Could Black Men Help Flip Florida?
Randolph Bracy: Hey, listen, we got a fun night for y'all. Listen, it's all about voting. Tomorrow is the last day to register to vote. So it's extremely important. Iwillvote.com is where we're encouraging people to go online to vote. What do you think about that, McCurdy?
Travaris Mccurdy: Yeah, man, hey, let's jump right into it, man. The game come on in an hour. So, hey, you talk about voting. And that was the reason why we're here tonight, right? We need everybody, especially Black men. That's why we're coming live. That's why we chose this location.
Trymaine Lee: I got to be honest with y'all. There are few things that irk me more each election season than staged photo ops of politicians in Black barbershops. Maybe I shouldn't say it so loudly. But Black men, we exist in so many other spaces besides the barber's chair. You know, we like sandwich shops and park benches. And, well, you get the point.
Bracy: Right. Well, and here's the thing. I just want you to vote.
Lee: Yet, here we are just a few days before the election at a barber shop. And I can't front, this time feels different.
Bracy: I would like you to vote for me. But it's really up to you who you vote for. So really it's your prerogative.
Archival Recording: (LAUGH) Hey, come on.
Lee: The place is called Exclusive Cuts in Orlando, Florida. About two dozen guys are there, masks on, after shop hours, with state representative Travaris McCurdy and state senator Randolph Bracy. Both of them dressed way down, no suits, no ties, no kissin' babies tonight. The idea is to get a bunch of guys together with some music and some food and some drink to talk politics with politicians, which is new for a lot of these brothers.
Archival Recording: I appreciate the event (UNINTEL) because...
Archival Recording: I think we're in a place where we really have to empower the men in our community, the Black men in our community, to understand the importance of government, you know, from all levels. I praise you guys for doin' this as well, 'cause what you're doin' right now is you're meetin' us halfway.
Archival Recording: When I think about Black male voters in particular, I think about three areas that have to be addressed: number one, pettiness; number two, powerlessness; and finally purposeless.
Archival Recording: Great.
Lee: And in a swing state like Florida, local Democrats like McCurdy and Bracy are looking to get every single one of these guys to turn out to vote on November 3rd. They're also trying some, let's just call them, less conventional ways to reach these potential voters.
Archival Recording: Who would ever thought that we'd have politics in G5ive, a strip club? Who would ever thought that we'd have politics in a strip club?
Lee: That, my friends, is an event organized at a gentleman's club in Miami Gardens. Now I know you want to hear more about it. That's a little later. But here's the bottom line. In order to win the election, Joe Biden and the entire Democratic Party know they need to do what Barack Obama did 12 years ago.
They need to grow the electorate, bring people to the polls who didn't vote, and usually won't vote, unless they have something or someone to believe in. A lot of those people are Black men who stayed home in 2016 for a whole bunch of reasons. So what we're seeing, and you might have seen this too, is a serious push to re-engage these Black men with Obama himself who campaigned in Orlando this week.
Barack Obama: We can't be complacent. We were complacent last time. Folks got a little lazy and look what happened.
Lee: There are millions of dollars in TV ads.
Archival Recording: Who do I trust my children's future to? I trust Joe Biden more than anyone else.
Lee: And, yes, that Biden ad is set in a Black barbershop. But perhaps most importantly, the party is doing this outreach with a grassroots effort that's happening at the local level, community by community, block by block. And that's what our story is about today. Because as my friend and pollster, Cornell Belcher, put it last week.
Cornell Belcher: If a voter doesn't think they have power, they are not very likely to participate. So you have to give them a sense of power, that they in fact can change things, and then connect that power up to policies that they want. (MUSIC)
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today we're on the ground in Florida where Biden and Trump are just points apart in most polls, with people working hard to get out the Black male vote, to persuade Black men that they can change things, that they do have power, and they should use it. Maurice Hanks knows his power. And he's got a plan.
Maurice Hanks: We're doin' a ride November 1st to the polls. November 1st is the last day for early votin'. So we're gettin' everybody together. We're gettin' T-shirts made. We're doin', like, a little parade. And we're just goin' out and try to get record numbers to get everybody to go and vote.
Lee: When I talked to Maurice, he's wearing one of those T-shirts. "Break the Cycle," it says, black, with red cursive lettering. It's the name of the bicycle club he started back in April near the start of the pandemic.
Hanks: And we pushin', we pushin', we gonna try to go out and get a lotta other people to just get on their bikes and ride to the polls to vote.
Lee: Cycling is a new hobby. But this voting thing, it's a sort of a new thing for him too. Maurice grew up in the Overtown neighborhood in Miami. Back in the Jim Crow days, it was called Colored Town.
Hanks: It was me, my grandma, my granddaddy, my cousin, my two cousins, and my auntie.
Lee: And the men in Maurice's family, they didn't vote.
Hanks: My grandma voted, but the male side, granddad, I don't think he voted. I never seen him go vote or nothin'. No, I know if I'd seen him. And I think I picked that up too 'cause it wasn't taught upon me to go vote.
Lee: Maurice is 44. He still lives in Overtown now with his wife. They've got two daughters. One's in college. The other just bought her first house nearby. Maurice is an entrepreneur. He owns a barbershop and a couple of tax offices.
Hanks: My wife started her tax office, Extraordinary Taxes. And she kept rubbin' it in. I see her make a lot of money. (LAUGH) So as a businessman, hey, I joined in. So now we have two tax offices.
Lee: And for most of his adult life, getting ahead, taking care of his family, that was all he really thought about.
Hanks: I was stuck in the middle class way. I'm a voter. I'm gonna go to work, come home, and pay the bills. Whoever the president is, that's who's the president. So watchin' NBA and get back up and go back to work. Like, it wasn't...
Lee: Maurice says his wife registered him a few years back. But he never cast a ballot.
Hanks: From a dumb sense of mind, if my wife vote, she voted for me too.
Lee: Right, right, right. (LAUGH)
Hanks: And (LAUGH) I was one of those guys. Like, "Hey, you went to vote. So you voted for me too. We both the same. We as one."
Lee: He didn't see the point. Didn't feel his power.
Hanks: It ain't no matter what I do. If I don't vote, vote, it's still gonna come out the way they want it to be.
Lee: (APPLAUSE) But that all changed in 2008.
Obama: It's been a long time comin'. (CROWD NOISE) But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America. (APPLAUSE)
Hanks: When Obama went up to become president, that's when I got into politics. And then I guess the only reason for that was 'cause of the skin color. Like, we got to get a Black president into office. And maybe change can happen.
Lee: Do you remember around that time what that moment was like?
Hanks: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Listen to the rap. Listenin' to Jeezy said, "Obama's my president," and stuff like that. It's just...
Jeezy: (IN PROGRESS) --president is black, my Lambo's blue. And I be (CENSORED) if my rims ain't too. My money's light green...
Lee: My President is Black I think that's what it was.
Hanks: Yeah, that's the song, My President is Black. You listen to everybody talkin', and you go and you get influenced. You got your wife, you got your friends, you got everybody just screamin', "Obama, Obama, Obama." And then you go start lookin' and payin' attention.
And you're like, "You know what? This can happen. We can finally have our first Black president," like, you know. And it just motivates you to go get behind him. Like, I say, sometime all of us gotta go through that one door to push that one guy. And I was fully behind him.
Lee: This is what we mean we talk about how Obama expanded the electorate. About 19% of all Black voters in 2008 were new to the polls. That's according to the National Election Day Exit Polls. And when Obama ran again, Black turnout reached a record high. And then here we are 2012, he has a chance at a second term. Did you vote for Obama again?
Hanks: Yes, of course, of course, of course. Yes, I voted for him. 'Cause it was changed still no matter what. Like, I still see the good. Like, I'd never had health insurance until Obama got into office.
Lee: So you go from that moment when everyone is talkin' about Barack Obama and he gets elected for two terms in office, 2008, 2012.
Lee: But then you get to 2016...
Hillary Clinton: And so it is with humility, determination, and boundless (CROWD CHEERING) confidence in America's promise that I accept your nomination (APPLAUSE) for president of the United States.
Lee: (CROWD CHEERING) Did you get that same sense of urgency and the community, you know, fire around Hillary Clinton?
Hanks: No. I didn't.
Lee: Did you vote in 2016?
Hanks: No. No, sir.
Lee: So you didn't vote.
Hanks: Not at all.
Lee: Goin' from two times in a row to sittin' out. (LAUGH) What happened?
Hanks: Well, at first I don't feel like I was gonna go vote just to vote. But at the end of the day, I was like, "You know, let's sit back and watch."
Lee: So did you know other brothers like yourself who said, "You know what? You know, we came out for Obama, but we're just gonna sit this one out. Like, we're not interested"? Did you know a lot of people like that?
Hanks: Yes, yes, yes, yes. But we probably took the sense, the fact that nobody's gonna vote for Trump. Like--
Lee: Just there's no possible way.
Hanks: --no, no possible way.
Lee: And we see what it is. (LAUGH)
Hanks: Yeah, like, we might not go vote for Hillary, but nobody's gonna vote for Trump. And that was a mistake.
Archival Recording: And as we are awaiting Donald Trump taking the stage here, that is the news at this hour. Secretary Clinton has conceded to Donald Trump. It is a stunning and shocking development, particularly for her supporters who waited hours here at a Javits Center to hear from her.
Lee: Looking back, we now know that Black turnout dropped nearly five percentage points between 2012 and 2016. Many of the folks who stayed home were Black men like Maurice. Maurice told he felt like Hillary Clinton didn't do enough to reach out to Black voters and Black men like him. And despite all these ads we're seeing now in 2020, he feels the same way about Joe Biden.
Hanks: What are you gonna do for the Black community? Like, what are you doin' to help out and reach out and this and that? Like, go to some of the leaders in our community, you know, that can reach out. And we see that you're down. Like, that will scream out Black if you're not gonna come among us.
Lee: Both Trump and Biden are courting Black men in the final days before the election. Now Maurice hadn't seen any of their TV ads. But he does have a connection to some local politicians through Break the Cycle, that Black cycling club he started earlier this year.
Hanks: I have the mayor as one of my close friend that I train. It has a Congressman, Reggie Leon, and, you know, they opened my eyes.
Lee: You know, one thing that I've heard from people is they don't vote because they feel powerless, right. And I wonder in exercising your right to vote and exercising, you know, the full agency to get out there and vote, do you feel a sense of power in that? Do you now see that actually participating is some power?
Hanks: Yes. Yes. Yeah, I was one of those guys. Sense of no power. I was like, "Man, you gonna take this little of mine and throw it out the door." But now it's like I voted. You're gonna hear my two cents. You're gonna get what I got to tell you even if you like it or not. Just I put my ballot in, and I voted. So I'm gonna say what I got to say.
Lee: You're out there registerin' brothers too?
Hanks: Yes. Yes.
Lee: Wow. Talk to me about that.
Hanks: On Sundays we do bike rides. We ride up to houses sometime and get people, you know, who ain't voted. Like, get 'em involved, talk to 'em, and tell 'em, "This is what need to be done. This is how we gonna make a change."
Lee: Trump won Florida by a little over 112,000 votes in 2016. That's basically a blip, right. That's nothing. When you think about that slim margin and what could have been and how things could have been different, and Trump wins, what's your reaction? And what are your thoughts?
Hanks: (LAUGH) Get out and vote this year, right. (LAUGH)
Lee: Get out and do it.
Hanks: Get out and vote this year. I messed up four years ago. Won't do it this game. And that's why we pushin' hard to go get everybody else to get out and vote, 'cause we can't get a repeat of this. Even if Biden half of what Obama is, that's better than what Trump is. So we got to get out and go and get him out the office big time. (MUSIC)
Lee: So what does it take to find and keep voters like Maurice? That's after the break.
Lee: We're back. I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. And we're going to break down what this push to get Black men to the polls really looks like on the ground. So maybe you've heard the expression, "All politics is local." Before the break Maurice Hanks told he his motivation for getting politically active this year was sparked very close to home by two friends who ride with him, both elected officials, both Black men. That's not an accident. Black electeds at the local level are leading a lot of this work to get new voters engaged. Y'all remember Florida state senator Randolph Bracy from the start of the episode?
Bracy: Right, well, here's the thing. I just want you to vote.
Lee: Senator Bracy, how you doin', sir?
Bracy: I'm great, Trymaine. How are you?
Lee (archival): Not bad, man.
Lee: Randolph Bracy is a state senator in central Florida, a Democratic representing the 11th District. I caught up with him in his office in Orlando. There's no more T-shirt, no more fellows and music and drinking. My man is in straight politician mode, in his suit and tie, an American flag next to his desk.
Bracy: My district is comprised of almost 600,000 people. And it's very diverse. It's mostly African American.
Lee: Bracy jokes he was always destined to be involved in the political process. His parents were active. And his mom went through hell to make history in Florida.
Bracy: You know, (LAUGH) my mother has a interesting story. She was the first person to integrate the public school system in Alachua County where Gainesville, Florida, is, University of Florida. And so she had quite an experience, an ugly experience. But through that she just became so engaged civically. She's always out registering people. I mean, she does it (LAUGH) just like a one-person wreckin' crew. And...
Lee: It was 2012 when Bracy made his first run for office for the Florida House of Representatives, inspired, he says, by you guessed it, Barack Obama.
Bracy: It inspired me to run. The feeling was, it's just a great feeling, I mean, we were proud. We were excited. We felt that message of change was real and genuine. And so I think there was such a feeling of hope to see his candidacy. I loosely follow politics. But when Barack Obama got elected, I followed everything he did. You know, I read the paper just to see what he was doing. And so it was a new feeling that people of color had not felt before.
Lee: Barack Obama took Florida and its 29 electoral votes, both in 2008 and 2012. But by 2016, when Randolph Bracy was running for state senate, he saw first-hand a dip in turnout. Black voting rates dropped and Florida. And there was a gender gap too. Turnout among Black men was six points lower than Black women according to exit polls.
Bracy: There wasn't the level of excitement that you had with Obama compared to Hillary Clinton. And that's just the reality.
Lee: Could she have done more? Like, did she not do enough?
Bracy: I remember this event that they had in a community center that was in my district. I remember, I went to the gym. And I promise you it was, like, 60 people--
Bracy: --like, including staffers. And I was like, "There is a problem here." But I think that there was also this assumption that, Trump, there's no way the people of this country are gonna elect him.
Lee: Zero chance, right.
Bracy: Yeah, so it was kind of like, "We're gonna win anyway even if there is a lack of excitement." There's no way that this man could be elected. And it turned out to be wrong. And here we are.
Lee: Yeah. Here we are, 2020. And Bracy says the Democratic Party has a real shot at turning Florida from red to blue. But it's got to work harder for Black voters and Black men especially.
Bracy: You know, you see talkin' points to every demographic, except Black men, really. You know, there's just the assumption that Black people are with the Democratic Party 100%. And so I think it's important that Biden, the Democratic Party, continue to speak to issues that matter to Black people.
And not just in a symbolic measure, like, when you bring on Kamala as your VP runnin' mate, which I am excited about. But I think for a lot of people, they're lookin' for more than that. And so we got to engage a whole new group of people. And that's how it's gonna shift.
Lee: So that's his mission: shift it, grow it.
Bracy: I've been focusin' on young people. I've been focusing on Black men. And we've been havin' a number of events to engage them in ways that make them comfortable. We're coming to where they are and where they're comfortable congregating.
Lee: And that's how the push for voting came to the barbershop and last weekend to a local gentlemen's club.
Bracy: So all I'm gonna say is, "Ladies, I'm lookin' to you to take your man." (MUSIC) Take 'em to the polls.
City Girls: It's the City Girls, and you know we'll out-(CENSORED) you. So get out my face, before I touch you. Don't you know? Can't you understand? If you (CENSORED) with me, I'll take your man.
Bracy: Take your man to the polls.
Lee: The G5ive Gentlemen's Club in Miami, to be exact.
Bracy (archival): I went out there. (MUSIC) (LAUGH)
City Girls: I'll take your man.
Bracy: You know what? I felt like this is where Black men congregate. And I just wanted to have a conversation and really just for people to see, "Oh, okay, there are people that are tryin' to reach out to us. But also let me learn somethin'."
Lee: Now before you ask, there were no dancers, just women serving drinks. The two dozen or so guys who came out had good distance between them, six feet across the room. They had the club lighting, you know, purple and blue. And Senator Bracy set up a chair in front of the deejay. The stripper poles and stage as his backdrop.
Bracy: The response was pretty powerful. One gentleman said, "I can't believe we're havin' this deep a conversation in (LAUGH) a gentlemen's club."
Bracy (archival): First and foremost, who had ever thought that we'd have politics in G5ive, a strip club? Who would ever thought that we'd have politics in a strip club?
Bracy: But that was the point. Like, we need everybody to get engaged in this issue.
Bracy (archival): We're talkin' about economic opportunities for us. We get it by puttin' forth our vote, and then the system pays attention to us. Thanks for bein' here.
Bracy: And so as the conversation, the music went on, and the drinks started (LAUGH) to flow a little bit, people got more comfortable. And, like, afterwards, like, I couldn't get out of there. Like, the guys wanted to just say like, "Listen, I've never seen this." Like, and that's where, like, one of the guys was tellin' me how he had just lost his job.
He was the deejay. And he was actually just there to play the music. But he was listening to the conversation. He was like, "Man, this affected me in ways you wouldn't believe." And he just started telling me his story. And so that's what I mean by just goin' out to the people and hearin' them out and talkin' about why they aren't engaged. Because then you can figure out how to address it.
Lee: What are they askin' you? When you're in that space, what questions are you getting most?
Bracy: I heard someone talk about, like, the marijuana industry.
Archival Recording: I came from a neighborhood where a lot of people sold weed. So I'd like to see whoever becomes president free Black men that are incarcerated for non-violent marijuana charges and the white man is gettin' millions and millions of dollars for the same thing that my brothers back home are, like, duckin' the law for.
Bracy (archival): Me, my man right here, are gonna have a bill to address that. I appreciate you sayin' that.
Bracy: I mean, just entrepreneurship, like, work can be done to help us, like, get this business off the ground, you know. You got a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit just comin' out of these younger people.
Bracy (archival): We are bringin' Black men to where Black men hang out at. It's no stigma. There's no bad part about this. We're talkin' real stuff. And the reality is we need to focus on local-level politics. Because if we get more local-level politics, we're gonna have more situations like this goin' on. We're gonna have more conversations like this in our community. And this is what we really need. So it'll be up to y'all brothers for this.
Lee: But it's like in some communities, whether it's a Barack Obama in office or whether it's a Donald Trump in office, things don't seem to change, right. So when you're engaging with Black men, like, what is the pitch? How do you say, "Now, brother we can make change. And we do have power in our vote"?
Bracy: Here's what I heard for example in a conversation I heard yesterday. Someone said, "You know, I'm tired of even thinkin' about voting for the lesser of two evils." Like, we need a champion, not just someone that will speak to an issue because they're in front of us, you know what I mean?
So I get it. I get your lack of enthusiasm about the system. But it still doesn't change unless you do it. So, like, we can't have a despair mentality. Like, we have to say, "All right, we've gotta do something." And so I think the chaos that's been happening has made people say, "Okay, I may not necessarily be hopeful. Or my beliefs about the system may not have changed. But I gotta do something. Because it's just gettin' worse."
Lee: You know, as I talked to a non-traditional voter named Maurice Hanks where, you know, he hadn't registered or been votin' for years and years. Voted for Obama twice. And then in 2016, he was like, "You know, nah, I'm good." But now he's engaged more. But he said the thing that got him back in it was engaging with local Black officials, right. Local electeds is what got him back in it.
Bracy: Right. I think that's important. Just seeing someone like them, it makes a difference. And so that's what I've tried to do. And I've tried to even take it to another level. Because sometimes when you see a person always suited that there's sometimes an intimidation factor if they're not in a professional career. So at some of these events I've dressed down and just relate to them as I would if he was, like, my best friend.
Lee: Senator Bracy told me he's excited by this energy he's seeing. But will it be enough to win Florida, to win the election, not just in 2020, but for the Democratic Party to keep these voters four years from now, eight years from now?
Bracy: I just think there's a disconnect. I think the party doesn't know how to get that deep into the community to make those connections. Not to call out the party, but just there wasn't enough bein' done to engage the people that we know and relate to. You know, I just hope that it's not too late.
Hanks: That's the key.
Lee: Here's Maurice again.
Hanks: They gotta get the candidates that can reach us. Not just 'cause we don't like Trump, we gonna get out and vote. We gotta get some guys that, you know, we trust them, we believe in, we believe what they say.
Lee: But Maurice has hope. He's not going back to his non-voting ways.
Hanks: I don't do U-turns so. So we movin' forward. And once I started, we started. And we're gonna keep going. 'Cause like I say, breakin' the cycle, we lookin' to (LAUGH) break the cycle, man. That's one of the things, just break the cycle, and just keep movin' forward and do some things that you think impossible to do.
Lee: So here you are in 2020. You know, you found your power in exercisin' these rights. And you think about your grandmother, right, who consistently went out there and voted. You know, what do you think she's thinkin' or feelin' about you? What do you think this moment means?
Hanks: She probably turned over in her grave, probably, like. (LAUGH)
Lee: That boy, done--
Hanks: He finally done changed. He finally turned over that leaf, like, (LAUGHTER)
Obama: What's not to love, Florida? Let's bring it home. (CHEERING) I love you, Orlando. I love you, Florida. (CHEERING) Honk if you're fired up.
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next week.