Restoring the American Dream: An Interview with Presidential Candidate Wayne Messam

So far, 22 candidates (and counting) are running for the Democratic presidential nomination. With such a crowded field, and with media pressure to cash in on the horse race, the actual substance of each candidate’s platform is easily lost or ignored.

Wayne Messam is a candidates whose policy platform may have more to offer than indicated by his struggle to be listed in national polls. He became the first Black mayor of Miramar, Florida in 2015 and captured over 86 percent of the total votes in his March re-election. Messam is the son of Black immigrants serving as mayor of a Black (44.2 percent) and Brown city in a region and state on the front lines of gun and police violence, and climate change. It would seem that his qualifications from running a larger, more diverse city on the front lines of national crises would rival that of Mayor Pete Buttigieg — yet Buttigieg enjoys far greater attention by mainstream news outlets and pollsters for his self-touted “executive experience” in South Bend, Indiana.

The North Star spoke at length with Mayor Messam to shed light on the substance of his proposed platform and its relevance to Black communities.

William Armaline: Southeast Florida is right in the crosshairs of sea level rise and the increasingly powerful extreme weather events resulting from climate change. As mayor of Miramar, a city just north of Miami, how are you approaching the challenges of climate change and how does that experience inform what we would see from your presidential administration?

Mayor Wayne Messam: The state of Florida is ground zero for sea level rise. For example, it can be a 90 degree day and many of our neighbors in Miami Beach — their streets will be flooded. That’s without rain or storm water runoff to cause this flooding. It’s evidence that the sea is actually rising.

Resiliency is very important to us. We’ve invested over $100 million in our historic side of town that is most vulnerable to weather events, and these events are becoming more frequent and intense. We’re improving our water drainage systems — and this is something that no one is really talking about—we have one of the best water utility systems in the state, and because we are one of the most western utilities, our neighbors to the east have an influx of salt water intrusion as a result of sea level rise. We’re positioning ourselves to support regional concerns in the event that our peers to the east of us face insurmountable challenges from sea water contaminating our water supply. But this is just one example.

Being a former contractor and builder, what I see in Washington is that climate change seems to be an issue of demagoguery between the right and left. “Is the science real?” We know the science is real. In fact, [the Trump] administration released the report saying that if we don’t take immediate action we could see irreversible impacts to the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink. I think we can address this issue through a bill that will rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, put people to work… as a result of our improved infrastructure will then, in turn, make our cities more resilient and responsive to these weather events.

Your city is in the same county as Parkland, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in early 2018. What are the specific policies or steps necessary to curb gun violence in the US and how are your proposed solutions relevant to Black communities in particular? As you know, Parkland is just 15 minutes north of us. When that incident happened on Valentine’s Day last year, our police chief sent officers to help respond to the shooting. I received so many phone calls from concerned parents. Not just from the wealthy neighborhoods, but from everyday working class neighborhoods. “Mayor, what are we gonna do to make sure something like this doesn’t happen in Miramar High School, Everglades High School, or Miramar Elementary?” And unfortunately I told them I couldn’t do anything because of the state of Florida.

Florida has a very punitive statute that does not allow mayors to even discuss gun control. It was an [National Rifle Association] backed bill that basically states that if local municipalities even talk about changes to the law or enforcement in their community, the governor can remove me from office, he can personally fine me $5,000 without the prospect of having legal counsel to defend [me], and our city would be exposed to any lawsuit where someone stands up and says we violated their Second Amendment Right. It’s a chilling statute that was designed to discourage discussion or even debate.

What are some simple steps we can take? There must be a political will from the top that we will do something about mass shootings… but also in our streets and neighborhoods. Whether it’s in a suburban neighborhood or in a place that we might call “the ‘hood.” We need to do simple things like banning assault weapons, getting them off the street, prohibiting manufacturers from selling, manufacturing, and distributing them in this country. I think we should do universal background checks to make sure we’re looking at the backgrounds of individuals who should be able to enjoy the benefits of the Second Amendment. We should ensure that those who should not have guns, don’t get guns. For example, if you’ve been convicted of certain crimes or if you have certain mental health conditions, these are low hanging fruits that we should be able to get through Congress.

I think Black communities definitely need to be paying attention to this, because it’s a lot of Black neighborhoods that are under siege by gun violence. I think it speaks to a larger issue. I think it speaks to a lack of opportunity. Lack of education. Lack of opportunities to prosper. There is something that is causing young Black men and women to gravitate to guns and violence.… A lot of that has to do with aspects of the economy.

Over 44 million people owe over $1.5 trillion in student loans — which are now just behind mortgages as the highest category of consumer debt in the US. Further, one in two Black students find themselves in default of these loans within 12 years (compared to approximately one in 10 for the general student population) and 40 percent of students who took out loans in 2004 are expected to default at least once by 2023. You’ve announced a plan to wipe out all student debt in a one-time jubilee and want to reverse the Trump tax cuts to pay for it. Why spend such resources on student loan forgiveness?

We’ve embarked into the gig economy. We are losing economic productivity and economic opportunity to other countries that aren’t playing by the same rules. So what is this new economy? It’s service driven, distribution driven, information driven, [and driven by] automation and artificial intelligence. In fact, AI, virtualization, and automation are revolutionizing and redefining the notion of work. If we’re going to have a society of over 300 million people that have to work and take care of their families, and if they’re not prepared to succeed in this new environment, then how are they going to get a new job? What do we tell them? “Well, you need to get a higher education to get a new job.” Corporations are saying, “You must have a four-year degree at least.”

It’s a national economic security issue. But yet, who needs the most assistance to get that higher education? It’s Black people, working class people, and for the most part middle class people who need help to pay the tuition for their children. So we’re putting the burden of the economic success in America on the backs of Black and Brown people…. But yet, in order to get this good paying job, I have to go to college, I have to take these loans, and now I graduate with tens of thousands of dollars — if not more — in student debt.

So this is a one-time proposal. The reason it’s a one-time proposal is because of the impact the debt is having right now on Americans. When you have individuals that are graduating with $80,000 in debt only to get a $40,000 job, they’ve mortgaged the rest of their professional working life to pay off that debt. So now they’re paying $400, $500, $600 a month when that money could go toward a mortgage to buy their first home or to invest in a business that can create jobs to hire others, or perhaps invest in their retirement. It’s not just the student loan debt and the individuals who owe — it’s their families, it’s mothers and fathers, and grandparents who are all taking on these loans to ensure their kids and grandkids have a shot at the American dream.

When we do this it will boost the GDP between $86-100 billion, and it would create 1-1.5 million new jobs each year. That is significant. It’s not a handout — it will actually give economic production and productivity to our economy. You’re the son of immigrants including a Jamaican father who came up cutting sugar cane — difficult and dangerous work. You’ve spoken previously about how this experience and that of your parents has shaped your life and how you think about policy. What is your vision for broad immigration reform in the US?

As the son of immigrants, I would definitely change the tone of how individuals from other nations are treated and viewed. I think we need to see people as human beings. So from a Messam administration, you can expect a push for comprehensive immigration reform. We have to deal with the 11-12 million undocumented individuals that are living in the shadows in this country, who are contributing to our economy, and a vast majority of them are abiding by all of our laws — but they are not benefitting from their contribution to this country. So we have to provide them some sort of pathway to citizenship — including DACA recipients, [temporary protected status] individuals — and as you know in south Florida we have quite a few of them in terms of our Haitian brothers and sisters. Indeed. On that note, Miramar is one of the most diverse regions in the country when it comes to immigrant populations. Do we talk enough about the wide range and diversity of our immigrant populations in this country? Do we talk about and deal with the specific challenges facing Black immigrants in places like Miramar?

No. I think it’s definitely understated. All immigrants contribute to this country. So the question is the status of their existence. How did they get here? Did they overstay a visa? Did they have a work or educational visa that expired? Those are the kinds of questions we have to deal with…

I think it’s notable that we point out the disparity in treatment between Black and other immigrants to ensure we have that sensitivity when we’re developing laws. But I think that we make a grave mistake when we start parsing out and categorizing immigrants. Because if you’re a person from another country, you’re coming here to seek opportunity and this country should be working to provide opportunity for individuals that are looking for lawful entry. And for those that fall out of this lawful process, we have a sense of humanity in dealing with their situation.

While we at The North Star are less interested in covering the presidential race as sport or spectacle, our readers may want to know more about your campaign. So what’s your strategy to really make a run at the presidency? What is your plan?

I’m not even asking for your vote right now. What I’m asking for is the chance to be on that debate stage. Be a part of my 65,000 donors.

If you have thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and here you have a candidate with a plausible plan to help take that burden off of you, whatever you feel that plan is worth on the debate stage — just to hear about that — donate to this campaign. I’ve already received donations from 43 states and I’m pushing. I have a way to go, but I’m fighting for my fair share. You know they aren’t calling me for the town halls — they’re promising but they haven’t been scheduled yet. [In the days following our interview, a video went viral of Broward County Sheriff’s deputies inexplicably brutalizing a Black 15-year-old student. As the cell phone video and #JusticeForLucca posts spread on the internet, we reached out again to Mayor Messam for comment.]

What actions are you taking to make sure the Broward County Sheriff's department is held accountable for the abuse of this young man? I stand with my fellow colleagues of the US Congressional Delegation of Broward County and Broward Black Elected Officials as we condemn the brutal acts of the Broward Sheriff Deputies. I expect Sheriff Gregory Tony to conduct a swift yet thorough and transparent investigation into this incident. Deputy Krickovich must be suspended immediately without pay.

What is your position on current standards for police use of force that revolve around the subjective judgment of threat by law enforcement officers? It appears that some incidents like this one are the result of officers treating Black individuals differently than individuals of other ethnicities and fall outside of the protocols in which officers are trained. I call on Sheriff Tony to revise current protocols that would cause such reaction by deputies and have deputies disciplined when they conduct enforcement outside of the protocol. We can not allow rogue officers to hide behind the excuse of bad judgment.

How are Black families to interpret the apparent "fear" law enforcement officers have of their children, let alone the willingness of courts to legitimate state violence on this basis?

The America I am fighting for does not have a law enforcement or judicial environment that appears to treat Black individuals differently than the rest of society. I am fighting for an America that has a fair criminal justice and law enforcement system, where not only Black families feel safe, but our entire nation is treated equally and justly.

About the Author

William Armaline is the founding director of the Human Rights Program and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San José State University. As an interdisciplinary scholar and public intellectual, Armaline’s interests, applied work, and scholarly publications address social problems as they relate to political economy, environmental sustainability, racism and anti-racist action, critical pedagogy and transformative education, inequality and youth, mass incarceration, and drug policy reform.