The emerging field of candidates running for the Democratic Party nomination for president grows each week with a new name added to what is likely the largest primary field ever in American politics.
There’s Bernie. Kamala. Beto. And now, Wayne.
That would be Wayne Messam.
A day after being overwhelmingly reelected to a second term as mayor in the Broward County town of Miramar last week, the 44-year-old South Florida native announced that he had formed an exploratory committee for president of the United States.
It wasn’t unexpected, as he had been hinting at a run for the past few months – but it is still an audacious move from a mayor of Florida’s 13th largest city.
“Filing the exploratory committee allows our potential campaign to be able to raise money…and to make sure that if we decide to go ahead full-fledged, that we can get off to a quick start,” Messam told the Phoenix.
Filing an exploratory committee allows a candidate to begin raising and spending money on limited campaign activities such as polling and research. Exploratory committees aren’t required to file reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Messam’s wasting no time either. After spending the past few days this week in the Middle East talking to Israelis and Palestinians to boost his admittedly paltry foreign policy credentials, he’s heading for South Carolina Saturday for the first time as a potential candidate.
The Palmetto State votes third after Iowa and New Hampshire in next year’s round of Democratic primaries and caucuses, and in a state where the the majority of Democratic registered voters are black, the African-American mayor intends to make frequent stops there over the coming months.
In a statement announcing that he had created a website and would be exploring a potential presidential candidacy, Messam cited Washington’s lack of progress on major issues like gun violence, climate change, health care costs and crippling student debt as reasons to enter the race. He said that his “fresh eyes and bold ideas” as a mayor deserve a seat at the table.
Messam is confident that he can step on the stage with the (still growing) slate of much better-known Democrats for the most powerful position in the world.
“I’ve taken on challenges my entire life to make life better for people, whether it’s creating jobs in my business or even raising wages for workers in our city, I think these big issues need fresh ideas from someone who is closer to the American people on a daily basis.”
Calling Messam an underdog is an understatement. But his story is compelling.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, he grew up in the western Palm Beach County city of South Bay. At Glades Central High he was senior class president, and at Florida State University he was student body president in his senior year – and was a starting wide receiver for four years for Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, beginning as a freshman for the 1993 national championship football team.
He runs a successful construction management firm, has been married for more than 20 years and has three children all currently in college. He was first elected to the Miramar City Commission in 2011, and then took on and defeated four-term incumbent Mayor Lori Moseley in 2015.
His advisors say he is well prepared for a national campaign, with support teams waiting in place across the country. In addition to South Carolina, they intend to campaign in Nevada, which votes fourth in the Democratic primary sweepstakes next year.
On the issues, Messam supports the Green New Deal touted by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and says that a Medicare for all health care system “seems to be the simplest reform idea that makes sense.”
The boldest idea he’s floating is about college student debt. Operatives for his burgeoning campaign told BuzzFeed last week that he intends to introduce a plan to wipe out the more than $1.5 trillion in student debt accrued by American college students.
Messam says he’ll be rolling out the specifics of that proposal in the coming weeks, but says student debt is a “moral issue” for the country.
“It’s crippling,” he says. “It’s stifling the opportunities for economic mobility. Just to get a higher education should not mean that you should have to mortgage the rest of your professional life paying off a debt only to prepare yourself.”
Messam says he fears that the U.S. is falling behind competitively with the rest of the world, specifically mentioning China’s “fifty-year plan on how they’re going to dominate the world.”
“We need to wake up and we need to wake up quick, because we have to make sure that our people are prepared to start businesses, to become entrepreneurs, to be able to provide solutions to provide for the innovation that we’re going to need to be able to compete on a global level.”
Messam has gone head-to-head against the gun industry. He was part of the original group of South Florida-based mayors who sued the state last year to strike down the 2011 NRA-backed law that subjects local government officials to financial sanctions if they enact their own gun-control regulations.
He joined with mayors around the country to support the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change after President Trump said he was removing the U.S. from the compact.
Florida political observers aren’t exactly sure how to assess Messam’s candidacy.
“If he throws his hat in the ring, officially, what’s the worst that happens?” asks Aubrey Jewett, professor of government at the University of Central Florida. “He gets out, meets some people, and tries to express some ideas about what he would want to do. Maybe he would help shape the debate a little bit, particularly in this election cycle when truly it seems as if the Democratic nomination is wide open.”
Barry Edwards, a Democratic political strategist from St. Petersburg, is much harsher in his assessment.
“I think he’s going to look silly. He’s not going to raise any money, and he’s not going to look like a contender,” he says.
Maybe not a contender this time around, but Jewett says that depending on how Messam performs in the presidential race, it could set him up for future electoral opportunities. As an example, he cites how then-Republican Charlie Crist lost decisively to Bob Graham for the U.S. Senate in 1998. But the exposure paved the way for Crist to win the race for Education Commissioner two years later.
“He met a lot of Republicans, he helped his fundraising base tremendously, and it sort of set him up for later when he ran for a Cabinet seat,” he says.
Another major obstacle in this quixotic bid for the highest office in the land is that Messam is a mayor. While many mayors have gone on to higher federal office, few – if any – have ever attempted to run from a local office directly to the White House.
The one former mayor who appeared to have a legitimate shot for president was Rudy Giuliani, who was an early front-runner for the 2008 Republican Party nomination. But Giuliani wasn’t just any mayor, he was hailed as “America’s Mayor” by Oprah Winfrey following his leadership in New York City after the 9/11 attacks.
That campaign ended brutally and decisively after Giuliani crashed and burned in the Florida presidential primary in 2008, finishing a disappointing third and dropping out the day after that contest.
There is one other mayor attracting attention in the early days of the 2020 race: South Bend Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg. Even he has a greater public profile entering the race than Messam – Buttigieg competed for the Democratic National Committee chair position two years ago.
Wary of the perception and the reality that mayors lack foreign policy experience, Messam challenged the perceived advantage that a D.C.-based lawmaker would have over him, telling the Phoenix, “it depends on what you call experience.”
His trip to the Middle East is a rebuke to that criticism. In addition to meeting with Speakers of Israel’s Knesset (the national legislature), he also met with opponents of Israel’s settlement policy, including high-profile Palestinian officials like Saeb Erakat and Hanan Ashrawi.
“The next President of the United States will also be commander in chief,” he said in a statement announcing the trip, “so I hope to learn a great deal about how we can make the world a safer place for all people, but especially our men and women in uniform around the world.”