Fiona McFarland: Naval officer hopes to launch a second career in politics

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McFarland is drawing on skills she learned in the Navy to launch a run for the Florida House of Representatives.

In 2008 at Naval Base San Diego, Ensign Fiona McFarland took the longest walk of her life across the 500-foot steel alloy deck of the USS Preble, a guided-missile destroyer. She would be responsible for the “main propulsion division,” the gas turbine engines that powered the four-year-old ship to its destinations, which had already included supporting troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A group of sailors waited for McFarland to deliver her first orders as a commissioned officer.

“I look at this group of 30 sailors who all have more experience in the Navy and on the equipment end that we were responsible for,” McFarland said. “And they’re standing in formation and the noncommissioned officer, the chief, looks at me and says, ‘OK, ma’am, what should we do today?’

“Not that was my first difficult decision,” she said. “But it really was my first moment of being faced with responsibility that I maybe didn’t necessarily feel ready for.”

Now McFarland is drawing on skills she learned in the Navy to launch a run for the Florida House of Representatives. She hopes to flip District 72, which flipped Democratic in 2018, back to the Republican side.

While she has not sought elected office before, McFarland is no stranger to politics. Her mother, K.T. McFarland, worked for multiple Republican administrations since the 1970s, from the typing pool that produced the Daily Briefing to serving as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and senior speechwriter to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger throughout the Ronald Reagan administration.

The elder McFarland ran for the U.S. Senate representing New York in 2006. In recent years she was best known as a frequent guest on Fox News before President Donald Trump hired her as a deputy to his incoming National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI weeks after he was sworn in and had been trying to clear his name ever since.

While K.T. McFarland was never accused of improper behavior, even the presence of her name in documents seized by Independent Counsel Robert Mueller prompted some Florida Democrats to question her advisory role in her daughter’s campaign. One Democratic consultant even called her “a top staffer to a convicted felon and a traitor to the United States.”

Now Flynn has been all but legally exonerated, and Fiona McFarland welcomes a chance to affirm her greatest political inspiration.

“I’m really proud of my mom and her record of service,” she said. “She raised me, my sister, and three brothers to see government service as an honorable line of work. She also taught me that women have a seat at the table, and I never questioned that.”

A New York native, she entered the U. S. Naval Academy out of high school. She majored in political science and captained the crew team, graduating as a surface warfare officer. A core academy tenet, “Rank hath its responsibilities,” could only be tested on active duty.

“We spend so much time thinking about leadership because of the rank structure,” she said. “They have to follow the orders, and to some, that can sound so nice and so black and white. But when you think about being a person that to give those orders, it’s a very weighty responsibility.”

Responsibilities ranged from approving requests for time off to damage control during emergencies such as fire and flooding. The Aug. 21, 2017 predawn collision between the USS John S. McCain and the Alnic MC, a Liberian tanker, stays in her mind. McFarland had left the Navy by then, but that incident and another collision two months earlier involving another Navy ship triggered investigations that lasted months.

Officers on the McCain saw the danger minutes beforehand but were unable to correct course in time. Because flooding must be contained, each ship deploys officers whose job it is to inspect compartments and, if necessary, seal them off. In the worst situations, it’s not always possible to evacuate everyone inside them. The McCain sustained flooding from a huge gash in the ship’s starboard side. Ten of its crew died.

“I would have been the person climbing into those spaces to try to prevent flooding or to secure electrical power so that we didn’t have a current running through standing water,” McFarland said. “That would have been me, and those were my compatriots out there. There are a lot of difficult decisions that pop up.”

By 2014 she had been transferred to the Pentagon, where she got a good look how political machinery operates.

“We interacted with Capitol Hill quite a lot, and it did not seem like an efficient place to me,” she said. “Partisanship is at an all-time high, and efficiency is at an all-time low. I had a very negative taste of Capitol Hill.”

During that same period, she made a seemingly innocuous decision: She created a profile on Tinder. As a single woman in the city, it seemed like a logical thing to do. The dating site ultimately connected her not to a man it had selected, but to his roommate Matthew Melton, who it turns out was a classmate and friend of McFarland’s at the Naval Academy.

“They’re sitting on the couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and his roommate is scanning through his matches. And his roommate goes, ‘Oh, Matt, this girl is perfect for you. She does CrossFit, and she’s in the Navy’.

“And Matt goes, ‘That’s Fiona McFarland. We graduated together. Tell her I say hi.’ I was so embarrassed that somebody I knew had found me on a dating app.”

The roommates invited her to a backyard barbecue. And the spark between two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years blossomed into a romance. They married in 2016.

McFarland, by then, was working for McKenzie and Company, a global consulting firm. After the wedding, she transferred to the U.S. Naval Reserve and now serves as a lieutenant commander.

Both traveled a lot in their jobs with New York as a home base. Since both had enjoyed visiting Melton’s parents in Clearwater, they began to explore the idea of moving to Florida. “I started daydreaming and looking at Zillow,” she said, “and we found a great little house that we could actually buy.

“It felt like a little bit of finally building our piece of the American dream.”

She wants to make sure her district gets clean water to drink and quality education. She’s a proud capitalist who trusts the private sector to solve problems before the government will. In times of crisis, she empathizes with the decision-makers who have to make the tough calls. She’ll face Jason Miller and Donna Barcomb Aug. 18 in the Republican primary, and said that “whoever we send forward to the general will be the best candidate to go forward.”

Since making plans to enter the race, she learned she was pregnant with a son. Graham Melton was born three months ago.

“It definitely wasn’t part of the master plan to launch a campaign and then get pregnant,” McFarland said with a chuckle. “This is life. There are things that come up, and you just deal with them. We’re lucky that the things that come up for us are also positive.”

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Andrew Meacham

Andrew Meacham is a writer living in St. Petersburg. He worked for the Tampa Bay Times for 14 years, retiring in December 2018 as a performing arts critic. You can contact Andrew at [email protected].

One comment

  • Ray Pilon

    June 8, 2020 at 8:09 am

    Certainly won’t question her service to our country. However I do question her motives. Why Dist 72? She just moved there before filing . She has no connection or history with the community. The largest number of her donors are not from Sarasota or even Florida. As a former representative for Dist 72, past County commissioner , retired Sarasota deputy and resident since 1975, she is mot my choice .

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