A new kind of Republican challenger is taking on Rep. Byron Donalds in the 19th Congressional District primary this August
July 8, 2022 by David Silverberg
These days it takes courage to simply be civil.
It takes even more courage to run for public office and do it in a civilized way—a way that respects voters of all persuasions, avoids insults and hyperbole and relies on reason, rationality and professionalism.
And it takes enormous courage to do this as a Republican in Southwest Florida in a primary race against a sitting congressman who exploits fear and paranoia and extremism.
But Jim Huff has that courage.
Huff is seeking the Republican nomination for Congress in the 19th Congressional District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island. He is on the primary ballot against Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.).
His candidacy, he says, was the result of a culmination of factors. “In particular, I’d watch TV interviews with politicians where they were acting like they were in a high school drama. They were calling out other parties and calling out other people for their mistakes but never providing a solution.”
As he states on his website, “We cannot afford to sit back and watch any longer. We have to stand up for our freedoms before everything America stands for is squandered away.”
Huff, 38 and single, is a civil engineer who has been working on infrastructure and water-related projects in Florida his entire professional life. No candidate of any party has come to the political arena with the depth of technical knowledge and environmental expertise that Huff possesses. He not only understands the district, he understands what flows through it and what lies beneath it—literally.
In person he’s friendly, open and polite. He’s clearly new to politics but that also means he lacks the slick veneer of career politicians. Instead his bearing is that of a professional and his federal service has given him the experience of accomplishing a mission when assigned it. When he disagrees on a point, it he does so rationally and civilly.
Until deciding to run for the 19th Congressional District seat Huff was a civil engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). As such he was prevented from engaging in political activity under the Hatch Act, a 1939 law prohibiting federal employees from partisan political activity. It meant he had to leave the Corps and couldn’t build a campaign before becoming a candidate in April so he has a lot of catching up to do.
He’s been doing that by walking through the neighborhoods he hopes to represent. “When I go door to door you get people who don’t want politicians,” he said in an interview with The Paradise Progressive. “Even within the Republican Party people tell me that we need to get back to core values and our politicians are out of touch.”
Huff is not intimidated by Donalds’ fundraising and incumbent advantages, observing: “Among the people I’ve talked to, the loyalty to Donalds is maybe 10 percent.”
He also thinks he can beat Donalds, saying: “If I didn’t think I could beat him I wouldn’t have spent $10,440 to get on the ballot.”
Huff is originally from rural New Jersey, where he grew up, participating in the Boy Scouts and rising to the rank of Eagle Scout. He started working as a farm hand at age 15 and continued working while going to school before heading to Florida to attend the University of Florida at age 18. He didn’t stay there but during the summers began working for USACE starting as a laborer in the Field Exploration Unit.
He ultimately earned an associate degree in engineering from Santa Fe Community College and stayed with USACE, which brought him to Florida to work on Corps projects like the Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, the Kissimmee River restoration, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and the Picayune State Forest restoration.
His USACE experience prompted him to complete a Bachelor of Science degree from Florida Gulf Coast University, where he graduated magna cum laude. He also became involved in the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers where he oversaw community cleanup programs and reached out to students with STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
When he decided to run, he went in all the way: he quit his job, sold his house and dedicated himself to campaigning full time.
Huff’s engineering experience gave him an appreciation for the role of the federal government and especially federal funding in managing Southwest Florida’s environment and infrastructure. It was another factor in his decision to run.
When there’s money available, “Why shouldn’t we take that opportunity to establish pilot programs and studies?” he asks. Since federal funding is not for private businesses but for schools like FGCU’s Water School or USACE infrastructure improvement, there’s no reason not to get it. “If we don’t start with these pilot programs, how can we ever get there?” he asks.
He is particularly scornful of a bill Donalds co-sponsored, Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution 74), “I feel it was a cop-out,” he says. “It was a great title but it doesn’t do what the title says; it’s a reactive measure and will cost the taxpayers more money without providing improvement.”
That bill is in keeping with a past Donalds practice of introducing bills with elaborate titles but then never following up with content that actually does something. “In my personal opinion, that is a lot of what our politicians have turned to for popularity for their next election without following through,” Huff observes.
Huff was also disturbed by Donalds’ refusal to seek federal funding for district needs. “It gave me the realization of how much we’re losing in this community.” If elected Huff is determined to get every penny the District is entitled to receive from the federal government.
Republicanism and rationality
Huff is a lifelong Republican and his positions reflect the Party’s traditional mainstream approach and attitudes.
He says he has three main priorities as a candidate.
The first is to make politicians accountable. A key element of this is imposing term limits on members of Congress and enforcing existing ethics rules, which he thinks have been too laxly pursued. “If we allow people to get a pass, then essentially we do not have any rules,” he argues.
The second is to fight for clean water and bringing it to Southwest Florida either through ongoing efforts or new initiatives.
The third is to maintain a sense of professionalism. As he puts it: “I won’t say that’s something that every politician has lost but I will say as a whole, especially the ones we see on TV, we have lost our professionalism.” Examples of unprofessionalism he cites include House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) ripping up a copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech and Trump refusing to attend President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“You can go to any politician going on national TV and berating another politician or another party for their beliefs. So when I say ‘professionalism’ what I honestly think it is, is ‘know when to bite your tongue,’” he says.
On other issues, he supports law enforcement, a strong military, meeting veterans’ needs, reforming the immigration system and securing the borders, upholding free enterprise and protecting individual liberties.
Although a Second Amendment and lawful carrying supporter and an AR-15 gun owner, Huff is not a member of the National Rifle Association. As he puts it, he believes in taking steps in a reasonable direction to protect Americans without their having to surrender their rights to gun ownership.
Huff says properly administered “red flag” laws that enable law enforcement to take guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others can protect the public. “It’s not a popular cause,” he acknowledges. “But it’s also something to consider, with education, that our own state has already implemented. Speaking to law enforcement, and also people who have gone through the red flag process themselves, it is effective [used] in the right way. Is it a bit of a nuisance for some? Yes, if falsely accused, sure, but in general we know it is helping our imperfect system.”
Huff is also avoiding being tied to corporate or industry political action committees (PACs).
This is based on personal experience. Like all candidates, Huff has received questionnaires from PACs asking about his positions in exchange for their support. To get PAC endorsements and money, a candidate has to accept the PAC’s position on issues.
“There’s always a line at the bottom with a pledge to support the PAC’s position,” he recounts. “The pledge ties my hands throughout my term. Even for the right cause, it’s too vague. I don’t want to open this up. I believe that interest groups are the problem.”
He explains: “My focus is to speak to the people. We need to support ourselves as a community first, and then take those principles and ideals to the federal level, not take our special interest groups and then feed that down the opposite direction.”
Huff has encountered numerous questions and challenges about his position on Trump’s contention that he won the 2020 election and the events of January 6, 2021, an event he missed watching on television in real time because he was working.
He stated his position in a Facebook post on June 23.
“To this day, I do not believe Donald Trump broke a law because it is likely he would have been arrested or indicted already and tried in a court of law for the law(s) he broke,” he wrote. “HOWEVER, I KNOW LAWS WERE BROKEN THAT DAY AND THOSE COMMITTING THE CRIMES MUST BE HELD RESPONSIBLE. I do believe Trump’s actions contributed to the mistaken expectations of those who did storm the capitol, that Trump would continue being President after their actions. I support the prosecution of every individual found guilty of breaking the law that day, not to the fullest extent but to a reasonable extent given each’s specific circumstances. You know what that’s called? Justice.”
He’s also skeptical of the proceedings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, which he calls bad politics and more reality TV than a hearing. “I believe we all deserve the truth of details as to what happened factually, without bias to one point of view or the other,” he stated.
One of the most voluntary acts a person can commit in life is running for public office. No one is forced to do it and the immediate reaction of most people to a new candidate is discouragement: the incumbent is always too entrenched, the cost of campaigning is always too high, the opponent’s coffers are always too full, the odds of winning are always too long.
So it takes courage to take that step and declare a candidacy, whether for dog catcher or school board or Congress.
Whether one agrees with Huff or not, he is undeniably showing courage by stepping forward against an incumbent who plays to the lowest common denominator.
He says that people have told him that even if he doesn’t win the Aug. 23 primary, he will be well positioned to run again “next time.” However, he says, “There is no plan for a next time. It’s always been a plan to get in, make an improvement and then go back to my career as an engineer, as a normal citizen. And I do believe a lot of people recognize if we had more people running for those reasons we would have a more effective government.”
Whatever one thinks of Huff’s candidacy, in a Southwest Florida district whose past Republican primary election campaigns have been awash in gunplay and insults and dirty tricks, it is definitely refreshing to have as a candidate someone who is a professional and a civil engineer—in every sense of the word “civil.”
Liberty lives in light
©2022 by David Silverberg