Don Festge, a hospitality and tourism teacher at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School in North Miami, had already been toying with the idea of running for office when he traveled to Tallahassee in January. It was Rep. Frank Artiles who pushed him into the fray.
Unable to arrange a meeting by phone with the Republican rep — who's perhaps best known for trying to keep transgender people from using their restroom of choice — Festge and other Miami-area educators went straight to his office to request a sit-down meeting. That's when an Artiles staffer told the teachers that the rep "doesn't care about education" and would simply vote along party lines on any bill that came up.
"That's inexcusable," Festge tells New Times. "She was cordial, but she was very blunt in saying she didn't want to waste our time because he is not going to see you." (Update: Through a spokeswoman, Artiles says "the exchange, as portrayed, did not happen." His full statement is below.)
So February 25, Festge filed to run for the newly formed District 38, pitting him against four others in the August primary, including 81-year-old Democratic Sen. Gwen Margolis, who now serves District 35. Margolis, the state's longest-serving senator, announced in January she would move to the newly formed district to run.
Two of Festge's remaining challengers, Democrats Rep. Daphne Campbell and former Rep. Phillip J. Brutus, both have political experience at the state level, a challenge that could prove difficult to overcome in this crowded race. (Another newcomer, Anis Blemur, has also filed to run.)
Although Festge — who has been teaching in Miami-Dade County for 25 years — acknowledges he's a long shot, he says voters he has spoken with see his experience as a teacher as an asset, not a handicap.
"I'm a teacher, and my whole life has been about helping people," says Festge, who grew up and still lives in the district. "There's no hidden agenda, and it's one of those things where people know I'm there for the right reasons."
Festge argues that politicians in Tallahassee have little clue about what goes on in his classroom and other classrooms across the state. Last year's disastrous roll-out of computerized testing is just one example of the disconnect.
"I'm at a school where we have only two computer labs, and everything going from paper-based to computer-based really put a strain on the schools," he says. "Students in the middle of testing had tested 45 minutes of the 90-minute block when the computers stopped and ended the test. They lost that 45 minutes of what they did, and they're already under tremendous pressure knowing they need to pass the test in order to graduate."
Education is obviously one of Festge's pet issues, but he says his years as a teacher have also been a portal into other pressing issues, such as gun violence and poverty. He has watched former students with tremendous promise get caught up in drugs and gangs, sometimes with fatal results.
"Gun laws are really important, but we should also be trying to get guns currently on the streets off the streets."
Festge says he'll continue to teach even if elected. He wouldn't be the first Miami legislator to pull off that trick: State Sen. Dwight Bullard still teaches social studies at Coral Reef Senior High.
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State records indicate Margolis has $114,225 in her campaign account, Campbell has $15,723, Blemur has $10,170, and neither Brutus nor Festge has reported any donations yet.
Statement from Rep. Frank Artiles, April 7, 2016:
"My legislative staff has been welcoming and maintains an open door policy to all constituents and visitors. In this particular incident, I was on the floor and was expected to be on the floor for hours, which is why these visitors were told that I would not be able to meet with them that day. At no point did any of my staff say that I did not care about education and that I would vote party lines. The exchange, as portrayed, did not happen."
"I am always willing to meet with constituents and visitors and hear their concerns and thoughts while I am in Tallahassee or the district."