SL7: Representative Richardson, thank you for sitting down to talk for a few minutes on matters concerning our state. For the benefit of our readers, I want to share that you and I were first introduced by Tony Lima of South Florida’s SAVE organization last year when I was the campaign manager for the Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce Coalition. Let me begin by thanking you for helping us secure the first-ever hearing of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act in the Senate last year.
Since that time, you’ve been very busy inspecting prisons and finding loads of problems. I would argue that you have emerged as one of the most influential Democrats in the Florida Legislature.
Which leads me to my first question:
SL7: You recently forced a floor vote on LGBT rights by using the House rules to propose amendments to the Transportation Network Companies bill (CS/HB 221). Your amendments would have guaranteed the LGBT community the right to use Uber and other TNC’s, but all of your amendments were voted down. What were you hoping to accomplish and were you surprised by the votes?
Rep. Richardson: First, thank you for asking me to share my thoughts about the current legislative session. This is my fifth legislative session and I continue to enjoy the work serving my constituents. Over the past five years I’ve been waiting for the House Leadership to schedule the Competitive Workforce Act (CWA) for a committee hearing. I’m still waiting. Members of the Minority party have no control over which bills get heard.
One of the few ways that we in the minority have to get our issues aired is through the amendment process. I learned the rules, and I learned the proper and best use of the amendment process. I wrote my amendments in a way that would ensure the debate could take place and show exactly who is willing to support rights for the LGBT community. My goal wasn't to embarrass anyone, but I did want to have an open dialogue on ways we can achieve greater equality. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that the amendments failed, given the sponsor’s unwillingness to support the amendments and the House’s top down leadership style. However, I was surprised that some members who have signed on as a co-sponsor of the CWA bill did not support the amendments.
SL7: Follow up question on the LGBT legislation. Last session, when I was the campaign manager of the business coalition, the Florida Competitive Workforce Act secured its first-ever hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Although we lost in a tie vote of 5-5, we ended session very optimistic about the future. As you know right after 2016, I left the coalition to pursue other projects. In your assessment, what do you think happened since 2016 that essentially made CWA dead on arrival in 2017? What needs to happen going into the 2018 legislative session?
Rep. Richardson: This is a great question, and thanks for your help in getting the bill heard in the Senate last year. As you know, even on the day of the hearing there were thoughts of removing the bill from the agenda, and a few of us made direct appeals to the bill sponsor and others in Senate Leadership. Well, a lot of things have happened since then. First, timing is everything. The Senate committee heard the CWA last year right after the court-ordered State Senate reapportionment. Some of the redrawn Senate seats became more moderate overnight. I can’t help but believe that the recognition of this move towards more moderation in some seats was a consideration in deciding to hear the bill last year.
Second, we have new Leadership in both the Senate and the House. Term limits have created a situation where the Senate President and House Speaker change every two years. This allows for more individuals to serve, but it also means priorities change every two years. The current House Speaker does not seem to have any appetite for hearing any pro-LGBT rights bills, but so far he does not seem anxious to harm the community by hearing some of the heinous anti-LGBT bills we have seen in the past. Third, building relationships with other members is important and makes them less likely to want to harm me personally, even if they are not willing to extend basic rights to the LGBT community. Who can really make a credible argument that an LGBT person should not be able to rent a hotel room, eat in the restaurant of their choice, or be denied a job, simply for being who they were born to be.
Over the summer I studied the CWA and had conversations with many stakeholders. I’m convinced we need a new strategy. Unfortunately, the comprehensive CWA bill is not moving forward in the foreseeable future. Therefore, we need to deconstruct the bill into three separate bills that are all inclusive of the full LGBT community. We need separate bills addressing housing, employment, and public accommodations. Anyone who has been in Tallahassee for even a short time knows that it is far easier to more incrementally, rather than expect to take home the “whole enchilada” at one sitting. I’d rather have something, rather than nothing, as long as that “something” does not violate my core values.
SL7: I’ve been following your trail of surprise prison inspections across the state over the last few years. Arguably, you have single-handedly made a positive impact on our prison system with not only your findings, but by also putting a public spotlight on the entire system. What has been the Florida Dept. of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones’ attitude toward you over the course of your crusade?
Rep. Richardson: Well, the Secretary and I don’t agree on everything, and I frustrate her at times. In fact, she told me so. When I began this work, and it was quite by accident, I knew that to be credible I would have to put in the time studying the issues and that meant making several visits and talking to many inmates. The department has allowed me to use the current state law allowing legislators’ access in order to make my unannounced visits without delays.
While we don’t agree on every issue, I have tremendous respect for the Secretary and her department because our discussions (yes, sometimes debates) always get focused on the real issues. One of her biggest challenges has been how to change a hidden culture that has not always guaranteed inmates a safe and healthy environment. While I sometimes get frustrated with the pace of change, I know we are moving in the right direction. We are all trying to turn a battleship around in the middle of a swimming pool. This takes time, and sometimes you have to take the battleship completely apart and reassemble it piece by piece.
SL7: You recently sent a letter to Governor Scott asking him to take control of a prison operated by a private contractor. What did you find that caused you to go to the governor and what has been his response?
Rep. Richardson: I did ask the Governor to take state control over Gadsden Correctional Institution (Gadsden). My work in helping reform the state prison system led me back to Gadsden recently where I discovered all sorts of problems, including significant issues affecting inmate health and safety. The safety and health concerns are why it is so important for us to get a grip on the management of this institution. Sadly, I have not received any response from the Governor. I know the Department of Management Services (DMS) and various Inspector General offices are conducting reviews of certain matters. By focusing a lot of attention on Gadsden, I am hopeful that the issues will be resolved. I continue to make regular unannounced visits, and I’ve encouraged my colleagues to do the same. I never started this work thinking about the propriety of private prison operators, but my work has led me here.
I strongly believe these contracts must be transferred back to the Florida Department of Corrections where they have the expertise to effect proper government oversight. Also, we have to make the contracts even more finite, so that no contractor can institute overly aggressive cost cutting measures that affect inmate health and safety simply to enhance their own profit margins. Capitalism works in a free market system, but private prison contractors are not operating in the free market. In this case, there is only one customer – the state government. These private contractors do NOT operate in a free market!
SL7: You entered the legislature as Florida’s first-elected openly gay state legislator. Today, you’re considered one of the most influential and respected Democrats in the Legislature. My sense is the “label” of being a gay legislator doesn’t really factor into the work you do or what you’ve accomplished, and more importantly the respect you’ve earned from your colleagues. What has that journey been like for you and what insights can you share in working with Republicans across the aisle?
Rep. Richardson: The last five years has been quite a journey. Once elected, I heard all sorts of reactions to my historic win in August of 2012. I decided early on that I wanted to be a legislator who just happens to be gay, rather than a “gay legislator.” That means, I get involved with all sorts of issues, “dig in” to understand all perspectives, and most importantly build relationships. I have made some terrific friends in this process, including members of the “far-right” caucus. I’ve learned that you can’t hold grudges and you can’t play “get-even.” One day a member may be working against your issue, but the next day you might need his or her support on a different issue. Building relationships has helped me have meaningful conversations about LGBT-related issues when the time is right. In fact, I’ve even had some of the most “far-right” Republicans members ask me sincere questions about the community. Even Governor Scott asked me to help him reach out to the LGBT community after the horrific Pulse tragedy last year. He needed to better understand what the community was experiencing. I spent almost the entire week in Orlando after the Sunday Pulse tragedy quietly working to make sure the state government did not overlook any part of the communities most affected by this tragedy.
SL7: What can you share about the personal side of David Richardson? How do you “recharge” yourself? What interests you so that we may get an insight into the person who leads his district and our state?
Rep. Richardson: You may be surprised to learn that I am a very private person. This probably seems odd coming from a politician, but I really do cherish my privacy. I don’t have much privacy today, and that is a fair trade for my willingness to be a public servant. Many people know me as a very social person, but at the end of the day, when the door is closed, I recharge by listening to the quiet! I enjoy many personal pursuits, but my greatest joy is international traveling and experiencing the lives of others. What do other people eat? How do they dress? What is their lifestyle? And, what makes their lives different from our American way of life?
SL7: Who do you expect to seriously contend for the Democratic nomination for Florida Governor next year? It seems Gwen Graham is the frontrunner, but she is finding herself in a crowded field.
Rep. Richardson: Great question, but I’m not taking the bait! Seriously, it is way too early in the process to even know all the candidates. We are in the “get to know ‘em” phase. This is a time where all the candidates will make the rounds and let everyone know who they are, how they wish to govern, and how they are different from the other candidates. And, perhaps, most importantly it is too early to determine what effect the current President may have on the 2018 mid-term elections. Ask me this question again twelve months from now.
SL7: Last question for you. Where does Representative Richardson go after he finishes up in the Florida House? Do you foresee yourself continuing on as a public servant for the people or do you have other professional or personal goals?
Rep. Richardson: I’m going to approach my time in public office the same as I did when running my own consulting firm. I knew there would be a day when it was the natural time for me to move on from my consulting firm. I’m enjoying this work now and plan to stay involved as long as I can make a difference in the lives of Floridians. There will definitely come a time when it will seem right to step-back from the public eye and return to my private life.
SL7: Thank you David for your leadership and taking time out from your busy schedule to talk with us for a few minutes.
Rep. Richardson: My pleasure, and thank you for taking the time to chat with me.
Patrick Slevin is founder and CEO of SL7 Consulting. A Tallahassee based, global public relations and stakeholder engagement practice that serves clients seeking to educate stakeholders on the benefits of change in a status quo world spanning corporate, public affairs, issues management, crisis, zoning & development, political, and workforce communications.
Go to www.PatrickSlevin.com for more information.