Two young activists transform Florida politics, engaging voters all year. Discover their journey and the power of grassroots politics.
Amid widespread concern about our politics, young, passionate individuals like Devon Murphy-Anderson and Alex Berrios are making a significant impact. In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we delve into their efforts to turn Florida blue.
Murphy-Anderson and Berrios, through their initiative Mi Vecino, are revitalizing the grassroots political scene in Florida. They’re particularly focused on engaging Latino and Hispanic voters, not just during election cycles but throughout the year. They explain how this approach marks a departure from traditional, election-focused voter contact strategies.
The podcast explores Florida’s unique political climate, characterized by evolving demographics and voter behaviors. Murphy-Anderson and Berrios discuss the hurdles they encounter, especially in reaching diverse and underserved communities where misinformation and lack of communication have led to voter disengagement and distrust.
In particular, they examine the trend of Latino voters to increasingly reject party affiliation, and what that implies for future political campaigns.
The discussion also covers Mi Vecino’s specific objectives and challenges, such as funding and overcoming political inertia. The importance of ongoing voter engagement is emphasized, along with the crucial role of authenticity and commitment in grassroots movements.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In the recent elections, Democrats have celebrated a win in Kentucky and despite a loss, showed strong competitiveness in Mississippi. Virginia continues to be a battleground, with the state’s purple status affirming that even democratic, social, and cultural ideas have traction in traditionally conservative areas, like Ohio. Pro-choice measures have also seen victories in Tennessee and other states, perhaps signaling a shift in the political landscape. This begs the question: Could Florida, the bastion of Ron DeSantis and Matt Gaetz, be on the cusp of change as well?
Political analysts, such as Ruy Teixeira, have delved deep into the shifting dynamics, noting that key demographic groups, like Latinos and Black voters, as well as senior suburbanites, are increasingly leaning red in Florida. With Trump’s significant margin of victory in Florida and DeSantis’s win in 2022 by a notable percentage, the trend seems daunting.
Given the large numbers of competitive and true battleground states, it might seem futile to some to invest effort in turning Florida purple, let alone blue. To many, it appears high on the list of lost causes. Yet my guests, Devon Murphy-Anderson and Alex Berrios, are not deterred. They’re the driving force behind Mi Vecino, a grassroots initiative that champions the belief that the vigor of youth and the fervor of political passion can overcome the inertia of the status quo. They’re here to share with us their vision and strategy for bringing about change in the Sunshine State. It is my pleasure to welcome Devon Murphy-Anderson and Alex Berrios here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Devon, Alex, thanks so much for joining us.
Devon Murphy-Anderson: Thanks so much for having us, Jeff. It’s our pleasure to be here.
Alex Berrios: Hey, good morning, Jeff. Thank you.
Jeff: Well, it is great to have you both here. I thank you so much for your time. I want to start a little bit talking about the organization Mi Vecino, and then we can talk a little bit more about how it came to be and a little bit of background on the two of you. Devon, talk a little bit about what Mi Vecino is.
Devon: Yes, absolutely. So basically, Mi Vecino is the first and still is the only year-round direct voter contact organization in Florida. So basically, what that means is there are other organizations that have staff on their payroll year round, but we are the only organization that physically has staff on the ground talking to voters face-to-face, every single day of the year. And so, typically, a part of what has fueled a lot of our problems in Florida has been that we only run direct voter contact programs, knocking on doors, sending text messages, making phone calls about two to three months before election day.
And so, when we have a lot of communities in Florida that are newer to Florida who don’t quite understand our political process, who don’t know how to get civically engaged, how to register to vote, etc., that really creates a part of the electorate that is very low information and low education. And so Mi Vecino’s mission is basically to engage Latino and Hispanic voters every single day of the year, 365 days a year, and to do that in an ethical way by hiring folks from within the community to organize their neighbors.
Jeff: And Alex, talk a little bit about how it is also adjusting to the reality of the changing demographic in Florida.
Alex: Right. So the Hispanic electorate in Florida is absolutely booming. It’s the fastest growing demographic in the state. I don’t want to speak outside of Florida, but in Florida, Hispanic people are going to be defining elections moving forward. We’re largely becoming unaffiliated. We see a lot of Latinos don’t feel at home politically with either party in the state of Florida. And so right now, 40% of Latino voters are registered as unaffiliated, which is a pretty dramatic change from last year, when it was 36% Democratic.
Jeff: There have been numerous reports and studies that have indicated that Latino voters in Florida — but this is a trend that’s happening here at California; it’s happening in a number of other states — that Latino voters are tending to move right at this point. Talk about what you are finding, Devon.
Devon: Yes, so I think there’s two important things to look at there. The first factor is registration — so how folks are registering. And then the second factor is what turnout is. So that’s who these folks are voting for. So I can’t speak to a lot of different states, but I can speak very well to Florida. And basically, in Florida, both of those trends for Latino voters have been shifting right, but it is not a permanent shift. And so what I mean by that is as Alex just stated, the plurality of Hispanic voters — 40% are registered as unaffiliated voters, which indicates that they are not finding a home within either political party. It also indicates that a lot of these folks are on the table for either political party.
Now, the reason that they’ve been voting more Republican in the last few cycles has been because Republicans have invested in securing those votes, and Democrats have not. In addition, voter registration for Hispanic voters — that little letter next to a voter’s name, whether it’s a D or an R — matters probably less now than it ever has in the history of the state of Florida. So about 280,000 Hispanic Democrats or, sorry, just Democrats in Florida, voted for Ron DeSantis last cycle. And so again, what that shows — probably about 30% of that number were Hispanic voters. And so people cross over based on values and based on who actually campaigns for their votes.
Jeff: Alex, does that mean that a higher emphasis has to be placed on candidate recruitment, that who the candidate is is becoming even more critical as there’s less natural party affiliation?
Alex: I think that’s definitely an important component, but I think that that’s less important than how we communicate with people and communities. So we could have really, really great candidates, but if the voters don’t know who they are, if the voters don’t know what they stand for, they’re not going to turn out and vote for them.
Jeff: Talk about this notion a little bit further, Alex, of engagement and the lack of voter engagement that has gone on in Florida and really what you’re trying to counter at this point. Why has it been so poor, historically?
Alex: Well, let’s just be honest. Organizing is not the easiest thing to do. Ads and TV buys and mail — those things are a lot simpler to send. And what we’ve seen is as resources, at least on the Democratic side, the Republicans certainly don’t have this problem, but on the Democratic side, resources have shifted further and further towards media, mail, and that type of outreach. And what we’ve seen is widening margins of loss ever since that trend has began. So you almost never see Democrats talking to anybody anymore. It used to be over the past couple of cycles — 2016, 2018 — you’d see Democrats in communities, just not really underserved or diverse communities.
So the problem at that point was to address how do Democrats make their argument and get into these underserved and diverse communities to talk to voters and to do it in a consistent and culturally competent way. That has now changed to Democrats just need to talk to people everywhere because it’s not happening at all. They rely very, very heavily on text messages and, again, ads, which are not doing the job.
Jeff: Why have Republicans been so much better at this, Alex?
Alex: I wouldn’t say that they’re better at it. I’d just say they keep doing it. You don’t need to have a great workout. You just have to go work out, and you’ll see progress. (Jeff laughs.) And that’s kind of the Republican motto is that — take Miami-Dade as an example. Miami-Dade was solidly blue. Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by about 30 points over Donald Trump. And the Republicans did not give up. They continued to invest; they continued to work at it. And then six years later, Ron DeSantis was the first Republican in two decades to flip Miami-Dade red. It’s just a matter of consistency.
Jeff: Devon, talk a little bit about what you hear from voters as you engage in this talking to voter process and what you hear from them because if they haven’t been approached over the years, how are they responding to being approached now?
Devon: That’s a really great question. I think the number one thing that we note in the field is just this really high barrier to trust with both politicians, folks who are trying to speak to voters about politics, etc. And that is a direct byproduct from the lack of year-round direct voter engagement in Florida. In terms of what voters are saying matters most to them — I don’t think this will be a shock to you at all, Jeff — but it’s basically cost of living and the economy. And so we did some surveying around when voters say the economy to us what they mean, and over 75% of the voters that we surveyed, and we had a really large sample size of about 700 voters in this survey, said that when they said economy, they’re thinking cost of living.
And so basically, folks are struggling with insurance prices here; they’re struggling with cost of housing, rent, etc., and cost of groceries. A lot of what DeSantis has done in his legislature, particularly in this last legislative session, has really crippled the Florida economy.
Jeff: What is your sense of the difference with respect to Florida voters, the Latino voters that you’re now engaging with? What is the difference in the way they see the national political landscape versus the political landscape of their everyday involvement in the state of Florida?
Devon: That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I have a direct answer. I think what I can tell you is that Biden’s approval ratings are really, really low, and a part of that reason is because his accomplishments as a president is not trickling down. I will say that DeSantis was really popular at some points last cycle with Latino voters. He was also really unpopular in other parts of the cycle. And it was something that was really frustrating to Alex and I because, particularly after the Uvalde shooting in Texas, we had never seen his approval rating so low in the field, especially because this was at the same time that Ron DeSantis was really pushing his permitless gun carry. And so we were helping to connect for voters, like, “Look, this governor is not protecting us and our children; he should be passing laws to make sure that bad guys don’t get guns or don’t have access to guns. And instead, he’s doing the exact opposite, which is a taking away some of the very basic layers of protection that we have in terms of access to guns.” And that was resonating with voters. The problem was that that effort wasn’t scaled, and so that was never able to really shift the amount of voters that it could have shifted that we could have seen a massive result on election day from. That was just purely because of the landscape at the ecosystem here in Florida.
Jeff: Alex, expand on that a little bit — your thoughts in terms of this split between national politics and how the voters there see that, Latino voters in particular, and how they’re seeing it as it impacts local elections in Florida, statewide elections, local elections, etc.
Alex: Well, I think that Devon’s certainly right that a lot of what President Biden has accomplished is not making its way to the ears and minds of voters, which is a significant challenge that we’ve seen. I sit on the DNC’s Latino Men Advisory Council for President Biden’s campaign, and some of the conversations are really about how to do a better job of getting that information to voters. I think that what is crucial, crucial for Democrats and the president to understand if they want to be successful next year is that they need to do a better job of controlling the conversation.
I spent half of my life in a boxing gym, so controlling the fight, and fighting your fight is always essential. It’s a core element of everything that I do. And when we talk about guns, we’re falling into the Republican trap. When the Republicans want to ban books, they don’t talk about banning books. They talk about protecting children, and they’re protecting children by banning the books, and that’s what they’re doing.
What we need to do is learn from some of that success, at least here in Florida, and we need to talk more about protecting our kids, protecting our families, and protecting our rights. Now, the method of how we do that is something that we can do. And so that’s another conversation. It’s something that we can do through policy, but initially, we need to connect with voters on these common ground issues in that we want the freedom to be free and make our own decisions. We want our children to have good educations and to be safe, and we ourselves want to be prosperous, and we want upward mobility. We start there from a place of agreement and common ground, and then we can discuss the details afterwards.
Jeff: Devon, in the work that you do with Mi Vecino, are you focusing, at least over the next year or so, are you focusing on the national election, or are you really putting a lot more effort into local candidates and statewide issues and candidates?
Devon: So right now, Mi Vecino is solely focused on the abortion access ballot initiative here in Florida. So we saw on Tuesday what Ohio was able to do — their project cost about $40 million. Here in Florida, our effort is on track to cost a little under $20 million. We have different thresholds. So our threshold here in Florida is 60%. We need 60% of the voters who turn out on election day in 2024 to vote for this initiative. So the campaign itself is working really hard to get this on the ballot. We are almost there. We’re in the final stretch. Mi Vecino has been spear-pointing the paid petition collection effort for Hispanic voters. So basically, what we’re doing is exactly what Alex just outlined of starting in a place of unity, and we’re in the field, and we’re saying to voters: “We are out here collecting petitions for a constitutional amendment to protect our families from government overreach into our personal medical decisions.”
And just about every single voter that we speak to agrees with that statement and wants to sign the petition. And from there, the conversation will perhaps segue into abortion, into reproductive freedom, etc., but we have started that conversation in a place of unity. And so we have collected over 10,000 petitions from Hispanic voters, which blows a lot of people’s minds because it’s really pushing back on this narrative that Hispanic voters are historically anti-abortion. And that is still a true statement. For the voters that we’re talking to, most of them are on a spectrum of being uncomfortable with abortion to being really anti-abortion. It’s just that the conversation can’t stop there, and being anti-abortion does not mean that you are supportive of abortion bans. So that’s what Mi Vecino is working on right now — that ballot initiative.
Jeff: Is this lack of voter outreach that you were both talking about earlier, is this something across the board among Democrats in Florida, or has this been particularly isolated to the Latino and Hispanic community? Alex?
Alex: At this point, it’s across the board. At this point, unfortunately, the Democratic Party does not have a physical presence in any community. What we are seeing is some candidates, they’re taking ownership of their own campaigns and doing their own volunteer recruitment, doing their own paid programming in order to connect with voters and get their message out. So I think it’s really important that if we want to win elections that somebody does that work. But unfortunately, that is the situation that we’re in right now is it almost feels as if Democrats are doing everything in their power to avoid having a conversation with somebody.
Jeff: Is this because of the amount of money that it would take, or is it simply apathy, or is it simply the inertia of “This is always the way we’ve done it,” Alex?
Alex: That’s hard to answer. You’d have to ask the current party chair why their priorities are what they are. What I will say is you can tell people’s priorities from what it is that they do. Here at Mi Vecino, we’re going into our third year of daily organizing, having face-to-face conversations with voters because for us, that’s a priority. And so we clearly show that this can be done if this is something that you want to do, and you’re committed to doing.
Jeff: Devon, talk about how you both discovered that this was going to work: That there was a huge gap here, that there was a need here to fulfill, and that it would work by reaching out this way.
Devon: So this was a journey for us. I don’t think that right off the bat, at least for myself personally, I knew that this program that we had in theory was really going to work. But there were a few moments that I think are notable. The first is when we had first started talking about what we thought Florida needed, it was on the heels of our 2020 loss. I was the finance director at the Florida Democratic Party, and Alex had been working at the Biden campaign and had left to run some of the biggest field programs in Florida that cycle on the soft side, basically for organizations similar to Mi Vecino. And we had been having a lot of conversations about what we thought needed to be changed, and we had decided — Alex had gone to Georgia to work on the runoffs, and he basically applied every single one of our theories as “Okay, I wonder if it could be done this way.”
He applied all of that in practice in his field programs in Georgia, and he’s not going to brag about how well those field programs did because he is very humble, but basically, he set turnout records in every single one of his regions that he was in charge of in Georgia. And so that was our first moment of “Okay, if we are able to replicate this in Florida, then this can work in practice, not just in theory.”
Jeff: Alex, talk a little bit about your realization at some point that this really was something that could make a profound difference in the electoral outcome in Florida.
Alex: Well, I first got into politics because of my son. I’m Puerto Rican and Cuban. I was a voter, but not really politically involved, and with all of the gun violence, my son was scared to go into the sixth grade. I wanted to make a difference, and I just started volunteering. I said that in my community, we never hear from Democrats. I’ve had Republicans knock on my doors numerous times. I’ve never had a Democrat knock on my door. And so I said, “Okay, well, I want to take ownership of that situation in my community.” And I said, “I’ll do it myself.” And so we started doing exactly that work. I started volunteering for Democratic candidates, Democratic Party, and just saw that they, as I thought, do not have much of a presence in low-income and diverse communities.
So I started organizing in those same exact communities on behalf of the party, and just over the years of being involved in organizing at every single level, it’s allowed me to have a really layered view of some of the things that we can do better and then some of the things that are working great and some of the things that are just not even happening at all.
When we fast forward to current, and we see the changes in the electorate where not just Latinos but other communities as well are starting to drift away from the Democratic Party, and not just the Democratic Party, the Republican Party as well, in Florida. It’s happening at an accelerated pace this year with the Democratic Party; they’re all becoming unaffiliated.
And so it makes it more important than ever that we reach voters where they are. Unaffiliated voters make up over four million votes in Florida, right now. Driving turnout in that group, connecting and persuading voters within that group can change electoral outcomes, not just next year, but every year moving forward. And this is a group that we need to address.
Jeff: Devon, start with you. I’m going to ask both of you this. Are you finding that there’s an exhaustion among the public, among voters and potential voters, to the political process right now?
Devon: Yes, absolutely. And I think one of the largest reasons why is because of the misinformation machine that the GOP has created. And so, coming off of the Tea Party and MAGA, etc., the whole evolution of the extreme right has been to push out so much misinformation that voters just don’t trust anything. And then on the Democratic side, we have fallen into this trap of just responding to everything that the Republicans do, but we do it in a way that isn’t necessarily authentic. And so voters are not trusting information from either sides right now. And so when they don’t have a trusted source, basically their place that they come to is that they’re just going to throw their hands up and walk away. And I think one of our most important talking points is, like, voter suppression doesn’t just happen through policy in legislative session. It happens every single day. And misinformation is a tool of voter suppression specifically so that it puts voters into a place where they just want to give up and not even try.
Jeff: Alex, you want to expand on that a little bit in your experience with exhausted voters?
Alex: Exhausted is really the right word. Voters are bombarded with ads, emails, text messages. Last year, the Democratic party sent 28 million text messages. They sent countless number of postcards, and for the majority of 2023, the Democratic strategy was send text messages and [laughs] postcards. Voters in Florida are definitely feeling exhausted. But it’s not just the voters. It is our most staunch supporters: Democratic activists, Democratic volunteers, Democratic organizers. They feel exhausted; they feel hopeless; they feel demoralized. And so we’re losing a lot of capacity. We’re losing a lot of great people. And the party, unfortunately, really it’s descended to the lowest point I’ve ever seen it. I think that it’s not hopeless. I think that there are some very simple, common sense things that we can do to turn around our fortunes in the state of Florida. But again, those things begin with talking to each other.
Jeff: Devon, talk a little bit about concern about vote counting. Certainly, this is an issue that you hear a lot about in the country, but certainly in Florida, where this issue’s [laughs] been around for some 23 years in a really bold and profound way since Bush v. Gore. To what extent does that impact voters at all in Florida?
Devon: I have to say that one thing that the GOP does absolutely brilliantly is provide solutions to problems that don’t exist. And this problem that you’re outlining right now is a great example of that. And so, after the 2022 elections and after the 2020 elections, Ron DeSantis came out and said that we have had some of the most secure elections in the whole, entire nation. And then he follows up on that by establishing a new department, with funding, of election protection and establishes basically a police force that is fully funded through the government to crack down on election crimes, which he just said did not exist in Florida.
And so basically this is a tactic to install fear into our communities, particularly our vulnerable communities: that somehow voting could potentially get you into some type of criminal trouble with a police force. And so, again, I’m not sure this is an actual problem. There’s very little evidence that this is a problem. This is just yet another tool that Ron DeSantis and his legislature is using to suppress votes in Florida.
Jeff: And Alex, do you find that any of the voters that you deal with that they think it’s a problem?
Alex: I’ve got to tell you, Jeff, it absolutely is. We can’t quantify that at this time, but I could tell you first in my own personal experience, my very first time voting, and we’re talking decades ago; I don’t want to date myself, but it’s been decades since I first voted. And the first time I voted, I thought they were going to search my car. I thought that I was going to be personally searched. I thought there was going to be a background check. There is so many misconceptions around the voting process, and I can tell you again as someone that has grown up poor, lives in a poor community, we do our best to avoid any kind of interactions with figures of authority.
Any kind of a misunderstanding or an arrest can derail your entire life when you’re living hand to mouth. Even a day in jail for something that was just a silly misunderstanding or an arrest, whatever it might have been, can cost you your job if you’re already barely surviving and voting is not worth the risk. So then, when you see articles where the governor is arresting people, it sends a chill down the spine of a community that already doesn’t want to participate.
Jeff: What is your goal for 2024? What do you hope to accomplish both personally and through Mi Vecino in terms of realistic goals in this next election cycle, Devon?
Devon: So Alex has put together a really incredible program for Miami-Dade. I think both of us are under the understanding right now that Florida is not going to be taken seriously by the national funder community or even the political community in America until we can get our arms around Miami-Dade. And so Alex has put together a program that basically is going to knock a million doors in the county of Miami-Dade in order to do two things. One is to flip the county back to blue, and the second is to pass the abortion ballot initiative with 60% or more within that county, which is a key factor to passing it statewide.
Jeff: Alex, expand on your plan.
Alex: So what we’ve done is I think that we have demonstrated that a couple of things are possible with Mi Vecino. First of all, there’s the year-round organizing, which has become a very sexy term that everybody’s using but very few are actually doing. We’re showing that you can actually do this and have face-to-face conversations, and not get into discussions about what organizing is. Organizing to us is people talking to people, building relationships, knowing each other, understanding each other, and connecting on a real level. Voters, they know when they’re being pandered to.
Next is that Latino voters are not all Republican voters. We say common buzzwords. Again, terms you hear are Latino voters are not a monolith, which is great. It’s great that people can identify the differences between our communities and cultures but now what? That thought doesn’t go anywhere. We like to take the opposite approach and say that Latino voters, it’s not their differences that make us amazing; it’s our commonalities that make us amazing. It is our strong family values. It is our desire for freedom, to be unshackled by authoritarian leaders and dictatorship. We want to have opportunity for ourselves and for our children.
And so we connect with voters on these issues, and we’re able to persuade and talk to voters who may not even support very difficult and nuanced issues, like abortion rights and reproductive freedom, and we’re able to gain their support for this ballot initiative. We just did some work on behalf of a candidate that we truly believed in, and we mobilized Hispanic voters to a higher turnout in this district than they had in 2022.
Moving into Miami, there are over 800,000 Latino voters in Miami-Dade County. And so with this being the largest concentration of Latino voters, we are going to take our expertise and our muscle back to Miami-Dade County, where we’ve already done years’ worth of work in other capacities to make sure that we can gain as much support as possible for the valid initiative there, beat the 60% threshold, and deliver success next year for people’s freedoms.
Jeff: And, Devon, what is the thing that concerns you the most about the fulfillment of this plan that you and Alex have been talking about? What’s the one thing that could get in the way?
Devon: Funding. We’re having a lot of conversations with really big donors right now about this plan. I think it’s just needing to convince people that this is worth it, that this fight is worth it, and that this isn’t just about electoral outcomes. And sometimes a lot of us in our political worlds get really caught up in that. And we forget that Florida is the second largest abortion provider in the entire United States of America, second only to California. We see over 80,000 patients a year.
If we do not do this with a six-week ban that you can only get exceptions for up to 15 weeks if you can prove that you need one with a police report or a rape test kit, etc., which we already know the backlog situation on that: people will die; young women will die. This is a moral imperative that we have to try and fight this fight. And Alex and I are both young; we are passionate; we are dedicated. We are still in this part of our lives where we’re okay working 80 hours a week for something that we believe in.
What right now we hope that that translates to is people believing in us enough to give us the funds and the resources to pull this off and prove, not only to Florida but to the country, that Florida is worth not walking away from.
Jeff: Devon Murphy-Anderson, Alex Berrios, I thank you both very much for sharing your passion with us, and really giving us a sense of what’s happening on the ground in Florida. Thank you both.
Devon: Thanks so much for having us, Jeff.
Alex: Thanks, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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