Key endorsements and fundraising prowess are pushing candidates Michele Rayner and Mark Oliver into front-runner status in a four-way race for the Florida House District 70 seat.
According to Florida’s campaign finance database, between her campaign launch in early March and the first week of June, Rayner, a civil rights attorney, raised $57,214.20. Oliver, the owner of a nonprofit organization that provides fitness training for people with special needs, has raised $42,175.52. Each of the two candidates have more than doubled the contributions raised by opponents Keisha Ann Bell and Michelle Grimsley, who raised $19,455.70 and $8,630.88, respectively.
The four candidates are vying to replace State Rep. Wengay Newton, who will not pursue another term in the legislature in order to run for Pinellas County Commission, in the seat Commissioner Ken Welch is set to vacate in 2021.
Rayner, 38, has garnered national attention for her civil rights advocacy. She represented the family of Markeis McGlockton, a unarmed Black man gunned down in a Clearwater gas station parking lot in 2018 in a case surrounding Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. In 2019, Michael Drejka, the man who shot McGlockton, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after he was convicted of manslaughter in McGlockton’s death.
Rayner told the St. Pete Catalyst that her advocacy comes from a legacy of service in her family. Her mother and godmother were both St. Petersburg social workers. One of her uncles served in the Florida House, and another was the first African American Secretary of the Department of Corrections.
Growing up with influences of both Christianity and the Black Liberation Movement, Rayner’s family home displayed portraits of Jesus and Malcolm X side-by-side. As a child, she recalled watching documentaries on the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil War while her neighbors played outside or watched cartoons.
Her mother instilled in her the phrase, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Rayner explained that that phrase remains the basis of a values system she has held throughout her career, first as a public defender, then in her own practice as a civil rights attorney. It’s that work that pushed her to run for office, in order to make change on a systemic level, rather than a case-by-case basis.
“I’ve been able to fight some systemic issues as a civil rights and criminal defense attorney,” Rayner explained. “But so many of these cases stem from inequities in education, inequities in affordable housing, or from folks not being able to garner a living wage.”
Through her work as a legislative aide in State Senator Arthenia Joyner’s office in 2007-08, Rayner saw that policy-making was the way to system change.
“I can fight things one family or one client at a time in court system, but being able to impact community and ultimately the state is a gift,” Rayner said.
Rayner’s candidacy comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum across the nation, as sustained protests against police brutality have spread around the world following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, while in the custody of Minneapolis Police. Locally, Rayner worked with Dream Defenders to create a local Pinellas County Bail Fund, to bail out demonstrators who were arrested during protests. As arrests have died down in Pinellas, the remainder of the funds have gone to people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, who are unable to post their own bond.
“We’re in a moment where we have two pandemics going on, a pandemic of racism that’s always been there – and a health crisis,” Rayner explained, in reference to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. “We need the right leadership in Tallahassee to make sure folks can navigate this time, to make sure they can make a living and have access to healthcare.”
In her short time in the race, Rayner has racked up major endorsements from U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, State Senator Darryl Rouson, retired State Senator Arthenia Joyner, Rep. Shevrin Jones, Equality Florida and Ruth’s List.
Oliver, 28, will be first to admit that he wasn’t always involved in the political process. On the contrary, until just a few years ago, Oliver had not been registered to vote.
In fact, it wasn’t until Oliver got involved in the special needs community with his nonprofit organization Specially Fit, which trains youth with special needs, that he began to see how integral policy and policy-making is to every aspect of the community, and how much he saw missing at a state level, particularly for the special needs community.
Oliver spent much of his early professional life as a high-level CrossFit athlete and coach, and an entrepreneur. Freshly graduated from the University of South Florida, he hustled to pick up personal training clients and trained them out of his garage until he could scrape together enough money to find an investor who would match it.
Eventually, with the help of that investor, Oliver opened his own CrossFit gym, One More Rep, where he lived and worked for months until the enterprise became profitable.
While he had always cared about community, holding fundraisers and working with charities, by Oliver’s own admission he was not politically involved until he met his first client with special needs. Andrew, who has Down’s Syndrome, struggled with balance and coordination, and battled intense shyness and agoraphobia.
Oliver offered to train him, and within a month Andrew lost 20 pounds, started to join group fitness classes and learned how to ride a bike. Eventually, Oliver made a pact with himself that for one year, he would only train those he felt needed his help the most, people in the special needs community. That pact recently hit the two-year mark.
Oliver sold his CrossFit gym in 2018 to start his nonprofit effort, Specially Fit, and begin advocating for the special needs community at the state-level in Tallahassee.
As Specially Fit grew, spreading to nine schools and serving 400 children, Oliver started looking to make an even greater impact. That’s when he decided to run for District 70.
But his candidacy hasn’t been without its critics.
“It’s been rough,” Oliver said. “A lot of people will say ‘You’re too young,’ ‘You’re not ready to run for office,’ ‘You didn’t have a voting record before.’ But I know the work has to be done.”
“Most people my age haven’t registered to vote, or they have registered but they don’t vote. That’s common,” Oliver said. “I think of it as an asset because I’m relatable. I am relatable to people who aren’t as in touch with politics.”
Oliver told the St. Pete Catalyst that he wants to set an example for young Black men in the district that there is hope.
“My mom had me at 14,” Oliver said. “I was the first in my family to go to college, the first in my family to buy a house. I want to show that you can be that one percent, you can make it out of the neighborhood, not just through the NFL, and be somebody.”
That’s why Oliver says he’s spent numerous days of his campaign at St. Petersburg’s local Black Lives Matter protests at City Hall, encouraging young people coming out to protest to stay involved in the political process.
Oliver’s endorsements include Stonewall Democrats, Florida House Disability Caucus, and St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler Bowman.
House District 70 covers much of South Pinellas, including St. Petersburg, and parts of Manatee and Hillsborough counties. The primary election will be held Aug. 18. The district leans heavily Democratic.