When Dustin Daniels decided to run for mayor he received a number of calls from the “old guard” leaders of the Tallahassee political arena. They told him it was not his time and that he should wait.
But Daniels, who served as the chief of staff to Mayor Andrew Gillum, doesn’t feel like he should have to ask permission to become more involved in his community.
“Tallahassee still struggles with its small-town kind of past,” Daniels said. “This is a city where there were a few groups of ‘old boys clubs’ kind of people that can make anybody anything or anybody nobody.”
Sean Pittman, a prominent Tallahassee attorney and Daniels’ campaign manager, is used to the local political scene and is ready for a change. “Tallahassee has the opportunity to become a 21st century city,” Pittman said. “In order to realize that goal, we need a progressive leader who is brave and willing to take actions to move our city forward. In these days and time, stagnation equals regression. In order to be a model capital city we need a leader of action.”
Daniels remains unfazed by the old ways of leadership.
“Over time we have become more diverse and more inclusive,” Daniels said. “There are competing interests in how the city should grow, if it should grow, and who should be at the helm making these decisions.” For Daniels, a millennial with working class roots, having people like him demand a seat at the table is key to solving the city's systemic issues.
Daniels grew up in the small Florida town north of Tampa called Weeki Wachee, famously known for its mermaids, but is otherwise an economically depressed area. Daniels never knew his biological father, and was raised by his Italian-American mother, who battled with bi-polar disorder, and grandmother who was diabetic and had severe neuropathy in her legs. Because of their disabilities, neither women was able to work, so his truck driving stepfather was the main provider in the household.
Even though no one in his family completed high school, his mother and grandmother emphasized the importance of education.
Daniels was bused 45 minutes to a magnet charter high school after finishing the morning shift at the machine shop where he started work at 5 a.m. After school, when football season was over, he clocked in to his second job where he worked at a country club as a banquet server and valet.
“I used to see my family worry about money all the time,” Daniels said. “Robbing from the light bill to pay the rent bill and not answering the phone during the day because we knew the medical or bill collectors were calling.”
The constant anxiety that comes with poverty is something few affluent politicians are familiar with. In the city of Tallahassee where, according to the Census Bureau, more than a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line (with black residents making up 45 percent) Daniels feels that his experience is what makes him even more qualified than his opponents.
“People demagogue poor people all the time as if they are responsible for their situation, but my lived experience shows that isn’t true,” Daniels said. People who live in poverty work hard. They do everything they can to make ends meet.
“Lack of economic opportunity, systemic neglect, the fact that there are issues that are oftentimes left off the table by the same politicians that choose to demagogue them instead of help them — those are the real reasons why intergenerational poverty continues for a lot of families.”
Daniels’ opportunities came by way of education, but not without struggles. Unfamiliar with the college application process and too embarrassed to ask his guidance counselors the difference between undergraduate and graduate programs, Daniels received a number of rejection letters from graduate schools across the country. The letter that changed his trajectory came from Florida State University.
“They replied to me saying, ‘We think you’d be a great graduate student, but a four year degree would help you out, so if we’d be lucky enough for you to re-apply we’d love to welcome you back in the fall,’” Daniels said.
While at FSU studying economics and international affairs, Daniels became involved with numerous student organizations and eventually became SGA president, championing student issues such as predatory towing in Tallahassee, and pushing new diversity policies at the university. His organizing tactics caught the attention of a young city commissioner and Florida A&M University alum, Andrew Gillum.
After completing graduate school at the London School of Economics, Daniels came back to Tallahassee when the newly elected Mayor Gillum asked him to be his chief of staff.
Serving in the mayor’s office, Daniels worked on issues ranging from affordable housing and intergenerational poverty, to Syrian refugee resettlement and human trafficking, typically on a daily basis, he said.
“I’ve learned over the last several years, not only the breath of issues that we come into contact with,” Daniels said, but the transformational power that local government actually has in peoples’ lives when it wants to prioritize those issues.”
His working class perspective can be shown through his platform points. The issues Daniels promises to champion as mayor are fighting inequality, addressing crime and enabling innovation.
Daniels is up against Leon County Commissioner John Dailey, former state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasalinda, Norris Barr, mental health advocate Carrie Litherland and Vietnam veteran Joseph West. The candidates will all come to a head on the Aug. 28 primary.
“It's my first time running for political office,” Daniels said. “It’s a whirlwind. Everyday is an adventure.”