Kionne McGhee: Florida's Most Unlikely State Legislator?
Around the State
Education: Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Juris Doctor
Previous Public Office: None
Family: Wife, three children
Did you know? Wrestled in high school and college; still enjoys the sport, as a kind of life metaphor: "You can't leave the mat, or leave life, without dealing with your opposition head-on. If you do, you find yourself feeling inadequate. ... The best way to figure out how prepared you are, how much you really know, and how much you're ready to give to a problem, is to get out on the mat and let it all hang out. At the end of the day, whatever's left out there, it's out there. As long as you can sleep at night with yourself and say 'I gave it my all,' then you're happy; then, you can move on."
One of northwest Miami-Dade County's newest state representatives may well be the Legislature's least likely member.
Growing up in the Naranja housing projects; raised by a single mother of six children, having lost both his father and a brother to murder; four times diagnosed with mental retardation; suspended from school more than 20 times; graduated high school with a 2.0 GPA and 11th from the bottom of his class.
“I've had an interesting life,” freshman Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, tells Sunshine State News, in what is easily the greatest understatement made by any of the 44 legislators who have interviewed for this series. “I was one of those guys on the fast track to nowhere.”
What happened that set such a deeply troubled and disadvantaged adolescent on the road to becoming a college professor, assistant state prosecutor, national motivational speaker, author of soon-to-be two published memoirs, and a member of the Florida House of Representatives?
“I had to become an expert in every struggle I went through,” he says of a realization that hit him while he was sitting in a jail cell, facing the possibility of prison.
Having gotten caught up in the wrong crowd and spent time in jail, how better to redeem himself than by becoming a lawyer? How better to conquer the stigma of mental retardation than to aspire to become a college professor? And how better to conquer his functional illiteracy than resolving to commit his life experiences to writing?
“Finally, I asked myself, 'What is now the ultimate goal that I can lay down my life for, so I can benefit society by making a sacrifice of myself in order to prevent other folks from going through what I've gone through?'” he relates. “The only answer was politics.”
He continues: “Politics affects everything we do, how we do it, and when we do it. And only when we've had folks who've experienced the struggles firsthand will we actually begin to heal the divides our state and country face, whether its race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, whatever it is.”
Time will tell how long McGhee retains his almost mystical appreciation of his new job and, perhaps more relevantly for his constituents, how effective he will be in crossing the partisan divide and getting his legislation pushed through a Republican-heavy Legislature.
He's certainly ambitious, having filed seven bills so far. He talked with SSN about the two that will be his chief priorities this session.
HB 169 (“Residential Tenancies”), which already enjoys at least one Republican co-sponsor, would make it a crime for residential property owners to take on tenants while the property is in foreclosure proceedings, unless they explicitly disclose the foreclosure to their prospective lessees. They must also give notice to existing tenants once foreclosure proceedings have commenced. Failure to do so would a constitute a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
McGhee says he's received several reports of renters being kicked out of their homes by banks who have taken over the property they're renting, after having been given no notice that anything was amiss with the ownership.
“We have renters being taken advantage of left and right, and right now there's nothing on the books that would lead to any sort of prosecution against these landlords who knowingly take advantage of the trust of these renters,” he explains. “We had a case in my district where a military family returned home from overseas and they thought they were coming home to get on with their lives, but what they came home to was a reality check.”
HB 1209 (“Sale of Firearms and Ammunition”) and HB 1211 (“Trust Funds/Creation/Behavioral Health Intervention and Treatment Trust Fund/DCF”) are bound to be more controversial. Together, they would impose a fee of 4 percent of the purchase price of all firearm and ammunition, the monies collected being deposited into a special trust whose funds would be distributed to mental health institutions, for the hiring of mental health professionals at law enforcement agencies, for the purchase of cameras and locks for public schools, and to universities and community organizations that specialize in behavioral health intervention and treatment.
“I'm a firearm owner myself; I understand the importance of keeping a firearm, but I felt this wouldn't be too much of a burden,” he explains, insisting that he consulted with gun and ammunition manufacturers before drafting his legislation. “Florida is 51st in the nation, per capita, when it comes to funding for mental health; I find that to be insulting. Here I am, an individual who could have been one of those mental health statistics.”
Given how much he's had to overcome in the course of his career, it's not surprising that McGhee's attitude is one of hopeful expectation when asked what prospects he thinks he has moving these measures forward, being both a freshman and a member of the minority party,
“I'm optimistic that things are going to move,” he says. “And hey, if they don't get through this year, at least that conversation will have been started, and nothing beats a good conversation, especially when it's one that needs to be had.”
Reach Eric Giunta at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (954) 235-9116.