Little-known Florida mayor to announce 2020 exploratory committee

A little-known mayor in Florida plans to launch a presidential exploratory committee on Wednesday.

Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Florida, told CNN he will launch his committee, making him one of the longest of longshots in the 2020 race. Messam, a 44-year-old African American Democrat who has led a town of 140,000 people since 2015, is little known outside of South Florida, has a small political operation and enters a field of more than a dozen Democratic candidates, many of whom have far larger profiles and fundraising bases.

Messam accepts those odds, he told CNN in an interview, and is not afraid of the challenge of running for President as a relative unknown.

“I see it to be a unique opportunity for Americans to look at another option of leadership,” he said. “When you look at what is going on in Washington, the status quo is who is stepping up to be our next president. … When you look at a mayor, Americans see mayors favorably. We are at the front line of what Americans are dealing with every day.”

Messam is a first generation American and the son of Jamaican immigrants. His father was a contract sugar cane cutter and his mother cooked food for the men who worked in the sugar cane fields. The would-be mayor grew up in South Bay, Florida, and played football at Florida State University, where he won a national championship in 1993. The Democrat, who currently owns a construction business, was Miramar’s first black mayor.

Messam said Wednesday that he hopes voters who don’t know him “pause” to listen to his story long enough to see that he “comes from humble beginnings and is living my American dream.”

“And I think that American dream is slipping away for most Americans,” he added. “Americans are not getting their needs met.”

The mayor has a small team of advisers working for him as he charts out a possible 2020 bid, including some who helped Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum run for governor in 2018 (Gillum lost to Ron DeSantis). Those advisers say the mayor will compete in every state, but noted that the mayor will try to make weekly trips to South Carolina, in part, because the state’s electorate is predominately black.

Bakari Sellers, a longtime South Carolina Democrat and CNN contributor, said while he looks forward to meeting Messam, the odds of him having any shot in the state are long.

“He is going to come in with a stark disadvantage and he is going to have to come in and learn the state like anyone else,” Sellers said. “It doesn’t work to say, ‘I’m black, I can win South Carolina.’ That is not what South Carolina is all about.”

The mayor plans to visit the state on March 23 for a Democratic party meeting.

Messam’s announcement on Wednesday comes just one day after he won re-election as Miramar’s mayor.

His consideration of a presidential run started months ago and heated up earlier this year at the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors in Washington, DC, where the mayor held meetings with national Democrats to discuss a possible bid. The mayor continued to consider a 2020 run in the months after the meeting, and publicly told reporters that he was inclined to jump into the race.

Messam does not have the smallest constituency of anyone considering a 2020 bid. That distinction falls to Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of roughly 100,000 people.

“If the mayor of South Bend is taken seriously, we think the mayor of Miramar should be as well,” an adviser said about Messam’s chances.

Unlike Messam, though, Buttigieg has been considering a presidential bid for months and has a campaign staff of roughly 20 in place. The South Bend mayor also enjoys a far larger national profile, in part because he ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017.

Buttigieg has also shown the ability to raise money — the mayor raised more than $600,000 after his CNN town hall on Sunday, according to an aide — something Messam has not had to do much of while running for Miramar mayor. Aides to Messam said the mayor will tap into the Caribbean-American community and deep pocketed donors in South Florida, one of the most prolific Democratic fundraising bases in the country, to raise enough money to run a viable campaign.

“The Mayor is well aware of the enormous challenge a dark horse would face against a large field of primarily Washington insiders, but frankly, as the son of immigrants who won a national college championship and built a successful construction business before entering politics, DC’s game of musical chairs won’t impact his decision,” said Phillip Thompson, longtime friend and adviser to the mayor who was also involved with Gillum’s unsuccessful run for governor.

Messam said Wednesday that he is choosing to launch an exploratory committee and not a full-fledged campaign because he wants to take “the proper steps to be able to move our campaign forward so we can launch in a way where we can get our message out to the American people.”

Messam, though, speaks like a politician who fully intends to launch a full campaign. He told CNN that he “feels confident” his campaign will be able to meet the DNC requirements to make the first two primary debates, either through polling of grassroots fundraising.

“What we know is going to fuel this campaign is grassroots support,” he said. “And we feel confident that we will be able to meet the threshold so we will be on the debate in June.”

Messam is progressive on guns, immigration and the environment and he supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

The mayor was part of a group that sued the state of Florida in 2018 over a law that restricted his ability to create municipal gun regulations after the mayor wanted a new amphitheater in his city to be a “gun-free venue.”

Messam has also pushed back against President Donald Trump’s immigration proposals and, in 2017, he proposed requiring immigration officials have a warrant to enter city-owned buildings and some schools.

“We want to make sure that our parents at least, regardless of their immigration status, that is one less fear that they have — in regards to the prospect of their child being disrupted due to what we have seen going on across the country,” Messam said at the time.

On the environment, Messam signed on to a letter from more than 400 mayors that rebuked Trump for leaving the Paris Climate Accord.

Messam’s team hopes that his record as a Democrat outside of Washington will set him apart from other candidates in the field, namely the senators and members of Congress who are running.

“Should he (announce a run), the mayor will absolutely be a fresh voice in a crowded field that largely looks like it just walked out of a DC committee meeting,” a spokeswoman said.