Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
While fighting to enact stricter gun control locally, Messam is launching a 2020 campaign to built on addressing student loan debt and climate change.
Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Florida, rarely shies away from confrontation. After the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in 2018, he and several other Florida mayors sought to enforce stronger local gun restrictions. But they were stalled by strict state preemption measures, which mandate that even proposing to ban gun use on city-owned property can get local officials fined and fired by the governor. Following the lead of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who defended his city’s gun control restrictions in 2017, Messam and the other mayors advocating for municipal-level firearm measures sued the state. If successful, Miramar could declare public buildings, such as the city’s new 5,000-seat amphitheater, gun-free.
And now, as Messam continues the battle for more local control over gun regulations, he’s joining a growing group of Democratic mayors and former mayors who are running for the highest office in the country: POTUS. Messam launched an exploratory committee last week, after telling Buzzfeed, “If a mayor from South Bend can do it, then why not a mayor from Miramar?”
That South Bend, Indiana-mayor is Pete Buttigieg, who’s risen to prominence fast—scoring a CNN town hall at SXSW; a Guardian book review calling his autobiography Shortest Way Home the best since Obama’s; and a spot on the Democratic presidential debate stage. Messam hasn’t published his autobiography yet, but he laughs when people tell him he’s a long shot. A local construction business owner whose immigrant father was a sugarcane cutter in Jamaica, he already overcame the odds when he beat a 16-year incumbent to become Miramar’s first African-American mayor in 2015. In the four days after announcing his intent to run, he’s received donations from people in 17 states, with the average donation under $50, a spokesperson for his campaign said.
CityLab caught up with Messam to talk gun control, the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, and what city politics can teach a leader about running a country.
Citylab: What got you into politics at the city level in the first place?
Wayne Messam: Ever since a young age, I've always been in a leadership position. I was my senior class president [in high school]. When I played football as a starting wide receiver at Florida State University my senior year, I was student government vice president for 40,000 students. So I've always been, not necessarily politically engaged, but I've always been a leader amongst my peers.
When I started my business [Messam Construction] here in south Florida, in wanting to learn more about our local government, one step led to another. In 2011, I decided to run for city commissioner. I jumped in the race right before qualifying ended, and was a long shot to win. Still, I actually won the election by 30-plus votes. I got right to work as the city commissioner, and then decided to run for mayor in 2015, becoming the first African-American mayor of our very diverse city.
I've always just wanted to be connected to people. I see myself as a problem solver, and I think my business background helps me be able to process challenges, to meet demands, and to make things better.
You’re one of several mayors and former mayors that are thinking about running for president on the Democratic ticket in 2020. In the past, the knock has been: How can someone go from running a city to running the country? But it seems like now more than ever people are changing that perception. What do you think prepares a mayor uniquely to be the president?
I think what prepares mayors uniquely for leadership nationally is that people see that Washington is broken. It's not working for them. Mayors are closest to the people and, in all candor, mayors end up cleaning up a lot of Washington's mess. You talk about the challenges that we have to deal with when serving our constituents? Local government can't shut down. We have to make sure that our infrastructure is intact. We have to make sure our water is clean, and to make sure our garbage is collected, and, more importantly, to make sure our streets are safe.
And as a mayor you can't hide among 400 other members or 99 other members in your body around issues that you aren't successful with—in terms of bills that did not pass or didn't even make committee. Mayors have a unique perspective of solving big challenges and big ideas, and we have to bring those things to life.
In Miramar, we’re tackling the issue of gun violence to keep our city safe. We’re fighting with our state so that we can do so. As mayor, I faced a hurricane, and had to clean up our city after a natural disaster. I couldn’t wait for Washington and FEMA to come in. We have to be ready: Preparing for the storm when it comes, enduring the impact when it hits, and restoring the community when it leaves.
Right now, the city of Miramar is fighting a company that owns land right outside of our city, that's trying to drill oil right on our boundary. It’s threatening the Everglades, and impacting the integrity and quality of our drinking water.
These are real life issues that we are facing. This nation is built up of communities all across this country. It would help if Washington could help municipalities more, but the sad truth is they're not doing all that they can do. We're still waiting on an infrastructure package. But you know what? I have to make sure that the bridges that go across our canals are safe. I have to make sure that we have the appropriate infrastructure so that we can remain a corporate leader.
One of the policy priorities you’ve outlined is cancelling student loan debt. Why would this be one of your first steps?
There's been a lot of discussion about debt-free college from many people. I think before we can solve that issue, we have to address the $1.5 trillion in student loan debt that is plaguing Americans right now. And it's really a moral issue, in my opinion. In this nation, you should not have to mortgage your entire professional life paying off your education. We will be rolling out more specific details in a couple of weeks, but we know that every person deserves the right to get higher education without the penalty of crippling debt once they've received their degree so that they can live the American dream.
What are your thoughts on the college admissions cheating scandal that broke last week? It seems like it confirms some of the worst perceptions about who really gets the chance to go to college in the U.S.
It really just speaks to the fact that the system is broken, and in this specific case not only is it broken, but the American Dream is basically up for the highest bidder. The fact of the matter is that you have individuals—rich individuals—who are using their wealth on behalf of their children to skip over and jump over deserving students who have qualified for those specific slots to be accepted into these universities.
When I look at this more personally, I played football at Florida State University on scholarship there. When I heard that one of the examples in that scandal was where a rich parent pressured an athletic department and coaches to give their child an athletic scholarship—we spent four-to-six hours in our day training, practicing, and preparing for our sport on top of the rigors of academic coursework. We put in blood, sweat, and tears to earn our scholarships—not only to earn it, but to maintain it. And to know that these people just bought their way into these colleges? If we look at the sacrifices that I made—the hard work, and time commitment that my fellow student athletes made—it’s angering. It is very upsetting.
What we have to do is make sure that we restore the integrity of the academic system. We need a leader who can recognize this and who can speak to the fact that the urgency of change can't wait. Change can't wait. We have to fix this broken system.
Other Democratic candidates have put the dignity of work and income inequality at the forefront of their campaigns. I'm wondering where you stand on things like universal basic income; federal minimum wage; and reparations. Are there any specific policy proposals that jump out at you as being more viable than others?
What I can do is talk about my own experience. I'm a business owner. I create jobs. But I'm also a mayor of a major city in Florida that passed a living wage. I recognize that if you work for the city of Miramar, you shouldn't have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. And these are things that can be translated nationwide.
Couple that with the fact that we're going to really make a push for this student loan debt forgiveness. Because when you have the crippling effect of high student loan debt over your head, it’s harder to find housing and healthcare coverage. And, if you have a family, you’re also responsible for taking care of your children, and preparing for their college process—so it's not only the debt that you have for your own education. Now you have to prepare for the debt that your children are going to have when they enter into college.
Even after shootings like Parkland, federal action on gun control has been slow. But there’s been recent activity: The House just passed a bill mandating universal background checks, and it’s headed to the Senate. I'm wondering what federal policy do you advocate for when it comes to gun control?
I support any legislation that makes sure—while keeping the integrity of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms—that if you have a gun, you are a person who should have a gun.
I would support those types of policies that check the backgrounds of individuals, and makes sure that they should have a gun. Think about the issues that take place in our cities: 15 minutes up the road from Miramar is Parkland. In that mass shooting, the type of gun that was used was a military-style rifle that is designed to just create the complete annihilation of life.
Those type of guns should not be acceptable. I would support legislation that will keep those types of guns out of the hands of people, and especially the ones that should not have them. So it's really about having common sense legislation that is in place that does not allow the NRA to have free reign on our legislative process so that these weapons can continue to pour into our streets, into the hands of individuals that are shooting up schools, and that are plaguing our neighborhood streets. Those acts of violence are not covered every day in the news like a Parkland; like a Columbine; like an Aurora. But every day in the streets of America these guns and these individuals who should not have these guns are wreaking havoc on American society. And it has to stop.
Zooming out to a more global issue, something that you've also been focused on in Miramar and now in your exploratory campaign is climate change. What do you think of the federal action so far on climate change—the Green New Deal, specifically—and what would you prioritize?
Climate change is a big issue. In fact, when you cite the [U.N.] Climate Change report that basically states that if we don't act in 10 years there will be irreversible damage to the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, that is an alarming statistic.
I think right now there's a lot of talk about climate change obviously with [the Green New Deal] that was sent down in Washington. I support the urgency, and the end goal of that proposal. There's no question that we must take immediate action when it comes to climate change.
I have a business that is a climate-conscious business. I build sustainable projects. My company was part of building the greenest school industry in South America: Galaxy Elementary was the first LEED platinum school in the southeast. And most of our projects are involved in improving mechanical systems to make them more energy efficient to lower our carbon footprint.
Many of the issues you’ve brought up as important to you—for example climate change, gun control, and infrastructure—are things that can be addressed incrementally at the local level, but that are also perhaps harder to implement there, especially when the state gets involved. Do you feel like state preemption issues, like the one that you faced around gun control, has led you to seek a higher office? To push through some of the challenges that you might have by trying to enact big legislature at a local level?
Of course we have challenges with the state government and federal government. But what we're seeing is that the answers aren't coming from Washington.
In the city of Miramar, we banned the box: We believe that if you've made a mistake in the past, it should not be a death sentence and shouldn’t prohibit you from having initial screenings in the city of Miramar.
In terms of illegal immigration enforcement, Miramar facilities—our parks and recreation centers—will not be places where there can be unwarranted immigration enforcement. We believe that individuals should feel safe when they come to our city functions and events without thinking it’s going to be some sting operation when they have not ever committed a crime.
And we're adopting a minority women in business enterprise program. We are trying to ensure that young entrepreneurs who may have barriers in doing business with government have those barriers removed, and to increase their participation in government purchasing.
These issues need fresh eyes. They need someone who is closest to the American people on a daily basis. And being the mayor, we’re closest to the people.