Sept. 10, 2020 by David Silverberg
Like many people, Rachel Brown’s politics and understanding of the world has evolved—but she’s had a lot further to go and started at an earlier age than most.
Born in 1994 and raised in Naples, Fla., Brown’s father made money selling guns at gun shows. She was raised in a house without air conditioning with Fox News blaring in the background. Until the third grade she was home schooled but then her mother, a teacher by profession, worked three jobs to afford the tuition to send her to private school at the Evangelical Christian School in Fort Myers.
It was an upbringing that might have produced a woman with narrow expectations, a limited perspective on the world and conservative political views.
Instead, today Brown is the progressive candidate for the Florida state Senate in District 27, determined to protect the district’s natural environment, ensure a decent life for its people and tackle the challenges that face them.
“I’m a liberal who comes from conservative roots,” she says. “I’m tired of my legislators ignoring issues like harmful algal blooms, the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, and the massive homeless crisis on the rise.”
Center of gravity
State Senate District 27 includes Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva. It is the center of population in Lee County. The Caloosahatchee River runs through it to its shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.
The District is currently represented by Republican Sen. Elizabeth Benaquisto, who is term-limited and stepping down.
Benaquisto’s retirement set off a ferocious primary battle to succeed her between state House Reps. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Fort Myers Beach) and Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers), a battle so bitter they appeared in dueling TV ads firing guns, with the barely disguised implication they would gladly turn those guns on each other.
By then, Brown was already a declared candidate for the seat. She was approached by state Sen. Gary Farmer (D-34) the designated Senate minority leader, who urged Brown not to run so that Democrats could vote in an open Republican primary and elect the more moderate Fitzenhagen.
However, Brown refused, saying “How can I tell people I’ve marched with that I changed my mind, I’m not going to run, and they should go vote for a mediocre Republican instead who’s just going to take their taxes and use it for corporate handouts? And how can I take a backroom deal that represents the behavior I’m fighting to end?”
On Aug. 18 Rodrigues decisively defeated Fitzenhagen.
Given the past Republican nature of the District, the conventional wisdom is that it will remain the same.
Brown is determined to prove that assumption wrong. As her campaign slogan puts it: “Defy the norm!”
After three years in private school, Brown attended Palmetto Ridge High School in Naples for a year and then began going part time to Florida Gulf Coast University, where she is still studying.
“I wasn’t planning to run for office before I got my degree,” she says. “But it’s incredibly urgent that I do it now.”
Brown is training as an environmental engineer and it was her sensitivity and understanding of the environment—and particularly the relationship of the District with its natural setting—that powered her run for office.
“Water quality is the big issue for everyone,” she observes. “Anyone in Southwest Florida has seen the degradation of our water and the algae blooms. My whole life I’ve heard folks that have been around longer than I have say that the water used to be a bright, beautiful crystal blue, not like the brown and black plumes we see today.”
“I believe every person should have a legal right to clean air and clean water; a right that citizens of District 27 do not currently have,” she says, adding that she’s ready to fight for that right in Tallahassee.
She’s also angry that important environmental legislation has repeatedly been put off or deferred by the state legislature.
“Every time they see an environmental group trying to do something good they try to stop it,” she says.
She’s particularly incensed by what she calls the deceptively named Clean Waterways Act, which has been signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
While the law puts in place a variety of water purity regulations and procedures, it also takes away the power of local governments to extend legal rights to plants, animals or bodies of water, so that their purity or health can be protected in court. Brown believes there needs to be an environmental bill of rights and says she will work to repeal the Act in order to pass a better alternative.
It’s mainly on these environmental issues that she most disagrees with her opponent. During the primary, Rodrigues was painted as a tool of the sugar industry around Lake Okeechobee, earning him the nickname “Sugar Ray.” Water from the lake is blamed for much of the pollution that flows down the Caloosahatchee River and dumps into the waters of the 27th District, clogging the canals of Cape Coral with algal mats and causing blue-green algae blooms along the river’s shores.
“He’s everything I am not,” says Brown. “He doesn’t seem to put the people of Lee County first.”
While the natural environment is critical to sustaining life and the 27th District’s economy, that life is under stress from the pandemic and the economy has been badly battered.
Nonetheless, Brown is optimistic: “I truly believe that a combination of individual and community efforts can make everyone’s lives better,” she says. “There are so many positive changes to be made when we work together.”
She points out that in Lee County the average cost of rent has increased by 19 percent since 2001 while the average income has gone up by only 4 percent, meaning that working people cannot keep up. She favors increasing the minimum wage to a livable level of $15 over six years. “If people aren’t making enough to live they’re going to need help,” she says.
She has seen homelessness in Lee County in person while working food service jobs. With the pandemic and economic crash she fears that homelessness is likely to increase and the county has to be ready for it.
People also need their healthcare, which she vows to protect, and she wants to expand Medicaid in the state.
Will she be branded a “socialist” for all this? Ironically, she points out, Rodrigues himself praised socialized healthcare. It came during a League of Women Voters forum when he commended Sweden’s approach to the COVID crisis by trying to develop herd immunity—covered by its socialized healthcare.
Brown also supports mask mandates to protect people from coronavirus.
Given her father’s past gun dealing, Brown says she’s comfortable with gun ownership as long as owners behave legally and responsibly. However, she feels they should be held liable for the use of their weapons. She really takes issue with Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
“Stand your ground as it is doesn’t do the job it was intended to do,” she argues. “It shouldn’t be allowed to be used in an offensive way.”
One issue that is close to her heart is that of infrastructure—good public transportation and safe streets—and for a very personal reason.
In 2004 her 12-year-old brother Eric was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was riding his bicycle in Golden Gate Estates. Brown believes the culprit—who was never caught—was drunk or on drugs.
The incident made her determined to work for greater road safety. “We have a lack of city planning,” she notes. “A lot of the county is considered a rural environment but that’s just a way to excuse the lack of planning. We need better planning because then we’ll have safer roadways and fewer emissions.”
Her stance on infrastructure has won her an endorsement from Thomas Kanell, creator of ABetterLeeTran.com, a website advocating improved public transportation in Lee County. He called her “a courageous activist whose focus on the needs of everyday people and on preserving the environment is a fresh alternative from the money-driven politics that have characterized elections in our state.”
Her brother’s death also convinced Brown that alcohol and drugs need to be gotten off the streets. “Drug possession in and of itself is not the issue,” she maintains. “Driving under the influence of drugs and reckless driving in general is. Rather than busting people in their homes for drug consumption, we need to keep it off the roads.”
A public servant
Brown is fully aware that running as a Democrat in what has to date been a Republican district is a long, difficult battle against heavy odds. Her opponent is deep-rooted, backed by the Republican establishment and well-funded.
“At the start of my campaign, I innocently imagined a full paid staff; leaders of volunteer crews, managers, and social media people,” she recounts. “Now I realize that’s not going to happen.”
Instead, small donations have enabled her to order and distribute a hundred face masks and face shields. In addition to using social media she’s purchased yard signs and been able to produce a 30-second television advertisement. She’s planning to send out mailers.
In what she calls a game-changing development, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee organization called Red to Blue is helping her with software and text message campaigning.
She’s been endorsed by other candidates like congressional candidate Cindy Banyai and Anselm Weber, running for the Florida House in District 76.
Interestingly enough, she’s also getting Republican help from supporters of Heather Fitzenhagen who were disgusted by Rodrigues’ primary campaign.
“Many women are angered by Ray’s vicious campaign against Heather which ultimately lost her the primary,” she observes. “In order to win, I need support from all women and I’m delighted by those who have joined me.”
She acknowledges that “It’s hard being a grassroots candidate,” but adds, “I’m powering to the polls.”
Among the many promises and pledges that are made on the campaign trail, there’s one Brown is absolutely determined to keep: “My biggest celebration when I win will be to finally pay for air conditioning for my mother,” she says.
Liberty lives in light
©2020 by David Silverberg