Florida’s District 2 Democratic Congressional candidate, Bob Rackleff, is leading an aggressive and progressive campaign against incumbent congressman Neal Dunn. Rackleff agreed to meet with Spire Magazine to talk about his campaign and how his relationship with Tallahassee has shaped it.
Could you start by telling me a little bit about the district you’re running for office in?
I’m the Democratic candidate for congress in Florida’s 2nd District. It’s a district containing the Eastern panhandle and Northwest Florida with 19 counties—15 entirely and 4 partially. The boundary line is truly bizarre in Leon County. We’re sitting in District 2, but the other side of the railroad tracks just that way is District 5. It’s weird but it’s very logical if you’re gerrymandering. All you need to know about that is that Trump got 66% of the vote in District 2 in 2016.
What’s your relationship with the Tallahassee area? What kind of work have you done before now?
I moved to Tallahassee in 1952. I went to Kate Sullivan in the third and fourth grade and then Florida High after that and graduated in 1961. After highschool I went straight into Navy boot camp. When I got back I stayed in the reserves and went to FSU. I spent two years on active Navy duty after that from 1965-1967 and when I returned I went to Graduate school where I got an ABD (All But Dissertation) masters degree in history. I had planned to be a history teacher and just before I started my dissertation the job market crashed so I shifted to Plan B.
Plan B was to become a speech writer. I spent 7 years in D.C. in the 1970s which culminated in being a speech writer for Jimmy Carter. After the 1980 election, I moved to New York and worked as a speechwriter for the chairman of Time Inc. which became Time Warner. I moved back to Florida in 1986 and freelanced speech writing for corporate clients which gave me a lot of income and flexibility, so I could run for state representative. I didn’t win that election, but in 1998 I ran for Leon County Commissioner and won, serving until I was voted out in 2010
Since I was no longer in office, I spent four months in Uganda serving as Communications Director for a Ugandan environmental organization based in Kampala. I loved it there. I didn’t want to stop working when I got back to the US, so my wife and I moved back to D.C. and I worked as a cabinet speech writer for the Obama administration. I was there until the very end and it bothered me very greatly that the incumbent, Neal Dunn, was going to get reelected to a second term as the District 2 congressman without any serious competition. Democrats in Florida just give away congressional and legislative seats to Republicans all the time, so I moved back and I’ve been campaigning full time for the last year and a half.
Can you elaborate on Floridians giving up congressional seats?
Well, Trump got 66% of the vote in this district. Right now, the polling companies call this district either safe Republican or a leaning Republican district. The Democratic Party just doesn’t want to put money into it. The state party is helping me, but not financially so money’s a problem, but it’s always been a problem for me because I don’t make deals. By the end of this campaign, I will have spent about $300,000. By the end of June, Dunn had raised $1.1 million, $500,000 of which was cash on hand. He has an advantage there, but I have an advantage when it comes to getting around the district. He has to go to work and I don’t! He also just doesn’t like to show up. In fact, I have a custom order bobblehead doll of Dunn that I bring with me sometimes to public appearances so people have a chance to see him.
A photo of Rackleff’s Neal Dunn bobblehead.
Having been around politics for so long, how did working as a speech writer get you further involved in politics?
Through both my political and my corporate speech writing, I had to really understand problems. You can’t get away with sloppy thinking when you put it down on paper. I always thought of writing—and I teach writing, I’ve taught classes on speech writing at FSU and for corporate clients—as a form of problem solving. Every once in a while when I was a county commissioner, I would sit down and write about something just to help me think through the problems.
You’re very open about your faith. Has it had a great effect on your life and how you view politics?
Well, I’m Jewish; I’m a Jew by choice. 15 years ago I was married to my second wife, who is Jewish. She went to services on Friday nights at Temple Israel and I went with her because I wanted to be with her on Friday nights. I liked the Rabbi very much and when she went away, I kept going. I married my current wife, Esther, who is a very devout Presbyterian. Fortunately, her minister and my rabbi are best friends, so they assured her that it would work. She goes with me on Friday nights and I go with her on Saturday morning and it all works out.
A central tenet of Judaism is tikkun olam, or “heal the world.” I was already oriented to that and that was one of the appeals of Judaism. It provided a spiritual basis to reinforce my commitment to social and economic justice.
What made you want to run for congress? Was there a particular moment when you decided you wanted to run?
I’ve lived and worked in Washington three times so far; I understand a lot about how the system works. I’ve seen both the Washington side and the Leon County side of how programs work. I won’t need a lot of on the job training, unlike Dunn, who doesn’t show any kind of grasp on policy. He’s basically followed the Paul Ryan playbook 100%. Ryan has basically set out to repeal the 21st century. Virtually every social, political, and economic advancement we’ve made is on the chopping block: social security, medicare, the Affordable Care Act, regulation of industries, etc.
In May of 2017, Dunn voted against the budget to repeal the Affordable Care Act and I decided I was going to run for Congress. That would have had a huge impact on the US population, and according to the Congressional Budget Office, it would have cost 63,000 people in District 2 their existing health coverage. That’s almost one in every ten people in this district! There was nothing to replace it with and there’s still nothing to replace it with. The program is the first lucky break that families have gotten in decades and I’m committed to protecting and expanding it. Every other advanced country in the world has it Medicare for all and I’d say it’s the ultimate goal. We have the most expensive healthcare system in the world and it baffles me that we can’t get it done.
What complications are added to a political campaign when you’re running against an incumbent?
In some ways it makes it more complicated, but it also makes it simpler. More complicated in that I’m up against a well-funded incumbent in a district that was created to guarantee Republicans would get elected. What makes it simpler is that I have a guy with a phenomenally bad record that I can run against.
What are, to you, the most important parts of your political platform?
For starters, Medicare and social security. The Republicans have voted to reduce healthcare benefits and have talked very seriously about raising the minimum age for Medicare from 65 to 70, which would have a tremendous impact on working families. Last year, the Florida Chamber of Commerce released a report that found between 2007 and 2015, 36 out of our 67 counties had fewer jobs in 2015 than they had in 2006. Every county in the 2nd District was in that group except for Leon. We have a very strong private economy here and we need to spread that growth and the good decisions that we’ve made here.
Next I’d say distribution of wealth is important. Dunn has continually voted for policies that redistribute wealth from working families to the richest people. Our income and wealth inequality is at a level that we haven’t seen since the 1920s and it’s getting worse. What happens when you borrow money from wealthy investors, corporations, and banks? They expect to be repaid with interest! People like you and I, the taxpayers, are being made to pay that. A typical working family doesn’t own treasury bills or bonds, they’re lucky to have a savings account. This is really an obscene betrayal of working families.
Florida has gone through some real environmental issues. What are your environmental stances?
We were making pretty good progress until Jeb Bush came along, but he started weakening growth management laws, cutting budgets, and environmental protections. We had a little break when Charlie Crist was governor, but then Rick Scott got elected and he just went whole hog. He slashed budgets even further and prohibited state staff from using the term “climate change.” It used to be that red tide was something that only happened occasionally around South Florida, but now it’s happening regularly up here. That and the green algae disaster are all because Rick Scott wanted to reward his real-estate and big farming buddies at the expense of everyone else.
In closing, what do you want voters to know about you and your campaign? What’s the number one reason that people should vote for you?
Dunn has refused to hold town hall meetings in this district because he doesn’t want to go somewhere where he’ll just be yelled at. I spent 12 years on the county commission, I got yelled at all the time! That’s how you learn what people are concerned about and what they want you to do.. I think that’s the number one thing I want people to know about me.
Well, that and my wife! Esther Moring and I have been married for 12 and a half years. She’s a masters level nurse and she has been on 38 missions for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) since 1995 and specializes in warzones and Ebola outbreaks. Her first mission was spending a year and a half in Tanzania and Burundi taking care of refugees from the Rwandan Genocide. Basically, she shows up for the worst situations in the world, ready to help. She has this tremendous heart and determination to serve mankind that is a constant inspiration to me. That’s my competition!