When Wayne Messam, the Democratic mayor of Miramar, Florida (a suburb of Miami), announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee last week, it seemed to come out of nowhere. The political media seemed unsure about whether it should treat him as a serious candidate: CNN.com reported on his plans, for example, but The New York Times did not. At FiveThirtyEight, we’re still figuring out how to define who is and isn’t a “major” candidate (those kind of classifications are inherently a little arbitrary anyway). And we’ll be keeping a close eye on Messam’s candidacy to see whether pollsters begin to include him in polls (he has not been tested in a single one to date), whether he earns any high-profile endorsements and whether he attracts enough donors to qualify for the first two Democratic primary debates.
But let’s take a step back first: Who exactly is Wayne Messam? The son of Jamaican immigrants — his father a migrant worker in the sugar-cane fields of South Florida — he grew up to found his own construction company. He defeated a four-term incumbent in 2015 to become Miramar’s first black mayor and was re-elected earlier this month with 86 percent of the vote. As mayor, the 44-year-old has raised wages for city workers, sued the state of Florida for pre-empting municipal gun laws and helped residents through the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. His campaign told FiveThirtyEight that he’s running for president in part because he believes that mayors are uniquely qualified to address the bread-and-butter issues that people face in their everyday lives. Messam “does not believe that the only experience that matters to lead the country is in a [congressional] committee,” campaign adviser Phillip Thompson told me. Thompson said that one of Messam’s main policy proposals will be to forgive the $1.5 trillion in student debt that already exists.
If we just look at Messam’s political experience, his credentials are as strong as at least one “major” candidate in the race. Messam leads a city of 140,000 — larger than South Bend, Indiana, whence Mayor Pete Buttigieg hails. Miramar also has many more nonwhite residents than South Bend does — 47 percent of the Florida city’s population is black, and 36 percent is Hispanic — so Messam has more experience appealing to a key voting bloc or two in the party.
True, Buttigieg ran (unsuccessfully) for chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017, giving him a national profile — something that Messam certainly does not have. But Messam does have connections whose tangible benefits (e.g., money, staff) may prove useful. He sits on the board of the National League of Cities, a group that lobbies Washington on behalf of municipal governments, and has served as president of the league’s arm that specifically represents local African-American officials. His campaign told me that other mayors have already reached out to offer their help and said Messam also has a deep network of current and former professional athletes; Messam was a wide receiver on the 1993 Florida State University football team that won a national championship. Finally, Florida (more so than Indiana) is home to some big Democratic donors, and as the only presidential candidate (so far) from the Sunshine State, Messam could have front-door access to them.
Setting Messam’s handful of assets aside, though, there may be just too much working against Messam for him to win the nomination. A major American political party has never nominated someone for president whose highest previous office was mayor. And in the modern era of presidential elections, it’s hard to win the actual primary when you’re starting from so far behind in the invisible primary. Still, there’s plenty of time for that to change. Mayor Messam, you’re on notice; the rest of you, stay tuned.