Kionne McGhee
Kionne McGhee
Photography by Stian Roenning

Rep. Kionne McGhee Persuaded a Confederate-Loving Senator to Back a Monument to Slaves

As the public spat unfolded in Tallahassee this past April, it felt like the perfect metaphor for the raging culture wars in Trump's America. Rep. Kionne McGhee, a black Democrat from Miami, was fighting for a monument to the innumerable slaves who worked and died in Florida before the Civil War. But his plan was blocked by Sen. Dennis Baxley, a white, Confederate-flag backer from rural Central Florida.

Baxley argued a slavery monument would "celebrate defeat." McGhee quickly called his remark "borderline racism."

Everyone knows what follows in that script: Twitter battles, screaming protesters, and seemingly endless recriminations. Except this time it didn't. Because McGhee still believes in — gasp — the power of honest conversation.

"We met for dinner," says McGhee, who regularly attended a prayer service with Baxley. "I listened to his concerns, he listened to mine, and after the meeting, I received his pledge that he would support this bill for a monument this year."

Politicians with that kind of relentless optimism might seem like an endangered species in 2017, but the outlook has served McGhee well on his unlikely rise to become one of Miami's most important players in Tallahassee.

McGhee was raised in the projects of Naranja in South Miami-Dade, labeled early on in school as emotionally disabled and intellectually handicapped. He was suspended dozens of times.

"I've been arrested for something I didn't do. I've lost family members to murder. I've grown up in a housing project, and I was raised by a single mother for quite some time," he says. "There were six of us. I had an IQ level that was measured as super, super-duper low."

McGhee fought through it all, making his way to Howard University and then the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. He returned to Miami, where he worked as an assistant state attorney and an adjunct professor at Miami Dade College and wrote two books about his experiences. In 2012, he won a race for the Florida House.

In Tally, he fought to repeal Stand Your Ground, raised awareness of low pay by living for a week on minimum wage, and voted to expand health care to low-income Floridians. More recently, McGhee was elected by his colleagues as the minority House leader for this year's term.

Even in the GOP-dominated state Legislature, he still believes he can make progress. "It's about respect and relationships," he says. "There's a reality that binds us together."

After all, if he could get Baxley onboard with a bill for a memorial to slaves — which is already working its way back through committees — truly anything is possible.

"I believe the American people are smarter than most people give us credit for. We've gone through too much," he says. "The one word that should ring true to everyone is 'empathy.' We all need to find more empathy."

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