Interview: Awake the State Director Ray Seaman
Florida voted for President Obama in the last two general elections. Yet, the State’s government is dominated by Republican and Tea Party representatives. There is a well-organized force working to change this: Awake The State.
Awake The State is an organic, grassroots movement started in 2011 with 3 organizations coming together. Progress Florida, Florida Watch Action and America Votes joined together to provide a platform for everyday Floridians to make their voices heard. Awake The State is made up of everyday Floridians fighting to reject devastating budget cuts, stop the assault on middle class families, and invest in Floridians again.
Progressive Press had a chance to interview the founder and director of the organization, Ray Seaman.
Emine: Could you tell us when you decided to create the Awake the State Campaign?
Ray: Two years ago, right after the election of Governor Scott, there was – needless to say – a lot of anxiousness and some fear about what the Governor was actually going to do. He was a very extreme Tea Party candidate. He was elected by a very slim margin. He was also inheriting a 2/3 Republican majority in both the State House and the State Senate. So, he and his party practically could do whatever they wanted. We wanted to stop the dangerous legislation they were talking about pushing through.
So, I came up with this idea by initially talking with some education activists. They were just as concerned as everybody else was. The concept was to do something at the opening day of the legislative session to let Governor Scott know that we are serious and that we are watching them. Through brainstorming of ideas, I came up with the pseudo rhyme ‘Awake the State.’ So, on the first day of the legislative session – this is in 2011 – we decided to have locally led rallies throughout the state, not just one big rally in Tallahassee.
And on March 8th, opening day of the legislative session, we ended up having more than 30 rallies throughout the state. There were 15,000 people showing up, and it totally reset the narrative at the state level. Before Awake the State, the Tea Party and Governor Scott had their narrative about ‘cuts, cuts, cuts’ that really dominated the State’s media. But, after Awake the State, there was a very clear push back on that, and now there was the other side of the coin, that he needed to start investing in the middle class families who’ve been really beaten and battered over the last few years.
Emine: Which legislation you were able to stop and what other bills were passed?
Ray: Some of the things they pushed through that we are working to roll back include Senate Bill 6, teacher merit pay, which was vetoed by the previous Governor (Crist) and they reintroduced it at the opening session and rammed it through. The Teacher Merit Pay bill is a huge, unfunded mandate to local districts and is now law. Another one they were able to successfully push through is the privatization of the Medicaid Program, essentially insuring that the care will be managed by greedy HMO’s instead of the standard Medicaid healthcare services. Although that is still in limbo, because the Department of Health and Human Services eventually has to agree to that, and they haven’t fully agree to it yet.
They also zeroed out funding for Florida Forever, which was the state’s vanguard land conservation and purchasing program. It was a model for the world. On top of that, they cut $1.3 billion from public education, which was a huge blow to local districts that were already reeling from the years and years of budget cuts. They also took 3% out of every state worker’s paycheck. Teachers, firefighters, police officers basically had a 3% income tax put on them without their or their union’s input.
However, there were a lot of things we were able to stop. We were able to stop a crackdown on unions, which is something that folks in Ohio and Wisconsin were not successful at doing. Also, we laid the groundwork for a much better election in 2012 by changing the narrative.
Emine: In the last two general elections, the State of Florida voted for a Democratic President, but the State government has been predominantly Republican with back to back Republican Governors. What are your organization’s solutions for a more balanced state legislature?
Ray: The reason the State government is just so incredibly right-wing, extreme and anti-middle class is largely because the election for Governor and the cabinet takes place in off years, in midterms in Florida. The electorate for the Presidential Elections is different, in terms of the people who show up to vote. For example, in the 2012 election, we had a much bigger percentage of women, Latinos, African Americans and young people in the mix. Back in the 2010 state elections, we had a much older, whiter, more conservative electorate show up and vote.
One of the ways we are addressing this is through our rallies happening all over the state. Another thing that needs to be addressed is the voter suppression. In 2008, state government set up a number of barriers to voting. Almost a quarter of a million, over 200,000 Floridians, were not able to cast their votes due to these barriers. I think Floridians take their responsibility to vote very seriously and this is something that needs to be fixed. We should not be the national laughingstock when it comes to administering elections. Those barriers prevent a lot of working people and the middle class from being heard at the ballot box.
We are championing several key reforms in this legislative session which we think have a good chance of passing. If we can get expanded early voting, if we can have reasonably-sized ballots, if we can have portable voter registration again, we think the electorate in 2014 is going to be much more progressive. That in turn can help us to elect a progressive Governor and a better cabinet and legislators.
Emine: What are the future plans for the organization?
Ray: Ever since those first major successful rallies in 2011, Awake the State has evolved into local networks. These are local progressive organizers, leaders and activists from a wide range of different organizations representing many wings of the progressive movement. They meet together on a regular basis and develop actions to work on. They find issues affecting them at the state and local level. In the past, even among the progressive communities of the state, we just did not have this sort of communication and connection.
Emine: I know there is a really large Latino population in the State, and they made a huge difference in the last general election. Do you have special programs or projects addressing the issues of minorities and immigrants, also youth?
Ray: In my view, this is an area where there is always room for improvement. When it comes to progressive campaigns and organizations there is not enough diversity at local levels. Because Awake the State by definition is a coalition or network of different progressive groups, we have certainly prioritized outreach into the African American community through NAACP, through ally churches, and we also work with a wonderful organization called Florida New Majority, which has field organizers now around the state. They are working on organizing minority communities throughout the state and helping us organize rallies.
Students leaders at FSU and FMU were also very much a part of our organization’s efforts in Tallahassee. So we try to incorporate all minorities, immigrant communities and our youth, but of course there is always room for improvement.
Emine: Is the organization functioning only in Florida or is there a move toward nationwide action?
Ray: Currently, we have our work cut out in Florida. But we definitely would like to see more folks adopt in other states too. We have been approached by groups in other states, sort of to talk with them about the Awake the State model. There is great group in California called Educate Our State, where I found that an interesting parallel can be made. They actually incorporated our model in 2011 to do rallies throughout California to support education funding. My colleagues at Progress North Carolina have also reached out to us to kind of use that model in opposing budget cuts in their state.
Certainly this is a model that can be exported to other states, because of its flexibility, and, it has been a great success in Florida. It is a great messaging tool where it helped unify our message for the progressive community across a very big and complex state. It is also a great way to build the progressive movement at the local level, which is kind of a personal passion of mine. I don’t think we can really win unless we are active at the county and the city level.
Our local organizers are the ones who actually make Awake the State successful. They are the ones doing the leg work and all the local outreach, as well as organizing.
Emine: Can you tell our readers how can they get involved with Awake the State?
Ray: Absolutely, folks can go to awakethestate.com, they can also connect with us on Facebook just by searching ‘Awake the State’. I encourage folks to like our page. We keep it updated fairly regularly and post action alerts there. We are also on Twitter, @Awakethestate, folks can follow us there. Simply by registering for an event you can get on our email list and we can keep them updated that way. Best way to stay in touch with us is to be a part of the Awake the State movement.