'You have to earn it': Top Florida Democrat visits colleges in outreach tour to young voters
When Democratic State Sen. Jason Pizzo walked into a political science classroom at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, the students didn’t exactly know who he was.
“So as I do at every college that I’ve visited, you have a chance to win cash and prizes. Does anybody know who their state senator is?” Pizzo asked. “You get a hundred bucks if you do.”
“Rick Scott …?” one student asked.
“You said Rick Scott,” Pizzo replied. “That’s a U.S. Senator.”
Pizzo kept trying, turning to another student in Professor Charles Zelden’s state and local politics class.
“Ok, do you know who your state senator is? State representative?” Pizzo tried.
Nobody won a hundred bucks on that day — but the class did get a crash course on representative democracy.
Pizzo — who will soon be the top Democrat in the Florida Senate — has been traveling the state to ask Floridians what they want from their government.
And one of the main constituencies that the next Senate minority leader has been turning to is … college students, making stops at a dozen public and private universities from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University to Florida Atlantic University to the University of Miami.
At Nova Southeastern, Pizzo worked the classroom of about two dozen students, pacing across the carpet and commandeering the white board to draw out concentric circles representing the different levels of government. He used a junior named Lorance White from Opa-locka as an example.
“Who is closest to Lorance and the people that Lorance loves the most? His city mayor or Joe Biden?” Pizzo asked the class.
“City mayor,” students answered.
“When Lorance goes home to turn the water on, take the trash out, needs streetlights out in front of his house, is concerned about safety in schools and things like that … does that really correlate or is it closer to Joe Biden or is it closer to the mayor of the city he lives in?” Pizzo said.
“Mayor,” they replied.
A lot of the students in this class are political science majors. But for many of them, it was the first time they had ever met an elected official.
And they don’t necessarily believe their government is representing their interests.
“The people at the lower levels are trying to be more for the people,” said NSU sophomore Isabelle Moreno. “But I feel like, once they get up higher to the governor … the power gets to their head. And like they don't really care about what us people think.”
Heading into the next legislative session, Sen. Pizzo won’t just be facing off against the Republican majority and the lasting criticisms of the Florida Democratic Party — he’ll be fighting the apathy and distrust of people who aren’t engaged in politics.
Pizzo says he’s already getting pushback from his identical twin 17-year-old sons Jack and Julian — who pre-registered to vote as independents, even though their dad is a Democrat.
“So I was like, 'What's up with that?' And they're like, ‘Yeah, you have to earn it’. I was like, 'Excuse me?' They’re like, ‘Yeah, we're gonna vote for you, obviously. But it's sort of an example. It's sort of a challenge. Because our generation, kids our age don't trust you guys. Don't think you listen to us. Don't think you have our best interests in mind,'” Pizzo said.
That’s part of why Pizzo has been traveling across the state, talking to students at colleges and universities.
“So this is where I shut up and I listen,” he told the class. “Because if you did vote last year, your best friend did not, right?”
Issue on students' minds
During his visit to NSU, there was a lot of talk about gun control, the cost of living and equity.
“Maternal health,” said senior Amber Hockaday, “there's a big disparity among women of color who give birth, who unfortunately die in comparison to their white counterparts.”
The class was attentive and engaged, throwing out different issues as Pizzo peppered them with questions.
Sophomore Lohatany Arguetas told Pizzo that the state should provide more support for students who have disabilities or speak other languages.
“Going off the teachers, I think there's a shortage of like, teachers actually being educated on how to teach ELL and ESE students,” she said. “The newer teachers now, they're getting taught [it] in school, but older teachers need programs to teach them how to deal with ELL and ESE students.”
Later, sophomore Isabelle Moreno said she was pleasantly surprised by the senator — and the fact he isn’t an octogenarian.
“We were totally expecting it to be some old, boring, slow-moving [person] … but we're like okay, Professor Zelden, you picked someone really good!” she said.
And actually, Moreno says, it makes her even more sure that she wants to go into politics herself one day.
“I originally came in wanting to go into law and then into government,” she said. “But definitely, I want to go straight into politics, whether that means working for someone or doing my own thing.”
“It makes me feel better about what I want to do. Like, ‘Ok, I want to be like that’,” she said.