"State and Local Activism with Ray Seaman" Transcript

Hi, everyone, welcome to The FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast, Episode Two, for April 28, 2014. I'm Mike Eidson

This show delivers news and updates via interviews with activists around the state on the issues that you, the people of Florida, care about. This time, it's a focus on activism itself, elections, and the sixty days of Tallahassee lawmaking known as the Florida Legislature Regular Session. 

My guest knows these topics well. In 2011, he made it his mission to activate Florida citizens, by making sure they know they are not powerless and that there are plenty of actions that they can take besides voting. 

And I'm sure we'll be talking about some of those actions, today. As usual, listeners, stick around for the end of the show to hear the list of actions, groups, and resources discussed on the show that can help you effect positive change. 

Ray Seaman created the Awake the State movement four years ago. Since then, in addition to the statewide rallies on each year's opening day of the legislative session, Awake the State has evolved into a series of local networks, where members meet often to discuss matters that affect their communities and to plan action. He is active in Awake Marion, and there are Awake networks in Broward County, Miami, Palm Beach County, Pinellas [County], Sarasota, Tampa, and Pasco County. 

He is also the co-founder of Marions United for Public Education, which recently got a school funding referendum on the November ballot. We'll talk about that and the elections coming up, as well as his work with Progress Florida, where he is the Online Director. Their Daily Clips email service that aggregates news and opinion from around the state may be the single best one-stop shop for Florida news.

Ray Seaman, thanks so much for being here today. 

Well, thanks for having me, Mike. Glad to be on.

Awake the State had rallies the opening day of the legislative session. The final day of the Regular Session is this week, on May 2nd. With a Republican Majority, so much of what you do, what progressive activists do, is about limiting damage. About playing defense. How's that been this year?   

Well, as usual, it's kind of a mixed bag.

I think, just going down the different issues that the Legislature is dealing with, we can start with public education.


Currently, the state has a quote-unquote "budget surplus." In reality I think many people would dispute whether that surplus is really... real [laughs], in the sense that we've really got these extra resources that we haven't already cut away in years past, but technically speaking, we do -- there's around a $1.5 billion surplus in the budget this year, and some of that is supposed to go to education. Whether it really makes up for all the cuts that have been made over the last few years, it probably won't. We're still really operating at a net deficit from where we were, way as far back as 2007 and 2008. 

So, literally, the amount we're spending per student this year, if the House and Senate budget drafts are any indication, will still actually be lower, than where we were in 2007 and 2008. So we have yet to, kind of, surface from the recession in many ways regarding education funding.  

But there are also additional mandates. There are additional attacks on public schools, and certainly the most notorious this session is the attempt to expand unaccountable, private-school vouchers, which has been a big push from House and Senate leadership.  And, of course, this expansion is coming with no accountability at all, for the private schools that take these pre-tax dollars. So that's a big issue.

There are always moves to continue to expand charter schools, despite the fact that the intention of charter schools is supposed to be experimental inside the public school system, they're not supposed to try to eat the public school system, which I think a lot of the charter management chains have been trying to do, rather insidiously, over the last few years. So that's education. 

On health care, unfortunately there's really been no significant action, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Floridians don't have access to the health care that they need or at least that they could have, if the state expanded health care under the Affordable Care Act. Currently, 51 billion of our tax dollars are literally sitting in Washington right now, not doing much of anything, while people, literally, are dying, here in the state, because of lack of access to health care.

On the environment, there was hope at the beginning of the year that the Legislature would introduce and pass comprehensive springs restoration legislation. As someone who lives in Ocala, right next door to world-famous Silver Springs, this is a huge issue, for my part of the state, but really, for many parts of the state, because we have so many beautiful springs and waterways. 

Water has become an increasingly important issue in the state because we have less and less of it. There's overuse, over-pumping. And there's also increased pollution in our springs as well, from fertilizers, runoff, etc.

But unfortunately, that springs legislation has been watered down, pun intended, and unfortunately that also seems to be stalled this year, thanks to heavy resistance from agribusiness, local governments, as well as large-property owners. 

I just went to the springs last week, at Salt Springs. And it's a shame that people are trying to take it away by polluting it.

Absolutely. I actually went and visited Silver Springs for the first time in several years, and just in that relatively short period of time, probably six or seven years, even I have noticed the increasing amount of, sort of, green fuzz that's growing on the sawgrasses and things in the springs. And it's very tragic to see because it's a sort-of slow death that we're subjecting our springs to.

And a lot of people forget, before we had Disney World and Universal Studios, these places, Florida, our springs were basically the things that really drew people to the state. They were a major, major tourist attraction. But, of course, it's bigger than that. We're giving up our natural heritage in many ways...


...for the sake of a powerful few.


So those are, kind of, the really significant issues. There are others out there; there's a laundry list of things that were not addressed this year.

So many. 

Stand Your Ground, voting rights, all kinds of things. But, for the most part, that's where we're at.

And, just speaking more broadly, when you mention how -- I'm just going to use the example of Rick Scott. When he first came to office, he slashed education just, tons, and now that he's up for re-election, he is restoring some of it, but acting like he is the Education Governor. It seems to be a common strategy of people like him.

Yes, it is. Absolutely. We've definitely seen a major shell game going on with education funding. As I said earlier, we have yet to truly recover from the recession in 2007 and 2008.

Yup. Okay, so, there is another issue; I don't think it's part of the Florida Legislature this year, but I saw you talking about it on Facebook last year. I was really curious about it. Can you describe what the nuclear tax is?

Ha, yes, the nuclear tax. It's essentially a fee, it's a tax that is paid by utility customers to pay for nuclear power plants that really, were never going to be built, essentially. 

This is something that was passed back in 2006 and still is on the books, to this day. Utility customers in Florida are still paying for the nuclear power plant in Crystal River, Florida, and repairs to it, which were botched.

So, we're paying billions of dollars, basically, to utilities, for, really, nothing in return.

It's a very big deal. It's a very consumer-oriented issue. It's something very bipartisan, in many ways, in terms of the people who are opposed to it.

But it's also a window into just how really unfair and narrow and backwards our state's energy policy is, really, at the end of the day. It's the big utilities which completely run the show. They pretty much control the Public Service Commission, which is the state level group that governs a lot of energy and consumer policy here in Florida. 

And the reality is we're not doing anything to really incentivize truly renewable sources of energy, like solar, and biodiesel, and wind, and things of that nature, or even tidal. Some of these other things. And we're certainly not incentivizing efficiency all that much as well. 

So the nuclear tax is very emblematic of this big problem. Emblematic of the power that big utilities have over our energy policy, which we will need to reverse.

Exactly. All right, well, thank you for that. 

Let's talk about activism in general. You created Awake the State four years ago after discussing the need with some education activists. When you look back on the four years of Awake the State, what are the issues that you've been advocating for, that other people have, too, it's not just you, that most resonated with the citizens that attended the rallies?  Like, people that were uninvolved until they heard about it in their town, or their city?


Do you know what issues have been, probably, the biggest successes?

Well, I think, over the last four years, the main thing that has really drawn people into Awake the State, and certainly with the first Awake the State rally on March 8, 2011, which is the most successful one, was the fact that we were cutting the state budget, at so many different levels, on health care, on education, on land conservation. 

And we were doing absolutely nothing to address the fact that we have these major corporate tax loopholes that exist in the state tax code, and the corporate profits tax being as low as it is, the exemptions that are there in the corporate profits tax, as well as with sales tax exemptions, that we weren't even talking about them or touching them at all, while cutting an already woefully underfunded public education system to smithereens, privatizing Medicaid, again, gutting land conservation funding.

We had, y'know, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities having record-long waiting lists and children literally dying under the care of the Department of Children and Families, because there weren't enough caseworkers.

So, y'know, all of that, really, is just... these inhumane, immoral budget cuts were really driving a lot of that early activism. 

I think, since then, education funding has always been a big thing, for our folks. But I would also argue that, this year in particular, Medicaid Expansion, health care expansion, really became a major driving force here as well, because there's a very strong moral component to this as well. These are mostly poor, working-class people and families who are just not wealthy enough to afford private health insurance, even heavily subsidized private health insurance, but are too quote-unquote "rich" for Medicaid, which provides basic health care services to poorer folks. 

That resonates with a lot of people because we've already paid for it, through our tax dollars, and the federal government is essentially footing all of the bill for the first three years, and then 90% of it afterwards.

Y'know, the fact that we're not accepting those funds, to expand health care to people who need it, rightly strikes people as a genuine moral outrage.  I think you'll be seeing more activism on that front in the coming years. People are not dissuaded at all by the fact that the Legislature isn't taking action on this. They know that it needs to get done and they're probably going to see it through to the end.

Especially when you see state after state accepting the same money, and our taxes go to those states, but [the Legislature is] ignoring the poorest people in Florida. 


The issue that got me involved with Awake the State was last year, with voting. I remember watching in 2012 the horrible situations throughout Florida, when it came to people having to wait in lines and stuff like that.  So I was really happy that an organization like Awake the State was taking action, in terms of trying to get people to have the access to vote, and to be able to vote in a timely manner.

Okay. As I mentioned before, you are the co-founder of Marions United for Public Education. Can you tell me a little about the school funding referendum that you succeeded, you and your group succeeded, in putting on the November ballot, and, more broadly, what is it about the local level that is so important for democracy?

Well, I appreciate the question, Mike, and I think folks understand that, in Florida, and my county, Marion County, is not immune to this, all counties in Florida have suffered tremendously deep cuts to their local public school systems over the last seven years. 

In Marion County, however, we've been particularly hard-hit. We're a large county, land-wise; I mean, the county itself is bigger than Rhode Island. A lot of people don't realize that. And we're one of the largest school districts in America. 

Florida's kind of unique in this regard, because our counties serve as school districts, it's not, sort of, subdivided beneath that, like it is in many other parts of the country.

So, the Marion County Public School District is in charge of educating 40,000 kids, spread out over an area bigger than Rhode Island. We're the largest employer in Marion County. We've got over 5,000 teachers and teacher aides and administrators and janitors. Maintenance people, bus drivers, etc. And, over the last seven years, because we're a landlocked county, our property values aren't particularly as high as the folks who have coasts [laughs], we have really born the brunt of these cuts more than many counties. 

And currently, today, literally as we speak, we are the number-one violator of the class-size amendment in the whole state. We have some of the biggest class sizes. We're purposely violating the class-size amendment because it's actually cost-effective to do so, at this point. And Art, Music, Library and Media Services, and Physical Education have all been cut in half at all of our elementary schools. We have teachers that are literally sharing schools today.

So, Marions United for Public Education, which was involved in a very short campaign in 2012 to pass two little half-mil referenda on the August primary ballot that the School Board sponsored, those very narrowly failed, which resulted in.... 150 teacher aides and 160 first-year teachers lost their jobs, temporarily lost their jobs,last year as a result of the failure of those two referenda.

So, what Marions United started doing, last summer, is, we started meeting biweekly, every other week, with different communities, stakeholders. We decided we were going to write our own referendum this time and we weren't going to wait for the School Board, which is historically very skittish about anything [laughs] involving tax referenda, because Marion County is a conservative county. We historically reject most tax referenda that come our way. 


But we decided we wanted to do this right. So what we ended up producing was a school-funding referendum that was double the size, actually, of one of the half-mils in [the] August [2012 primary ballot].  So we produced a one-mil school funding referendum that's specifically targeted to fund Reading, Art, Music, Library, Media, P.E., and Vocational Programs, in addition to hiring full-time state-certified teachers, so we can meet class-size standards, and also paraprofessionals, like teacher aides.

And really, this is, undoubtedly, in my mind, having researched the history on this, the most progressive, most comprehensive ballot measure that our community has seen in 25 years.

That's great.
So it's a very big deal. Our community hasn't passed a property tax referendum for anything since 1987, so it's an incredible thing, and we were able to get it through our School Board and our County Commission, unanimously. And that's a pretty big deal because both of these bodies reflect the politics of the communities.  Both of these bodies are very conservative, very cautious when it comes to tax issues. But the situation had gotten to the point where you just couldn't deny this stuff anymore. 

Now, we have something called the Yes For Marion Schools Committee, whose sole job it is to try to pass this referendum. And we're out there, campaigning in the community, as we speak.

To answer the latter part of your question, all this demonstrates why it's so important for progressives to be organizing at the local level, because we have very serious needs at the local level, throughout the state of Florida and, really, throughout the country. 

Particularly in a place like Florida, which is still, I think would correctly be argued, very gerrymandered at the state level, that the future of progressive ideas and the progressive movement is going to come from cities and counties. And that's going to bubble up and produce better candidates, better elected officials, who can then move into the state legislature and do bigger, better things there.   

So, the kinds of things that Marions United has done, although Marions United is by no means exclusively a progressive group, it's actually pretty bipartisan in its makeup, but certainly the policies and the ideas that we push I would argue are pretty progressive stuff. So, yeah, I think local organizing is the way to go, and it's absolutely critical to what we do down the road.

Going back to the state level -- we were talking about how local communities kind of interact with the state level -- but when it comes to how the state level interacts with a national agenda, or a corporate, international agenda, y'know, we have groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council. We have groups like the State Policy Network.  And, listeners, I'm going to link to both of those at the end of the show, if you haven't heard of those two groups, so you can learn more about those.  But, Ray, your job is, you're part of Progress Florida. You're the Online Director for that. And that's part of a, correct me if I'm wrong, but that's part of a nationwide, state network, right? Progress Now?


How important is it, to.... I mean, campaign finance laws are worse than ever. Y'know, Citizens United, and a recent one just now. Sometimes, the problems of Florida are not unique. They're happening in every other state, it seems like. So, given all this outside money and all this corporate interest, what kind of response is needed to help protect democracy?

Well, yeah, organizing at the state level is absolutely critical. And Progress Florida, as you mentioned, Mike, is part of the Progress Now national network of state-based, online, progressive advocacy organizations. 

Certainly the progressive movement realized, I think, roughly after the 2004 election debacle, that there needed to be more organizing at the state level. So a lot of the different Progress Now state groups were formed after that.

Progress Florida came along in early 2008. And, a lot of people don't -- y'know, for some reason, it's taken progressives a while to figure out the importance of the states, largely because progressive policies and ideas, for so long, have been almost exclusively focused at the national level, largely because we believe very strongly in federal action and national action, dealing with national problems.

But, while we were doing that, conservatives were organizing at the state level, because obviously, their philosophy is much more [about] states' rights, state power, and devolving power away from Washington. And because of, for better and for worse, I would argue, probably, mostly for the worse, the conservative revolution took place, starting in the mid-70s and continuing through the 90s and early 2000s. 

A lot of power was devolved to the states. I think progressives have realized we've got to be organized at the state level as well. And I think a lot of people are now beginning to understand, just how many policies and important actions take place at the state level. I think for many, many progressives, that realization came in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections, when the Tea Party was really swept into power in a number of key state legislatures, and proceeded to enact very draconian, reactionary, extremist legislation, attacking unions, attacking women's rights, trying to privatize education, obstructing the Affordable Care Act, and so on and so forth. Everybody kind of woke up and realized, oh my gosh, state legislatures are really important! And they are. 

One of my analogies I like to tell people is, that people have a sort-of relationship with national politics, because it's in the headlines all the time; they have a relationship with local politics, because it's in their backyards, and in their local newspaper; but the state is this very nebulous, mid-range area. 

So, an organization like Progress Florida is there, through services like our Daily Clips service, and through our many actions that we target to the state legislature on key issues. We're, kind of, educating and empowering people to take action on key issues at the state level, and in the process, helping people understand why it's so important that progressives are organized at the state level.

Right. You mentioned the 2010 midterms, those were so critical because of the Census and the redistricting -- 

-- it can, just... People need to go out and vote this year, which segues into my last question, Ray. What do you hope to see, or expect to see, come election time this year, when it comes to state-level Florida politics?

Mm-hmm. Well, I'm expecting incremental progress, I think, in 2014. I'm not expecting, sort of, a massive sea change. I am expecting, probably, a new governor. Knock on wood. I'd certainly, personally, would very much like to see that. But, also, some new faces in the Legislature. And, also, holding some of the gains we made in the Legislature in 2012; that's going to be a main objective.  

Certainly there are two very important constitutional amendments that are going to be on the ballot. One, on land conservation, and the other on medical marijuana. That will be really interesting to see how both of those turn out. If polls are any indication, both of them will probably pass, which will also have an important impact on the state.  

And, I think, at the local level, we've got a lot of interesting people running for county commissions, city council. We've got things like, right here, where I am, Marion County, we have our school funding referenda that's on the ballot. 

So I'm expecting.... I'm not really expecting massive conservative gains, which I know is a little bit counter to the conventional wisdom right now. I'm not expecting a huge wave for us, either, but I do think, on net, we'll actually do okay come November. That's my expectation, and I'm knocking on wood as I say that, Mike.

[laughs] Well, thanks so much, Ray, for your time today, and for serving Florida so well. 

All right, Mike. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

And now, Calls to Action and Resources:

http://www.marionsunited.org/ is the home of the ballot measure to restore education funding in Marion County. Best of luck to them in getting those class sizes smaller and those children their much needed resource programs restored.

The eight local Awake the State networks are at http://www.awakethestate.com/local

Some of the current campaigns on http://progressflorida.org/ are stopping illegal fracking in the Everglades, stopping private school vouchers, and expanding health care. For more information on the state network they’re a part of, go to http://www.progressnow.org/ .

Some of Twitter accounts you can look for are:

Issues Ray mentioned ignored by the Legislature are Springs Restoration, Medicaid Expansion, Stand Your Ground, and voting rights, all while they boast of their supposed $1.5 billion surplus.

Issues pushed by the Legislature are Voucher Expansion and Corporate Charter School Chain Expansion, and, over the years, Tax Breaks for Corporations, and drastically scaling back the Florida Forever land preservation program.

Through their neglect, like Ray said, we saw the deaths of children via the Department of Children and Families, and, record-long waits at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

I was going to say call, write, and visit your legislators, but really, it’s the last week of the session. Replace the legislators who did this in November. They tend to have an R next to their names. Find your senator at https://www.flsenate.gov/ and your representative at http://www.myfloridahouse.gov/

It is great to see that the first two State Constitutional Amendments on the ballot this November will be progressive, one about preserving land and the second about medical marijuana. Learn more at Ballotpedia.org by searching for Florida 2014. http://ballotpedia.org/Florida_2014_ballot_measures

More information on the nuclear tax boondoggle can be found at http://stopnucleartax.com/

The things I mentioned in passing throughout the interview are linked to on FloridaProgressives.com in the Calls to Action section of this post: reports on ALEC, the State Policy Network, gerrymandering, and campaign finance reform.
[Segment not in show:

For the American Legislative Exchange Council, check out

For The State Policy Network, or SPN, read the article for The Nation by Lee Fang called The Right Leans In.

An SPN member in Florida is the James Madison Institute, releasing all kinds of reports that make it more difficult for a progressive future.

A report from ProPublica on the gerrymandering that gives us such fortified partisan districts that weaken democracy. http://www.propublica.org/article/hidden-hands-in-redistricting-corporations-special-interests

And since I consider campaign finance reform the single most important issue restoring the country, I’m going to start sharing material about that. Let’s start with http://billmoyers.com/tag/campaign-finance-reform/ That’s basically all the stories journalist Bill Moyers and the people at Moyers and Company have done on the issue.


And now, something unrelated to the interview, but time-sensitive:

On May 10th and 11th in Orlando is a free training on finance and how to run a campaign. It’s by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Deadline to apply is April 28th, which will be too late for most people hearing this, but I just wanted to get the word out on this great training program, called P100 Training, that the PCCC has been doing across the country. More information can be found at p, 1, 0, 0, training, dot com. http://p100training.com/

Turn that anger about the sad state of Florida politics into action. There’s no time to get depressed. Use resources like Progress Florida and the PCCC, but most importantly, commit to local and state action, and we can turn the tide on the influence big money and corporate interests have on this country and this state.


FloridaProgressives.com is the home to this podcast. There's no real schedule to this series, they're just ready when they're ready, but Episode Three might be out in a few weeks. In the mean time, check out the transcripts for these first two episodes. Susan and Ray are very knowledgeable and what they had to say is very informative.

This royalty-free music is by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com . The track is called “Unity” and it is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/   

I said last episode that you can find this podcast on iTunes, but that’s a work in progress. It is, however, available on feeds like RSS. There's also The Florida Progressives Dot Com Facebook Fan Page, and I'll be posting there every time there's a new episode. You can find me on Twitter at mikeeidson , last name spelled e, i, d, s, o, n, and send me an email at michael.c.eidson@gmail.com . Thanks for listening.  

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