foremost.” His DSA chapter worked in coalition with a number of community partners, and they put in hundreds of hours of work.
While the Democratic Party suffered cutting losses across the country, Democrats in St. Pete did pretty well. They gained a City Council seat, thanks to the loss of slumlord councilmember Robert Blackmon, who resigned from City Council, effective January, to run for mayor. All winners from the night, including Floyd, are registered Democrats.
Still, further socialist candidates face an uphill battle in the Sunshine State: the state legislature is GOP-controlled. In April, they passed a non-binding resolution formally denouncing democratic socialism in an effort to garner favor with reactionary constituents.
Needless to say, a profound disconnect predominates between working-class Floridians and corporate politicians of both major parties. Florida’s liberal and conservative politicians, responding to the incentives of capital, have a vested interest in discouraging their constituents from recognizing the possibilities of working-class power.
After the state Democratic Party’s embarrassing string of losses last year, several Florida Democrats doubled down on their attempts to sever themselves from the left. “I’m not a f–king socialist”,” Florida Senator Jason Pizzo very candidly told Politico last November, weeks after the 2020 election.
Many Democrats have worked hard to convince Floridians that the baggage of the socialist label is insurmountable, an albatross for any candidate. It works in their favor to have people believe that economic security, a strong social safety net, and greater power in the workplace is unattainable.
Floyd used plain language on the campaign trail to describe his values and what he’s fighting for. “What’s the thing that everybody agrees with until you tell them the name of it? It’s socialism,” he joked. For him, taking steps towards democratic socialism on a community level, in broad strokes, resemble priorities like rejecting corporate influence, putting everyday people ahead of developers and special interests, and empowering workers.
“More socialists should run for office,” said Floyd. “More socialists should get union jobs. More socialists should be organizing in general,” he added. Floyd’s advice: Start local. Make grassroots connections with the communities you’re a part of, and listen, don’t lecture. As he commented, “We knocked on a lot of doors, and we were doing it for a long time. We stuck to our values and were openly like, This is who we are, take it or leave it. And you know, at the end of the day, everything fell into place.”♦
McKenna Schueler is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Florida. She writes about labor, politics, and police accountability, with bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Orlando Weekly, Strikewave, and In These Times. You can find her on Twitter @SheCarriesOn.