ST. PETERSBURG — Democratic socialism changed Richie Floyd’s life before he even knew what that term meant.
Growing up in Fort Walton Beach in Florida’s Panhandle, his father was a government contract worker at Eglin Air Force Base. Wages were stagnant and healthcare was poor — until those workers unionized. They got guaranteed raises, better healthcare and protections from layoffs.
“It’s really been wonderful,” said Floyd. “And my family, from growing up with not much money, is in a great position now.”
That experience shaped Floyd’s politics. Then in 2016, former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders invigorated a political movement that put democratic socialism in the spotlight. Finally, a name for the values Floyd believed in.
Floyd studied electrical engineering and was a defense contractor before switching to a career more in line with his values: teaching sixth-grade engineering and science at struggling Azalea Middle School. He calls it the hardest job he’s had; he’s currently taking a break from the classroom to run his campaign for the District 8 seat on St. Petersburg City Council.
But Floyd doesn’t like being labeled as the democratic socialist candidate. Rather, the 30-year-old’s platform is informed by democratic socialist ideals: He embraces small-dollar donations, which pour in from across the country. Campaign volunteers are teachers, healthcare workers, labor union members.
He’s running on pushing back against developing in the city’s low-lying areas, sending social workers instead of police to certain 911 calls and instituting a $15 minimum wage, issues he’s personally worked on.
With or without the label, that platform seems to work for Floyd’s campaign. He’s raised $84,000, more than triple what his opponent has raised, and had the best showing of any candidate on St. Petersburg’s municipal primary ballot in August, with 52 percent of the vote.
“I am a community activist and a teacher and a working people-oriented campaigner,” Floyd said. “The fact that I’m a democratic socialist is just another part of that.”
“One person is not going to change the prevailing economic system of a city,” he said. “It’s not an ideological crusade. It’s campaigns who put the every day working people front and center in the city.”
If Floyd was running for mayor, he’d already be on his way to being inaugurated. But the way St. Petersburg’s council is elected, Floyd must now go to a city-wide runoff Nov. 2. He’s competing against the second top vote-getter, former City Council member Jeff Danner, who garnered 27 percent of the vote.
Like the mayor’s race, city council races are nonpartisan. But as these elections tend to fall along party lines, the mayor’s race is now between a Democrat and a Republican. Floyd is a registered Democrat and Danner has no party affiliation.
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Danner says it’s one thing to win in a district race with only 3,000 votes; it’s another to get 30,000 or so votes to win city-wide. He says he got into the race late and isn’t fazed by Floyd’s turnout.
Danner is running on his experience of previously serving on council from 2005 to 2013 and being involved in the community for 25 years.
“My plan is to come at it as what’s best for the city,” Danner said. “Regardless of your party, your race, your age. I think it gives me an advantage because I don’t have that affiliation and I’m not bringing an agenda with me based on my party affiliation. I think I have a benefit to not have that.”
Floyd said the ideals held in District 8, which represents the areas of North Kenwood, St. Pete Heights and Disston Heights, are held city-wide, too.
“You’re not going to cross the street and all of the sudden they’re not going to agree,” he said. “We’re focusing on a platform that is good for everyone in the city.”
Floyd has full support from the local Democratic party. He only lists the Pinellas County Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in his Twitter biography, but he is also involved in the Pinellas Democratic Party and Pinellas County Young Democrats.
“(Floyd) represents the same values the Democratic Party represents,” said Pinellas Democratic Party chair Lucinda Johnston. “The Democratic Party believes in a strong middle class, it believes in people. Every democrat who’s running believes in democratic socialist ideas, they just don’t call it that.”
“Richie is so much more than a democratic socialist,” she added. “He’s honorable. He’s intelligent. He’s a scientist turned schoolteacher. He checks a lot of the boxes that I’d like to see in a candidate.”
Brian Gibbons, as chapter organizer, helps coordinate the dozen or so volunteers from Pinellas DSA who have canvassed nearly 20,000 households over the past several weekends. Despite some resistance, he said the reception from residents has been good. Volunteers focus on local issues, not the organization.
“We’ve seen that there’s a coalition to be built with people who are upset with the status quo and ready for a new direction,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons said it isn’t a cult of personality. Instead, he said everyone is rallying around their shared ideals, which Floyd represents well. Gibbons thinks the state is more “purple” than people expect, with voters approving a minimum wage increase, medical marijuana and restoration of rights for felons.
“Richie’s campaign has shown people this type of organizing is possible in the South and in Florida, which a lot of people had written off,” Gibbons said.
Outgoing mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, worked with Danner on city council. He thinks the District 8 race may not come down to partisanship, but rather that Danner doesn’t have name recognition with newer residents; there are 20,000 more registered voters in St. Petersburg since 2017. And Floyd, he said, worked harder in the primary.
“It may not be a situation of, is St. Pete that liberal,” Kriseman said, explaining that Floyd’s ideas may just resonate more with voters. “You may have some who say (Danner’s) done his time, (so it’s) time to move on to someone who’s different.”