This is IJR’s second segment of The 2020 Twenty. We’re asking every 2020 presidential candidate 20 questions on their plans, policies, outlook, and background as well as some lighter ones to help our readers get to know the people and their personalities as they compete to run the country.
Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam is running for president, but his path to victory gets narrower every day. He’s barely registering in the polls. You won’t see him on a CNN or Fox News town hall, and you’re not going to see him on the debate stage at the end of this month.
Messam isn’t exactly sure why. Yes, he’s the mayor of a small city, but so is Pete Buttigieg — or “the other mayor,” as Messam called him. Messam noted in our interview that Miramar has 50,000 more people than Buttigieg’s South Bend, Indiana. Messam has helped pass progressive policies in his city, such as a living minimum wage, and is currently in a legal battle to bring local gun control policies to the city.
While he hasn’t become a media darling, Messam does have a story that embodies the American dream. He’s the son of two Jamaican immigrants who worked in farming and food service. Growing up, he discovered he had a talent in football and eventually became part of the 1993 Florida State University championship team. His NFL dreams fell short, so he started a construction business and made his way into local politics. Eventually, he became the first black mayor of Miramar in 2015.
The 45-year-old seems like a good candidate for Congress, or maybe even governor. But Messam is skipping right ahead to the White House and doesn’t think there’s any problem with that. As he told IJR, “who says that Washington experience is working for the American people?”
1. As president, what would be your day one, number one priority?
Wayne Messam: My number one priority will be to — obviously, I launched my campaign, campaign for change, and my first priority that I launched out was the student loan debt forgiveness initiative to forgive the excessive amount of outstanding student loan debt that I feel is really hampering a lot of opportunities for Americans that are struggling with this debt.
2. What makes you want to run for president in the first place?
Being the son of immigrants, I’ve had the opportunity to live out the American dream that attracted my parents here to this country. I’m from Jamaica, and I see that the ability for Americans, everyday hardworking Americans, to realize their American dream is becoming more and more difficult and slipping away, so I’m running to give America a second chance at the American dream.
3. What’s your best memory from your college football career?
So many, but I would name two. One, winning the national championship my freshman year, as well as the game that is known as “The Choke at Doak” when the University of Florida played at our home stadium, and they were beating us [24-3] at halftime and we came back to tie the game 31-31, they’re the memories that stick out.
4. Is there anything you learned on the football field that applies to politics?
Oh, yes! Performing in high-stakes situations, learning how to work with individuals who might not necessarily agree with you, but also learning the joys of victory as well as sustaining the pains of defeat. So I would say that those life lessons that I’ve learned on the football field are definitely transferable to everyday life.
5. Miramar is just down the road from Parkland. Tell me about your experience on the day of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018. How did it affect your stance on gun policy?
Because of that, it became even more apparent that Florida statute actually prohibits local municipalities from passing any laws or ordinances as it relates to ammunition and firearms, but it doesn’t just stop there. There were punitive provisions placed in the statue that would — if any laws, ordinances were even passed, unlike any other statute that would just be null and void, it goes a step further. I could be removed from mayor, from office by the governor, personally fined $5,000, and our city would be exposed to countless lawsuits for anyone who say that we violate their Second Amendment right.
So as a result, I was one of the lead mayors — a group of mayors, about eight or nine mayors of cities came together, we filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida, which is going on right now, to remove that punitive damage, those punitive clauses in the statue that basically was designed to chill local elected officials so that we were even afraid to talk about it in our local government, and it basically takes away our freedom, our free speech. We are currently in our lawsuit right now. So that has been our biggest impact since Parkland, it has forced us to fight for more of a say in terms of gun safety in our city.
So what would your stance on gun policy be on a national level?
My goal would be to reduce gun violence in our country by 50 percent in my first four years, and the way I would do that, that we’re working to do that is to first establish a ban on assault-style weapons to get them off our streets as well as to prevent the manufacturing and selling of them in our country. Second, I would push for universal background checks for the purpose of just ensuring any individuals who should not have a gun, not have one.
I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment. There are individuals that have mental health conditions, are perhaps violent criminals, are on our terror watch list, they should not have the ability to access and have a gun. So I think that those low-hanging fruit measures are something that could be negotiated and agreed upon with this country taking action. But as you’ve seen, there’s been literally zero action as it relates to all these mass shootings that are taking place as well as the everyday violence that takes place in our streets.
6. You’ve shared that your parents came to America from Jamaica with no more than a fifth-grade education. What are your thoughts on President Donald Trump’s proposed merit-based immigration plan? How does yours differ?
I’m not a big supporter of merit-based immigration plans because you’re picking winners and losers. If you take my parents, my parents in a merit-based process would probably be at the bottom of the priority list in terms of individuals seeking opportunity in this country. Yet look what they’ve produced. Five children, all are successful adults. With two actually serving this country. My oldest brother was in Desert Storm and is a proud veteran and retired as an enlisted sergeant major in the Army. My sister works for Customs and Border Protection and is protecting our country. I’m a business owner, I create jobs, provide contract opportunities as a private business owner to companies all over South Florida and mayor of a major city in our state and in contention to be the next president of the United States.
So if you take my parents, if you take them at face value, my father being a contract sugar cane cutter, my mother a cook who used to feed those men out in the fields, you wouldn’t see that they would produce successful children. I think they’re a perfect example of why you would eliminate the opportunity for so many deserving immigrants who would like to make America their new country.
So then how do you make the decisions of who gets to come in and how many people get to come in? How do we, as a country, look at that?
I think we have to look at the process from a humane standpoint. We have existing immigration laws that have been working, it’s just the enforcement of our laws taking place right now that we’re now pushing and limiting the number of immigrants we can let into this country. I think that if individuals can come in, our standard line to come into this country is to show the willingness, to demonstrate how they can contribute to this country. They don’t all have to be engineers. They don’t all have to be professionals or business owners or have money to go to the highest bidder. We don’t want to be a country that is labeled that way.
Anyone who has the desire, who has the hunger to be a contributor to our country should have an opportunity to be able to come into this country. We haven’t even talked about asylum-seekers, those other qualifying conditions or statuses that would grant someone the ability to petition to become a permanent resident and eventually a naturalized citizen of our country.
“Anyone who has the desire, who has the hunger to be a contributor to our country should have an opportunity to be able to come into this country.”
7. The war in Afghanistan is now America’s longest war — would you withdraw troops and if so how?
Wherever you have troops abroad, if you’re going to be removing them from a war zone, we have to do it in a safe and responsible way. There is no way we should have a forever war. As you stated before, it’s our longest lasting war with no clear enemy. And that’s the challenge with this whole situation with Afghanistan. But I would definitely advocate for the withdrawal of those troops in the most safe manner possible to ensure their safety. But not instead of just blanketly withdrawing them but ensuring we continue to have the relationship with the Afghans and other stakeholders in the region to ensure there is some sort of transition and possibility of enforceability once our troops are out of harm’s way.
What is your overall stance on U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts?
At times, it’s in our national interest to get involved when and if necessary to ensure that American interests are protected. However, it is very difficult to be the police for every foreign consulate. We do know that there are forces that are out to not only threaten our democracy and the ability for democracy to take route in foreign places, and I think that where we can assist other nations in having a strong, stable democracy, that we be able to assist them as well as our interests in foreign land. So I think it’s very important that America continues to have its position internationally.
But I think what’s missing and what’s the problem with this administration is that we’ve lost, the country has lost our standing as an honest broker as it relates to foreign conflicts. This administration has selectively put its thumb on the scale in places where it should not be. We’ve turned our backs on long-standing allies and befriended enemies and made enemies of our friends, and it’s been counterproductive, this isolationist position that the current administration has put us in. I do not think it is in the best interest of America.
“We’ve turned our backs on long-standing allies and befriended enemies and made enemies of our friends and it’s been counterproductive, this isolationist position that the current administration has put us in.”
8. For the first time in history, the national debt now tops $22 trillion — how would you address this?
We have to revise our tax code to ensure that everyone is paying their fair share. I don’t like the notion that when you say that major corporations should pay their fair share in tax or that the wealthiest of Americans perhaps should pay more than what they’ve been paying or how they take advantage of tax loopholes or how our tax code does not incentivize companies keeping their profits here in this country, they take them offshore, set up operations offshore. We need to find ways to put our tax code in a way where everyone pays a fair share, for one.
And then two, finding creative ways to incentivize investment as well as invest in innovation in our country instead of having all of those resources that are gained through our capitalism and capitalist society to go abroad to foreign countries, and I think that’s how we’ll deal with the debt. The reason why we have the debt is because we have so many needs and so many demands on limited resources, but those resources are limited because we are not looking at innovative ways to raise capital for the country in a way that is balanced, in a way that allows for prosperity to continue while not having this burden to be on the backs of hard-working and middle-class Americans.
Would your plans, such as canceling all student debt, add to the national debt?
No, actually it would not. It’s one of those examples where, for example, if you gave a tax cut to corporations, major corporations and the wealthiest Americans to the tune of $2 trillion. That money did not go back to hard-working Americans. A lot of that money went into buying corporate stocks. Obviously, it has fueled the stock market, the stock market has been doing fairly well.
However, everyday hardworking Americans don’t live in that space. They’re working more than one job just to make ends meet. You talk about the unemployment rate, but some people are working more than one job, so is that the quality of life, is that the American dream, that average everyday Americans want?
So by rolling back some of the tax rates these corporations have been able to enjoy, cutting off some of the tax loopholes that wealthy Americans are able to capitalize on, that is additional revenue that could be used to do things like forgiving student loan debt and other investments in this country that could spark economic activity.
9. While canceling all student loan debt would give a lot of people financial relief, how do you plan to address the long-term problem of secondary education becoming less and less affordable?
First, we have to talk about the moral issue of student loans. What are you told in this country? Go to school, go to high school, graduate, go to college, get a four-year degree or more so you could have a what? A high paying job, correct? Yet who does that benefit? That benefits this country. It ensures that we have educated and trained individuals that can be employed by corporations and keep America as a top economic power, correct?
And yet who has to foot that burden? Typically, families that are middle-class, lower-class families who don’t have the financial means to pay for this college tuition. But yet corporations won’t hire you unless you have it, a four-year degree or higher. Yet corporations get to benefit from this educated population, but they have no skin in the game, but they get to reap the benefits.
So moving forward, we would have an incentivized program that would reward states that are helping to keep their college costs down and private institutions down, we will ask our employers to pay a small payroll tax that will go toward the federal government, similar to how the corporate taxes pay for social security, Medicare, so we could provide that social net for seniors, but a similar vein, the small corporate tax would go to the federal government, which would be used to help offset the cost of higher education, whether it’s for grants to colleges and universities, whether it’s through the Pell Grant system, or merit-based process where individuals, because of their contributions to this country, can then be rewarded for those contributions by helping to pay their college tuition or pay off any student loans that they might have.
10. You’ve said that you support “climate action that will rival the New Deal in scope.” Does that mean you support the Green New Deal? How, if at all, does your plan differ?
Well, I support the end goal and the sense of urgency of the Green New Deal, and I think the Green New Deal has done wonders in terms of bringing this issue forward in the mainstream in the terms of the urgency for us to act right now. This current administration even states that we have to act right now or in 10 years, we’ll have irreversible consequences to the air that we breathe and the water that we drink.
So I look forward to proposing a plan that would rival the Green New Deal, that would have the sense of urgency that the Green New Deal is bringing forward, the urgency to act right now. I think with the Green New Deal — it’s more of a mission statement, more of a vision in terms of how we can address climate change as well as some of the socioeconomic challenges in this country. But I think that we need to clearly define smaller objectives that ultimately add up to the scale of what is trying to be achieved because that’s how people think.
You know, that’s how people think, that’s how people can act. In this political climate, for the Green New Deal to pass with this divided Congress is going to be very difficult. But because of the urgency to act now, we have to have measurable and scalable objectives we can reach so that ultimately, we can get to that goal.
So is something like shifting to 100 percent renewable energy by a certain time too big of something to target right now?
No, I don’t think that’s too big, I don’t think that’s too big of a deal. I think we just have to provide a pathway and a realistic pathway. You know, this country can’t just flip a switch and go from fossil fuels to renewable energy, although that would be a goal of mine. I would have a goal to have a date certain of when we would have 100 percent renewable energy. However, you can’t just say that. You have to provide the resources and pathway to be able to do that.
11. You have yet to put forth a health care plan, instead saying that you are “open to ideas” to make our health care system better. Would you like to see the Affordable Care Act reformed, or a new system all together, like a “Medicare for All” plan?
Well, the thing is is that I believe health care is a civil right. And I believe that we have to make proposals that will actually pass in this Congress. So my goal is to insure every American. So how do we get there given where we are right now and dealing with a split Congress?
I think right now that there’s been a lot of talk about Medicare for All, and I think Medicare for All is something that is plausible because it’s a current government-run health care plan that provides quality health care that people know and can trust because it exists and it’s working right now. I think we can expand Medicare, program Medicaid to capture those individuals who are uninsured. Obviously, that is going to cost some investment by us as the American people, but it’s a matter of having the political will to say that health care is a civil right.
Now, I also believe in choice. So if you have a private plan or if you have a plan that is provided by your employer that you like — you like your medical professional, your health care plan, your benefits — you should be able to keep that. Let’s say you don’t like it or if you don’t like your private plan, you should be able to bring your premiums over to the Medicare plan so that you can get the benefit of having health care benefits that are provided through Medicare. And I think something that way, something initially from that standpoint could have an opportunity to move forward. I do believe in an ideal scenario that a single-payer system is best for this country, but the question is could we pass that right now? And I’m not sure with a split Congress.
“I do believe in an ideal scenario that a single-payer system is best for this country, but the question is could we pass that right now? And I’m not sure with a split Congress.”
12. President Trump made history by meeting with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un in 2018—would you have taken part in that summit if you were president? What would you have done differently?
I would not have given legitimacy to that regime. No, I would not have had that meeting.
So how would you do diplomacy with North Korea?
Well, we would continue to work with all the stakeholders, whether they’re allies or important stakeholders like China or Japan and obviously South Korea that are in that region. Obviously, this country has shown no credibility in terms of living up to its promises, and the only successes that seem to force them to the table are the sanctions that have been levied on their economy.
13. Do you support marijuana legalization? If so, how would you address the significant number of people imprisoned and impacted by strict drug laws?
I do address the legalization of marijuana, I think it should be, the current classification that it has should be removed. Those individuals that have been incarcerated because of recreational use or possession of this drug and are spending time in jail, I would have those sentences commuted. I would have them expunged because marijuana or cannabis has been legalized in so many states for either medicinal or recreational use or both — that is where the pendulum is swinging nationwide. I think there’s some opportunities for the country in terms of regulating the industry and being able to generate taxes from it to support other needs in this country.
“… marijuana or cannabis has been legalized in so many states for either medicinal or recreational use or both — that is where the pendulum is swinging nationwide.”
14. What is the most important takeaway or lesson for Democrats from the 2016 election?
Well, I think one of the takeaways is that you cannot take anything for granted. You know, you have to listen to hardworking Americans. Someone has to stand up for them, that’s why they voted for Trump. They felt that they were abandoned, they felt that no one was listening to them. They saw the false hope and false promises of this current administration.
As president, I would be an administration that would look to bail out hardworking and middle-class Americans. Bailing out meaning that having a country that works for them so that they can reach their goals. A president that realizes that we’re all in the same boat together.
15. You have yet to meet the fundraising or polling requirement set by the Democratic National Committee to get onto the debate stage. What is your plan to get your message heard?
Coming on mediums like yours that may not necessarily be the most progressive audience so that folks can see that a Democrat can discuss and debate issues. Obviously, the consequences of my campaign is that I’m an average mayor, an average person that has stepped up to do this. I don’t have big money like some of my colleagues. I have limited rules, I don’t have a congressional account that I can transfer over to a presidential campaign, I have to start from scratch.
I would say that I have not gotten my fair share of coverage. I haven’t gotten a CNN town hall months ago like the other mayor who’s been able to get exposure to millions of Americans.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I’ll let you all decide that. But, you know, my city is larger than South Bend by 50,000. More Fortune 500 companies, more culturally diverse, and from a battleground state. You must win Florida if you have any chance of winning the presidency, and I would believe that if millions of Americans heard my story, saw my life story, saw my successes, that enough of them would gain an interest to at least want to learn more and perhaps support my campaign in a way where now I can get my message across in more places and to more Americans so that I could easily be polling the way that some of these candidates are polling.
16. Why is the mayor of a town your size qualified to be president, and what would you say to people who think you don’t have enough experience?
Well, I think what mayors bring to the table is we’re closest to the people, and we have to get things done with or without Washington. We don’t have the liberty to hide behind the Beltway and Congress because we can just walk in our driveway, and our neighbors can ask us what’s the deal with the bridge that’’ not holding up too well or our streets are flooding or our garbage was not collected on time. So we have to deal with the unfunded mandates from our county government, our state government, and even our federal government. We have to find these solutions, and I think we work best when we work together, and a mayor has that perspective.
Another thing, too, is that we work in a nonpartisan environment, and we are solution-oriented. So I would go to Washington with the mindset of I’m willing to compromise, I’m willing to work on behalf of the American people. We both agree on this issue, why let the other two issues that we don’t agree on hold up the few issues that we do agree on? Let these issues pass and let us move on, on behalf of the American people.
And who says that Washington experience is working for the American people? You see what’s going on in Washington, right? So as a mayor, as a business owner on the debate stage, I can talk about what it is to be a small business owner because I am one. I can talk about what it is to run a city, I can talk about what it’s like to actually get things done.
No, I’m not a U.S. senator. No, I’m not a U.S. House of Representative — which, by the way, I’m still waiting for someone to tell me which House of Representative that has been elected president. There is no path, The Constitution says that you have to be 35 years old, born in the United States and lived in the country for 14 years. So I am just as qualified, if not more qualified, because a U.S. senator or a U.S. House of Representative, what are they gonna say? Well, I proposed a bill, I co-sponsored a bill that might be heard in committee that perhaps gets voted by the entire body that God knows if it even passes or gets signed by the president, I mean, there are very few examples of that. So what have they done other than propose bills and give great speeches?
“I am just as qualified if not more qualified because a U.S. senator or a U.S. House of Representative … what have they done other than propose bills and give great speeches?”
17. If you could get a drink with any previous president, who would it be?
I would say President Barack Obama, obviously.
Have you met him?
I have. Never had a drink with him, though. Probably FDR, and just to have some kind of perceptive, probably Abraham Lincoln.
18. What album had the biggest impact on your life?
Legend, Bob Marley.
19. What fictional character would be your dream running mate?
I like so many of them. Who’s the main character out of Wakanda? The main character out of Wakanda, he would be my running mate.
(Editor’s note: The main character Messam is referring to is T’Challa from Marvel’s “Black Panther.”)
20. There are over 20 Democrats running for president so far. What do you want voters to think of when they hear your name?
I want them to see a champion for them who’s going to work for them. Someone who has lived the American dream, the everyday life that most Americans experience. Someone who’s not an elitist and who will work on behalf of the American people, truly work on the behalf of the American people. Not controlled by any interest groups, not controlled by big money, but someone who is inspired by the promise of this country who wants that for every American regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and I will be their agent of change.