“And some talk is floating around right now about merit-based immigration. Individuals like my parents would have been at the bottom, the end of the line, and would perhaps never have had an opportunity, and yet they helped build the agriculture sector.”
Wayne Messam has served as the Mayor of Miramar, Florida since 2015, and in March he announced his presidential run as a Democrat. Prior to being elected mayor of Florida’s 13th largest city, Mr. Messam served on Miramar’s city commission and owned a construction company. (He also played college football at Florida State.) His campaign has prioritized issues including student debt, firearms, and immigration, the last of which has been uniquely informed by his parents being immigrants to the United States from Jamaica. He joins Merion West‘s editor Erich Prince to discuss these topics, as well as to explain how his background and experiences are informing his presidential bid.
Mayor, thanks for joining us. I know that gun issues have been a major part of your campaign. Post-Virginia Beach shooting, how has that event either renewed or further affirmed your commitment to addressing gun issues?
It’s a priority. You know it’s struck close to home here in the city of Miramar. Parkland is just 15 minutes north of us. In fact, our police chief actually sent officers to help up there. And currently right now, I’m in litigation with one of the lead mayors to sue the state of Florida because there are very punitive penalties if local governments pass any local ordinance or law regulating ammunition or firearms. The governor can remove us from office, personally fine us $5,000. And it’s just basically ridiculous—the fact that if we want to decide to ban assault-style weapons in our parks where kids play—that the governor can remove us from office. And it’s just ridiculous.
And we’ve seen even this week on Capitol Hill various measures coming from congressional Democrats looking at this issue of suing gun manufacturers.
Obviously the industries that are either complicit or contribute to catastrophic injuries to the public is fair game in terms of seeing what their contributions are to that. Obviously a threshold would have to be met. But I’m not opposed to such type of measures to try to get some kind of control on what’s going on in our streets—and in our public places.
So various members of Congress, who support gun control and whom I’ve spoken with about the gun issue, expressed a lot of confidence in young people helping to lead the charge to achieve some of the measures they favor. And you mentioned your city’s proximity to Parkland. Do you agree with them on the role of young people’s advocacy?
I think it’s admirable that young people are being vocal and becoming active in voicing and fighting for change. And I think their activism is just a symptom of Washington’s inaction—that kids have to cut class and basically march and sit-in on capital properties during sessions to bring awareness to the issue because of the lack of action either in Washington or in various state capitals.
Is your role as more of an outsider, as a mayor rather than somebody who’s spent a lot of time in Washington, more conducive to realizing that sort of line of thought?
Yes, and I would exhaust every possible executive authority I would have to ensure that the American people’s voices are heard. The thing is that we have to have the political will to make some change. I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment. I think everyone who can be a competent and responsible gun owner should be able to have the access and the privilege to have a gun. [We need] common sense measures like universal background checks, ensuring if you are on a terror watchlist—or if you have certain mental health conditions, you should not have a gun. And I can speak specifically as a mayor who currently has taken the steps to go after our state government to change laws that would allow local government to be able to control their destiny in terms of common-sense measures to keep our public safe. So being an outsider definitely gives me a fresh voice and actually gives the public a voice it can trust because I’m not controlled by the gun lobby.
Various commentators trying to get to the heart of gun violence discuss the possibility of underlying social causes to gun violence, whether it be poverty, violent video games, which hasn’t been strongly supported by empirical research, and a lack of certain mental health resources. Are you looking at other areas that might be able to curb a propensity towards gun violence in addition to or in place of gun laws?
Obviously when socio-economic issues spill over beyond just gun violence: when people don’t have opportunities, when people don’t have a job, when people don’t have certain basic necessities, specifically education, it just creates an environment for crime. It creates an environment for people making choices that perhaps had they had the resources, were the environment better, would not perhaps make, like having a life of crime—or injuring or even killing someone with the use of a firearm.
Maybe this is related to criminal justice reform in some respects—such as when we talk about cycles of poverty—do you have a lot of thoughts on the recent criminal justice reforms coming out of Washington?
In terms of criminal justice, obviously I think the priority [is] that we should get individuals out of jail that have endured harsh sentencing, unfair sentencing due to mandatory minimum sentencing. Obviously, we have a lot of drug-related offenses that individuals are serving time for. And I think we should start there to begin to see how we reduce those sentences and re-integrate these individuals back into society. And we need to put equity into the justice system where crimes are prosecuted justly and not unfairly.
Florida has recently been in the news for restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies.
The voters in Florida voted to have voting rights restored for ex-felons that have served their time. Basically this past legislature, basically a poll tax was passed requiring these individuals to pay all types of fees, in terms of court fees and paying victims, that [hinder] those individuals who have already served their time in jails and paid their debts to the society. Now they have to jump over other loopholes. And this was basically a tools used by conservatives to suppress the vote.
Do you go as far as Bernie Sanders, who has said that people in prison currently should be allowed to vote?
I think that individuals that have committed heinous crimes should not have all the privileges of free citizens of this country. But I think instead of focusing on allowing individuals currently incarcerated to vote, how about looking at all the individuals who are either falsely in prison or serving excessive prison sentencing? That is a significant number of individuals who should be free. And by being free, they’ll be in the position to vote. So that’s my position. There is a consequence to going to jail. I think this comes from the question of allowing the Boston marathon bomber to vote, and I just think that instead of focusing on trivial questions like that, let’s just focus on issues that will really help the most amount of people that should be free and should be living their daily life outside of prison.
You’ve spoken about your parents being immigrants and the effect that had on your upbringing. Could you talk about that experience and how you see it relating to the broader immigration discussions happening in the United States?
I think obviously there should be comprehensive immigration reform. There are about 11 million individuals in the country that are undocumented. And we should provide some form of pathway to citizenship for them, such as the Dreamers. I think that if this country is really going to be honest in regards to immigration and undocumented individuals—we benefit, as a nation, from the labor and contributions of these undocumented individuals. They’re paying taxes and don’t get the benefit of it. If we were really serious about this, we wouldn’t have the harshest penalties from a tax perspective. So we are benefiting financially from these individuals, then we should be working towards giving them pathways to citizenship. And, all in all, the immigrants are here, for the most part, because they are seeking opportunities. My parents came to this country seeking an opportunity to chase the American Dream, so that their kids can have an opportunity in this country. And I’m a beneficiary of that. And they instilled in me the value of hard work; they ensured that we knew their story and the sacrifices they made.
And some talk is floating around right now about merit-based immigration. Individuals like my parents would have been at the bottom, the end of the line, and would perhaps never have had an opportunity, and yet they helped build the agriculture sector. My father was a contracted sugarcane cutter; my mother—one of her first jobs was a cook going out to the field to feed those migrant workers doing very hard labor. But yet they produced five children that are productive citizens; one served in the military, another is actually a Customs and Border Patrol officer, and then another is a mayor in a major city in Florida and in discussion of being the President of the United States. That’s a business owner creating millions of dollars in contract opportunities and creating jobs. I think a merit-based system would be flawed. I think that any person that has the desire, hustle, and the grit to want to contribute to our American society, our economy and our culture in the name of seeking an opportunity for themselves and their family should have an opportunity to become permanent residents and ultimately naturalized citizens.
So it’s not just engineers and doctors that are productive Americans. And to close out for voters who are learning about you for the first time—you’ve had a variety of experiences, from a college football player to businessperson to mayor of Miramar, what are some of the unique experiences that are informing your run for President?
The thing is that I’m currently addressing and fighting some of the national issues that are important to Americans. So many Americans are working more than one job. I’m a mayor that passed a living wage in my city, so our city employees don’t have to work more than one job. There are Americans who have family members or children who made a mistake in their past and got arrested, and they’ve been scarred, and it’s hard for them to find work. Yet I’m a mayor that actually “banned the box” in our city where we don’t ask the question in your initial interview if you’ve been arrested, which disqualifies so many people unnecessarily. And they can’t start their lives [again].
Look at Miramar; we have one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, three years in a row. We’re actually beating out China for jobs, where our companies have the real option of going to China, but they’re staying and deciding to grow within our city. So I can speak from a practical and real way on what I’m actually doing—unlike many of the other candidates that are legislators and may have sponsored a bill. It might heard in a committee. God knows if it will ever get voted on on the floor, and God knows if the president would even sign it. So I’m not the person talking; I’m the person actually doing it. I think the American people would agree if they had the opportunity to hear from me.
Another thing I’ll bring to note is that almost every presidential candidate that has qualified for the debate has been offered a CNN or Fox town hall meeting where millions of Americans have had an opportunity to hear their case and hear their policy positions. They’ve been able to get some financial support, donors, or even name recognition that helped them in the polling that helps them qualify. I have yet to be offered a town hall by any of the major national networks. And that is a significant disadvantage.
Look at Mayor Pete, who is a peer of mine. I have no issues with Mayor Pete. He was in the same boat as I was before he got his first CNN town hall. He was not a household name. Most Americans did not even know him. Only political insiders knew that he ran for DNC chair and didn’t win knew of him. He was exposed to millions of individuals across the country at the CNN town hall. He did a great job; he got a liking by a lot of Americans, and look where he is right now. I am convinced that if Americans had an opportunity to hear my stories, see the success I’ve had in my city, which is larger than South Bend, [has] more Fortune 500 companies than South Bend, from a swing state that you must win to win the presidency, more culturally diverse, which provides a lot of lanes of constituents that can gain support. And I’m convinced that enough Americans would know about Wayne Messam and that would help me in the polling, as well as bring donors to my campaign.
Thank you for your time today, Mayor.
Of course. Take care.