Cindy Banyai (Photo: Cindy Banyai for Florida)
Nov. 3, 2019 by David Silverberg
Updated 11:52 am with spelling correction and additional quote.
Cindy Banyai is a fighter.
During a stint as an English teacher in Japan, she fought as a professional boxer in the super welterweight class. She even retains her pugilistic standing today.
Now, she’s entered a new ring—running as a Democratic candidate in Florida’s 19th Congressional District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island.
This one is going to be quite a bout. On Oct. 19, Republican Rep. Francis Rooney, who currently represents the District, announced his retirement. The likely candidate to replace him has not yet emerged among the sitting Republican officeholders and a dark horse may appear.
And, she will have a primary competitor. Yesterday, Nov. 2, David Holden, the Democratic candidate who ran and lost to Rooney last year, decided to enter the race.
Banyai (pronounced Banyā, with a hard “a,” a name of Hungarian origin), however, has been vigorously campaigning since she filed on Sept. 4.
“I’m passionate about Southwest Florida, our kids and making this a better place to live,” the 39-year-old mother of three, aged ten, six and two, told The Paradise Progressive. “All the people here—everyone, regardless of political party, race, gender or religion—need a voice that really represents them in Washington and I feel I can be that voice. Plus, I’ve spent my life teaching and helping organizations to operate better so I bring a lot of expertise to the role.”
To say that Banyai has an eclectic resume is to put it mildly.
A native of Detroit, Mich., the former Cindy Lyn Wachowski is a graduate of Michigan State University. In 1999 she interned in the Washington, DC office of Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) where a high school sweetheart of hers, Andrew Banyai, also worked.
She was a Republican. However, as time went by, she found herself drifting further and further from her Republican roots—a common experience for many Southwestern Floridians.
“It wasn’t so much that I left the party—the party left me,” she recalls. She found that the party wasn’t addressing her concerns over families, seniors and education. “A political party has to serve people and meet their needs. I just wasn’t feeling it where I was.”
She also developed an interest in international trade and after working on Spencer’s personal staff, her next internship was in the Democratic Majority Office of the Senate Finance Committee under Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), doing research on US-China trade.
That in turn sparked her interest in Asia and the Pacific. In 2002 she began teaching English in Taiwan and then Japan, where she worked for seven years. Today she can speak Chinese and Japanese—in addition to French, in which she’s proficient, Spanish and the Indonesian language of Bahasa.
Along the way, she earned her Master’s degree and a doctorate, concentrating on international relations and community development.
She returned to the United States in 2009 to marry Andrew, then a criminal defense attorney. He had joined the Fort Myers law firm of Aiken, O’Halloran & Associates in 2007 and was made a partner in 2012. Today he is executive director of the Lee County Legal Aid Society, a private, non-profit organization that provides free legal aid to low-income residents.
In the States
Banyai’s first job back in America was serving as a census taker in Lee County.
“It was a great introduction to the community,” she says. “It really taught me about the people here, their lifestyles and neighborhoods. But most importantly, it opened my eyes to what has to be done to give them a good life and provide for their needs.”
In the ten years since moving to Florida, Banyai has worked as vice president of Strategy and Operations at the Institute of Organization Development, a Fort Myers consultancy that helps all kinds of organizations and companies improve and streamline their operations and provide continuing education for their employees.
She served as a consultant to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, a funding organization that makeshundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to local organizations and then coaches recipients to use that money effectively and efficiently. “Through that process and research in nonprofit capacity, I’ve coached hundreds of nonprofit service agencies in the region,” she says.
She also joined the faculty of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) as an adjunct professor of political science and administration, preparing materials and teaching students about global issues.
“Teaching at FGCU has been great,” she reflects. “It’s really put me in touch with students and given me a strong sense of their hopes and dreams. I want to help them reach their goals and that’s a powerful inspiration for running for office.”
But as the 2020 elections loomed, Banyai felt she could do more. “Our environment, our economy, our kids and our seniors need an active, energetic congressperson in Washington, someone who will also report back to them regularly in town halls and face-to-face meetings. I’ve never been afraid of people and certainly not the people I want to serve. So I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”
In the ring
There is no doubt that it’s going to be a rough race, a difficult path and the odds are long—but she’s unfazed. “I’ve faced tough opponents before,” says Banyai, who adds that her boxing experience has been good preparation for politics.
“You really have to put yourself out there in boxing and be vulnerable and you need to have support around you to keep going,” she reflects. “I often say you don’t really know yourself until you’ve been punched in the face. Your face is the physical you and when you get punched someone is literally attacking everything that is you. How you react from there is everything. Are you going to cry? Run? Crumble? Get overcome with emotions and act irrationally, endangering yourself? You don’t know until that first time and it’s a battle to stay ahead of your base reaction and persevere every time after that.”
Boxing was also a building experience, she says. Despite losing bouts, “I never gave up. I kept hitting the bags, improving my skill, and searching for new opportunities. Eventually, I was sponsored by the Sugar Ray Boxing Club in Japan and earned my pro card there. I learned humility, perseverance, and how to maintain composure, even when you’re getting punched in the face.”
Those are valuable lessons for a political world that’s become rougher, nastier and uglier since Donald Trump took the political stage.
But Banyai says she’s ready to take a swing at Congress—for the sake of Southwest Florida, its families and the entire country.
Liberty lives in light
(c) 2019 by David Silverberg