Freshman Rep. Byron Donalds was a businessman before he served in the Florida House of Representatives and now in Congress, where he arrived in January.
Donalds grew up in a single-parent household and says his mom made sacrifices to make the American dream possible for him.
“Growing up in the inner city, a lot of things happen, unfortunately,” Donalds, a Republican, says of his upbringing in Brooklyn, New York.
“You get mugged. I was mugged when I was in middle school. I was held up at gunpoint at 16 years old. So now, being in politics and being a grown man, a lot of things just don’t really faze me, because just from my experiences growing up in the inner city,” he explains.
Donalds joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share his story, both personal and political.
We also cover these stories:
- Eight people die in three shootings at massage parlors in the Atlanta area.
- Members of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s inner circle circulate a letter aimed at tarnishing the reputation of a former aide who accused him of sexual harassment, according to a New York Times report.
- State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, says Cuomo would be convicted in an impeachment trial, according to WCBS-TV.
Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Congressman Byron Donalds, a Florida congressman. Donalds, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” Thank you for joining us.
Rep. Byron Donalds: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.
Del Guidice: Well, you’re a freshman member of Congress, and before we get to your run, we’re going to talk about that, but can you tell us first a little bit about your personal story, how you grew up in a single-parent household, and just all the credit you give to your mom for all the sacrifices she made? Can you tell us a little bit about your own personal story?
Donalds: Yeah. I mean, look, I’m a poor kid from Brooklyn, New York. That’s who I am. And I guess even with all of this, I’m still that kid, still that person.
We grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We were just poor, and you knew you were poor, but for my mother, education was everything to her. She took me out of public school when I was in the first grade because she didn’t want them to put me on Ritalin. She knew that her son had more promise.
So I guess you could say she was a school choice mom before school choice was cool, because for her, she wanted to make sure that her son got the best education.
So she pulled me out, put me in a small, black private school that really just took the time to educate me. And then from there, even my teenage years, I played sports, I just did stuff like that. But for her, education was always paramount.
That was the thing that was going to get me out of Brooklyn, that was going to get me out of the neighborhoods and move me on to just a better life, which is what she always wanted for me.
It was pretty simple, I mean, but growing up in the inner city, a lot of things happen, unfortunately. You get mugged. I was mugged when I was in middle school, I was held up at gunpoint at 16 years old.
So now, being in politics and being a grown man, a lot of things just don’t really faze me, because just from my experiences growing up in the inner city, you really understand when somebody is really trying to get you versus people just running their mouths.
But that’s how I grew up. I was a poor kid in the inner city.
Once I graduated high school, I went to Florida A&M in Tallahassee, a historically black college. And then I transferred to Florida State University and graduated from FSU in 2002, met my wife in college, moved down to Naples. Never thought I was going to stay in Naples, and now I’m a congressman from Naples. It’s kind of crazy, actually.
Del Guidice: Wow. It comes full circle. Well, before we talk about your run for Congress, can you tell us about how you got involved in politics in the first place?
Donalds: Yeah. Listen, that’s a great story, because my family, we never cared about politics. We’re apolitical, although we were all registered Democrats when I was a kid. It’s, frankly, how most families are in our country. They don’t really think about politics except when it’s time to go vote for somebody.
So, actually, what happened to me was I was in insurance at the time. I was 28, 29 years old. The financial collapse was happening, back in 2008. And my firm asked me to do research on the financial collapse for our clients. And I turned on the House Financial Services Committee one day and I was pissed because, I was like, “Who are these people? They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
I’m 29 years old and I knew more about what’s happening in financial markets than the committee did. … I was really upset because, I’m like, “You guys are supposed to have the solutions, you’re our leaders, and I’m getting nothing.”
So it actually piqued my interest because I really was just like, “Who are these people?” So I started watching cable news, which I never watched. And I hated cable news because … everything was surface level, everything was gotcha, it was vapid, didn’t make any sense.
If somebody’s trying to start watching news for the first time and you start watching cable news, it’s annoying and it’s frustrating. You’re just trying to understand.
So a friend of mine told me about some guy named Mark Levin on a podcast and they’re like, “Listen to this guy,” and I’m like, “All right, I’m just trying to learn politics.” And I’m listening to him for the first couple of times and I’m like, “Who is this crazy person? He’s just yelling all the time.” But I said I was going to continue to listen and I did, and I’m glad I did.
He was talking, I think at the time, about some guy named Frédéric Bastiat. So I went and found his book and I read it, “The Law.” First book I ever read on politics.
It was a great book because what it signaled for me was actually the original purpose of law, and the actual purpose of law. Not about politics, not about conservatives versus liberals or Republicans versus Democrats, or liberal ideology, or none of that. It was about the purpose of law.
Then from there, it really started to pique my awareness about political philosophy. So I read Locke, I read Montesquieu, and started reading more about the history of government over the world and world history.
And when I kind of was doing all of that research and information gathering, I realized I was actually a classical liberal or a modern conservative. And from there, once I realized what my true political philosophy was, then I changed party registration and I became a Republican and the rest is kind of history from there.
Del Guidice: Wow. … So, before you ran for Congress, you served in the Florida House of Representatives. What was that experience like and what were some of the highlights that you found yourself in during your time serving Florida in the House there?
Donalds: Being in the Florida Legislature was actually really cool. I ran on education reform and just continuing the success of Florida’s economy. And when I got there, you really started to understand the legislative process. …
I know everybody remembers it from “Schoolhouse Rock,” “I’m a bill,” but I really got a chance to get knee deep into public policy, from the side of not just looking at it and having my opinions on what’s being proposed, but actually sitting down and going through the nuts and bolts of policy.
And the No. 1 attribute I always took in was restraint. I think elected officials, if there’s one attribute I want to see out of all the elected officials, [it] is the understanding that just because you can doesn’t mean you should, knowing that it is important that you maintain discipline and the proper necessary restraint and respect for the people that you serve and what their true authority is, and not thinking because you got elected, now you’re the ultimate authority.
So everything I kind of did was always from that vein.
I spent a lot of time talking with black Democrats, because we have a shared history, a shared growing up, if you will. And so we spent a lot of time together and really got a chance to engage in these political discussions away from the TV cameras, really in a comfort area, where you could really speak fully about all the things you believe.
I realized that one of the things that we do need in politics is that there does have to be some basis of comradery and respect for each other as individuals, because too often, if you get caught up in the policy without understanding the person and the rationale that a person’s coming to the table with and the actual beliefs a person is coming to the table with, that’s how we get into this ultra-tribalist environment I think we’re in today.
Del Guidice: Can you tell us about your run for Congress? What was that push that … [got] you to put your name on the ballot and why did you run?
Donalds: Which one? Which one are you talking about?
Del Guidice: Oh, for Congress, yes.
Donalds: Oh, I know. Which one? … Actually, I ran for Congress in 2012. At that point, … I had political philosophy and policy ideas coming out of my ears, I was on doing local radio.
When Herman Cain was running for president, I was on the local Herman Cain campaign in Collier County. And when his campaign ended, the people on the team asked me to run for Congress in 2012. At that time, Connie Mack was running against Bill Nelson statewide and our seat came open. So I ran.
I had no idea what I was doing. I was a complete novice, had no idea what campaigns even were, but the people around me were just all business people, and we kind of turned it into a guerrilla marketing campaign.
And it was like you’re just trying to get attention and you’re trying to get people to pick your products, so it has to be guerrilla marketing. It was a great experience.
People thought at the time, they were like, “There’s no way he’ll be a congressman. Who is this guy? He’s just coming off the street as a regular person.” But I learned so much during that election and really got a real base of support in my community, which actually propelled me into the state House and it propelled me into this congressional run.
When I ran the second time around, I actually swore off D.C. I was going to stay in a state legislature, maybe go to the state Senate, but I wanted nothing to do with Washington.
I looked at the place as dysfunctional, where everybody’s just talking and nobody’s actually doing. Why would I do that when I can just finish politics at the state level, go back, make money, and be happy?
But when our seat came open again, I had people call me and they’re like, “We would really want you to run.”
Our area is a very conservative area in Southwest Florida, Naples, Fort Myers, and it always has wanted a strong conservative to represent the area. So when I started looking at the field and the more I thought about it, I just said, “You know what? Let’s go ahead and do it.” I had accomplished all the things I ran on in the state House, so I was like, “Let’s do it. Let’s take our shot.”
Del Guidice: What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities you see in Congress, given that there is a Democrat House, Senate, and White House? Where do you see any room to work, despite that the other party is controlling everything right now?
Donalds: It’s going to be very difficult, because I think right now the Democrats are … even more—what’s the word I’m looking for? More hyped up because of what happened on January 6th. And I think it’s going to make it difficult for us to be able to do bipartisan things. I think some of that is starting to thaw out a little bit, but I know it’s going to be difficult.
I think that right now, [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi has a stranglehold on the House. And so she’s not going to allow anything to get through that either, A, she just has no care about, that’s not going to affect her political ideas and outlooks, or B, definitely not something that’s conservative.
So we have a job to do, and that’s to be the loyal opposition, if you will, … and not just be the loyal opposition and just vote “no,” but I think it’s to actually promote conservative ideals, not just to what they’re doing, but to all the things that need to be done, not just in Washington, but really for the country.
I want to be focused on that, about promoting policy, promoting a vision for what the country is supposed to look like, how it’s actually supposed to run. And then we go through midterm elections in two years, hopefully the voters see it our way.
Del Guidice: When it comes to coronavirus, your state has really led in keeping it open, opening it back up. How have you guys done this?
Donalds: Because we actually follow the science and we don’t get caught up in political science. We’d made a decision in our state, and this is really to the leadership of Gov. [Ron] DeSantis.
I mean, we locked down like every state did for about a month or so, and then we looked at it and just realized that, you know what? It is important that we begin to reopen our economy. We’re not going to be able to survive long term as a state if people don’t have the ability to go to work, while also protecting their health; for kids to go to school, while also making sure we put in the necessary provisions.
So we are the model for the country.
It was the best decision the governor made. I’m glad he’s our governor because he’s been fantastic during this whole thing.
And look, nobody’s perfect. There [have] been missteps by every elected official, every one of us, because we’re dealing with a novel virus nobody knew anything about a year ago, nothing. So for us to be where we are as a state is, quite frankly, it’s the miracle of conservatism being displayed for the country and the world to see right now.
Del Guidice: We mentioned schools opening, and your schools in Florida are open. Can you talk a little bit more about how you’ve done this and what you would encourage other states to do since you guys have been successful?
Donalds: We follow the science, social distancing, washing your hands. In schools, we do require that kids wear a mask in schools in Florida. We do that, but … after the basic tenants that we all know are smart things to do, the science, then we let people just use common sense and operate.
First of all, nobody walks around saying, “I want to get COVID today. I want to be in the hospital.” That’s ridiculous. People innately, no matter whether it’s COVID or anything else, everybody always seeks their own interests. That is a fundamental, fundamental idea and reality of the world we live in. Everybody seeks their own interests.
Once you know that, you can actually trust people to do the right thing in mass, as long as you put the proper guardrails in, not these intricate Rube Goldberg maze things where we’ll let you go to the school one day a week, … that’s nonsense.
What we did here was follow the science. We don’t need a study to do it. If the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] wants to really understand how to open up schools, they should come to Florida. We’ve been doing it since August.
Not all of our kids have returned, because some parents aren’t comfortable with their children returning. And so for those parents, we’ve provided virtual learning and distance learning.
But for the parents who were like, “You know what? My kid can go back,” they’ve gone back. And what we’ve actually seen is transmission rates have actually been quite low in schools.
Children, now we know, do not take on the worst effects of COVID-19. The vast, vast minority of children take on the worst effects of COVID-19. And so every family has to make those decisions.
That’s what we’ve done in Florida. It’s actually quite simple. Nothing super crazy, we just follow the science and use common sense.
Del Guidice: Congressman Donalds, thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s been great having you with us.
Donalds: Listen, it was a pleasure. I love The Daily Signal. I’m definitely coming back.