One could reasonably approach the David Jolly-Patrick Murphy roadshow hitting Tampa Thursday night with a healthy dose of cynicism.
Here are two former politicians decrying problems of Washington D.C. when, if things had turned the way they hoped they would, both would have been ensconced in the belly of the beast they were now criticizing.
Nevertheless, the two former members of Congress, for the most part, kept it pretty engaging during the hourlong conversation at the University of South Florida Marshall Center, facilitated by USF professor Susan McManus and Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith.
Each man spent the first 15 minutes of the Oval Theater event giving their own prescriptions of what they find wrong with politics today.
Unlike the 34-year-old Murphy, who had been first elected to Congress at the tender of age of 29 after defeating Tea Party Republican Allen West in 2012, Jolly was already an insider, having worked for years as both a lobbyist and an aide to longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Young.
After winning a special election in March 2014, Jolly said he was stunned to discover how much fundraising was expected of new members, since it wasn’t something he ever saw Young doing. Jolly then described a slide he had seen from a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee presentation to incoming lawmakers (he suspected the National Republican Congressional Campaign had one as well) suggesting candidates spend 20-30 hours a week raising money, and only 10 hours a week doing their jobs.
“I truly was taken aback by the fact that consumes every single minute,” the Pinellas Republican said. “If any member tells you that they spend more time on policy than fundraising, they’re lying.”
Another thing that surprised Jolly: The lack of understanding of policy among members of Congress, without naming names.
“It’s remarkable how many people don’t understand the Constitutional implications, the subject matter implications, or even care to learn,” he said, noting they just rely on senior staff help.
Murphy, a Treasure Coast Democrat who lost a bid to defeat Marco Rubio, concurred. He said that while he still believes in term limits, serious policy issues remain (as one, he referred to the Dodd-Frank financial regulation), which take time to learn.
Both men offered some details of what happens behind the scene, especially as freshmen lawmakers.
Murphy discussed how he interviewed several people to learn how to run a campaign, ultimately hiring one as a consultant. He said he was “shocked” to learn the expense (over $10,000 a month). Murphy hired a consultant, a campaign manager, and then a fundraising team.
Jolly was also told he needed a pollster, which he thought absurd since Young served in Congress for more than 40 years without one. But his general consultant told him that a pollster was necessary to learn what constituents care about.
“We need a poll so we know your Republican voters are going to be participating — what is most important to them, so when we determine how to spend money on mailers and commercials, we’re on message with it,” Jolly explained.
Jolly supports open primaries and “jungle primaries” in places like Louisiana and California, where the top two finishers of a race advance to a general election, not the top Republican and Democrat.
He said what he found sad — going across party lines to show independence wouldn’t be rewarded by voters — referring to how he came out for same-sex marriage in 2014 a few months after his election. Jolly said his consultant told him that it was lose-lose; he had just lost Republican votes and wasn’t about to gain any Democratic ones.
“Aren’t you winning independents?” Smith asked.
Jolly replied that he thought that after “multiple” elections one could build up a constituency of independent voters, but in early races, “you’re not bringing people over.”
Both men spoke up in support of lobbyists, saying that in many cases they’re the most informed participants on a public policy issue. (Did we mention that Jolly was previously a lobbyist?)
A frequently overlooked aspect of a member of Congress’ job is constituent services. Both men related poignant stories of helping individuals, which left them both humbled and feeling fortunate they can actually help somebody.
While much of Murphy’s message seemed to be that the system encourages extremes of both parties and drown out centrists, Jolly’s approach was more realistic. He said it was fine to be progressive or conservative, but the lesson politicians learn is that by compromising on some issues is how public policy advances.
“It’s OK to be far to the left or far to the right,” Jolly said, “but the challenge and the breakdown right now is that those two communities are not working together.”
Responding to audience questions, Jolly and Murphy agreed that the Netflix show “House of Cards” was fairly realistic.
When asked if it was possible to win without political action committees, Jolly said a prevalence of third-party groups means candidates have to raise less money on their own. Murphy said “very unlikely.”
To the same question, Murphy answered “very unlikely.”
In the audience of several hundred were mostly students, many holding slices of free pizza offered as an incentive to attend. Other students admitted they were only there to get extra credit from professors.