Ramon Alexander, a North Florida native son, seeks 'level playing field' | Political profile

James Call
Tallahassee Democrat

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one of several profiles taking a look at Leon County's state legislators in the run-up to the 2021 legislative session, which starts March 2. 

Raised with family spread across Jefferson, Leon and Gadsden counties without ever missing a Florida A&M University home football game, state Rep. Ramon Alexander considers himself a North Florida native son.

The three-term Democratic lawmaker also believes he's had "unique opportunities" that have handed him the responsibility "to level the playing field," now that he is the Florida House representative for one of the state's poorer counties and other communities historically underserved by the state of Florida.

Alexander represents House District 8, all of Gadsden County — the state's only minority-majority county — and Tallahassee’s west and south side, where he grew up, attended high school and college, serving as student government president at FAMU. 

Rep. Ramon Alexander and Gov. Ron DeSantis chat during a tour of Florida A&M University's new Center for Access and Student Success which is currently under construction Monday, Feb. 24, 2020.

The poverty rate in Gadsden County is 58% higher than the rest of Florida, the per capita income is 35% lower, and median household income is 26% less, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

More:10 reasons we have total chaos and finger pointing in Florida’s public health system | Rep. Ramon Alexander

In the past four years, Alexander has worked to steer millions of dollars for infrastructure projects to Gadsden, changed state calculations for funding of state universities to FAMU's benefit, and blocked a loss of jobs when a former Senate leader tried to move the Florida Highway Patrol Academy to Polk County. 

“People in my communities are just looking (to have) what everyone else has,” Alexander said about safe drinking water, well-maintained roads, adequately funded schools, and a good relationship with law enforcement.  

Alexander will say he avoids the lights and cameras to focus on action, but he has critics who will dispute that. "He loves to get theatrical," lobbyist Barney Bishop said. Alexander often spices up conversations with paraphrases of mythology and Bible parables.

Rep. Ramon Alexander speaks in front of the eternal flame on the Florida A&M campus before a march to the Florida State University College of Law Friday, Oct. 26, 2018 to encourage early voting.

Bishop and Alexander clashed recently in a committee meeting when Alexander declared Bishop was no Democrat and Bishop, a former executive director of the state party, insisting he was a card-carrying member.

"Ramon is passionate about his people and because Barney does not understand that, he does not understand who Ramon Alexander is," said Tallahassee City Commissioner Curtis Richardson, who once held the House seat Alexander now has. 

Mentored by two titans of Tallahassee politics

The incident was out of character for Alexander, mentored in politics by Richardson and Congressman Al Lawson Jr., D-Tallahassee. 

When Lawson made a successful bid in 1982 to become the first African-American since Reconstruction to win a North Florida seat in the Florida House, Alexander's father, Lorenzo, converted his recreational vehicle into a Lawson bus for campaign swings through Wakulla and Franklin counties.

A teenage Alexander would later ride along when Lawson ran in 2000 for the Senate District 3 seat.

"I told him if I could win, you can win," Lawson recalls telling Alexander 16 years later when Alexander considered a House run. "You just have to be willing to work hard in your area and people will appreciate that."

More profiles of North Florida legislators:

Representative Ramon Alexander gives the opening speech before the MLK day Remembrance Walk organized by the Tallahassee chapter of NAACP.

Alexander worked as a legislative intern for both Richardson and Lawson. The two showed him, Alexander said, that your name doesn't have to be on a bill to have your fingerprints all over it.

The key to success as a member of the minority party, both men said they preached to Alexander on the campaign trail and in the Capitol's office suites, was to build relationships across the aisle, avoid partisan bickering created by extremists, and focus public remarks on policy.

Alexander says that's his playbook, and Richardson beams when he talks about how well he executes the strategy.

More:Democratic amendments to COVID-19 bill quashed; Rep. Ramon Alexander objects

'More focused on doing the right thing'

Both Alexander and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, will tell you they are pretty much on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Alexander left of center in his party, Fine right of center in his.

In the 2019-20 Legislature, Fine chaired the Higher Education Committee, Alexander was the co-chair, and Fine said they had a very productive "partnership."

"I guess Ramon and I are wired differently than most lawmakers. We're more focused on doing the right thing than on arguing," Fine said.

Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-Tallahassee) sits at his desk during the House of Representatives organizational session at the Florida State Capitol Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018.

They launched a successful effort to change how construction dollars were doled out to the state university system. The reform resulted in FAMU receiving a record amount of PECO dollars in 2019

“Usually most of the (money) in higher education projects go to the University of  Florida and Florida State, but with the work Ramon and I did for that year, it went to FAMU," Fine said in an interview. 

Alexander's lone electoral defeat came in 2006. As a FAMU senior he ran for the Leon County Commission District 1 seat and came within 350 votes of forcing the incumbent, FAMU professor Bill Proctor, into a runoff.

"I told him don’t worry about this (loss)," Lawson said. "Get involved in the community, do something to help kids, learn how the community functions.

"He just looked at me and said, 'Thank you.' I’ll never forget that. I knew then he was ready," said Lawson.

A decade later, after creating a nonprofit to mentor at-risk teens, Alexander mounted a successful run for the HD 8 seat.

"I can't tell you how proud I am of Ramon," Richardson said. "I don't think the Florida Legislature is going to be the last step for him."

Rep. Ramon Alexander sits in his seat during the Florida Legislature's Organization Session at the Florida Capitol Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.

Q&A with Rep. Ramon Alexander

Here’s Rep. Ramon Alexander in his own words, recorded in a series of phone calls during the past two weeks. (Questions and answers are edited for clarity and space.) 

Q:  Much of your political agenda and identity is rooted on the campus of Florida A&M University, can you speak to that? 

Alexander: Florida A&M is the symbolic example of the fight for equality, of fighting for basic opportunities. It is a state university that is right down the hill from the Capitol, but we have to fight and claw for every single thing that we get.   

And that is indicative of what is all over my district, all my communities, all over America. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and we have to work three times harder just to get a little piece of the pie. 

It speaks to systemic racism, structural racism and all the dynamics that we lack a level playing field. A playing field is constructed, and we are obligated to compete with other people when we have not received the same resources and opportunities. 

Rep. Ramon Alexander reviews materials from the Appropriations Committee in his office Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.

Q: As a member of the minority party and a person of color, how can you be effective in a Republican dominated Legislature? 

Alexander: I don’t come in with preconceived notions about anyone. I never assume that one of my colleagues — because of their background or because they have an 'R' after their name — that I am not going to talk to them, that I am not going to work with them and that I am not going to genuinely get to know them. 

I am not here to play Rs and Ds. People need help, people need representation, that’s what I’m here to play. There are genuine, sincere individuals all over America and in the Florida Legislature who are deliberate about working on issues that address problems

We may not agree on the merits of every proposal, but they know my objective is clear, and that I want to stand for what I believe, and I am not going to prejudge what is going to happen before it happens.  

Q: Are you satisfied with how the state has responded to the coronavirus pandemic?

Alexander: We have significant challenges. I think leadership has to stop chucking the blame and take ownership and make sure we make progress in securing vaccination sites. Now is not the time to defend who did what and who didn’t do what. That will come later. Now is the time to get shots into people’s arms.  

QThen there’s the unemployment compensation system and a myriad of problems over at the Department of Economic Opportunity. Critics say it has not been responsive to unemployed individuals about problems with the application process and claims filed by people out of work. 

Alexander: The current administration has to do a better job, but the current governor was given a goose egg of an apparatus of an unemployment system … that speaks directly to the leadership of Rick Scott. 

Now has Ron DeSantis done a phenomenal job? Absolutely not. But he is in the seat now, he has the responsibility to do a better job because people are struggling, people are frustrated with the current system and we have the responsibility to represent them.  

Rep. Ramon Alexander reviews materials from the Appropriations Committee in his office Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.

Q: If a voter were to ask you what you have accomplished as a member of the Florida House, what do you say?   

Alexander: I never sold my soul. The commitment I gave to my constituents when I asked for their vote remains true today. There are tangible things that you can use to judge my performance. 

We passed the first stand-alone pay raise for state employees in 11 years. We built a coalition to change the performance metric system in the state university system to expose funding inequities in a tier system that penalize the bottom three schools even when they showed progress.  

We got Gadsden County into the Hurricane Michael relief bill. It wasn’t there until we asked 'why'? And we worked on criminal justice reform. We raised the threshold for a felony charge, the first change since 1986.  

... I promised myself when I came to the Legislature that when I would leave, I would have no regrets. I can honestly say there is not a vote I have taken that I have a regret for. 

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee

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