Pegeen Hanrahan, mayor of Gainesville, Fla., answers questions
What work do you do?
Earlier this year I was elected to serve as mayor of Gainesville, Fla., for the next three years. Gainesville is a beautiful and diverse city of about 117,000, often called “the city in the forest” because of our heavy tree cover. Gainesville is the home of the University of Florida, the fourth-largest college campus in the nation, with over 48,000 students.
Although this is my first year as mayor, it’s my seventh year in public office. I was elected to the Gainesville City Commission in 1996 when I was 29. After serving two terms, I stepped down in 2002 due to term limits.
How does it relate to the environment?
To me, local government is really at the cutting edge of environmental policy. Your local officials set land-use and transportation policy, make water-quality and -quantity decisions, issue industrial-use permits, oversee power-plant operations, and monitor contaminated-site cleanups. Working for a city or county, whether as an elected or appointed official, really enables you to have a say in the future of your community. I’m particularly focused on how we can help make cities more desirable places to live, as one way to limit the urban sprawl that adds to destruction of our natural and agricultural resources.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Every day is a little different, which is part of the excitement of the job. On average, I probably spent about 15 hours per week in public meetings, debating issues as diverse as civil-rights policy, employee pension plans, solid-waste pickup, police communications and technology, recreation funding, whether to provide incentives for particular downtown revitalization projects, etc., etc.
Right now, my schedule is jammed with public outreach, political appearances, and fund-raisers. Yesterday, I spent several hours judging candidates for the University of Florida Homecoming Queen pageant, and then ran to a rally to pump up the crowd for a visit from vice presidential candidate John Edwards. Afterwards I waited to meet Sen. Edwards, then ran back to the would-be queens, then ran home to get organized for a fund-raiser I’m hosting for one of my allies on the County Commission this week. Tonight I’m headed downtown to visit the “Gators for Kerry” and other young Democrats who are camped out (literally! with tents!) on our community plaza to vote first thing tomorrow morning. The polls in Florida open on Oct. 18, and we’re trying to get the faithful to vote early so that other voters aren’t discouraged by long lines on Election Day.
I also spend a lot of time visiting community groups, meeting with citizens one on one, and traveling for the city. Last week, I presented a talk on our use of technology during the hurricanes to the Temple University Mayors Summit in Washington, D.C. (We were hit by outer bands from two of the four storms that just crashed through our state.) On the flight back to Florida, I hooked up with Deb Callahan (president of the national League of Conservation Voters), and we caught a ride together to the Bruce Springsteen/R.E.M./Tracy Chapman/John Fogerty Vote for Change concert. It was a great event. In some small way, I’ve worked on every presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s, and to me the grassroots activism and citizen interest this year is more than I’ve ever seen. Of course, a lot of Floridians are motivated by continuing distress over what happened here in 2000.
Tomorrow morning I have to cut a contestant in “The Intern with Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan,” a competition based on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” The competitors are all students at Santa Fe Community College, and each week they complete a public service project in an effort to win the chance to work in my office. Yesterday they worked on a Habitat for Humanity house, and next week they’ll work at the homeless shelter. It’s fun, and each of the kids is great, so I hate to have to tell one of them to “stay in school!” each week (this is the softer version of “you’re fired!”). See TheInternProject.com to follow the drama.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
When I finished graduate school in 1992 (at UF, of course), I took a job as an environmental engineer, running the Hazardous Materials Management Program for Alachua County and primarily working on groundwater cleanup sites. I worked there about five years, and really got to love local government in the process. You have a great opportunity to directly help people. (In addition, for four years I ran a local land trust, Alachua Conservation Trust, and also helped start the Florida Conservation Alliance, our state’s affiliate to the Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues.)
Back then I often would handle calls from citizens about contaminated groundwater, poor management of hazardous waste, worries about nearby landfills, and so on. I worked with local businesses to help them improve their environmental practices, and most of them were very grateful for the advice. That job also gave me a lot of direct contact with the County Commissioners, for whom I worked. I realized through that experience that elected officials are really pretty normal people. At least on the local level, we’re not richer, smarter, or better looking than regular folks, just confident or crazy enough to put our names on the ballot.
Since I’d been active in politics for years, public office was always an interest, but in 1996 my chance came earlier than expected. Gainesville’s a relatively progressive city, but that year there were two very conservative older men running for a seat on the City Commission. Since I was active in the local Democratic Party, I started asking if anyone with better policy positions was likely to get into the race. Everyone kept saying, “No, why don’t you run?” I think they were probably half kidding, but I was too naive to know the difference. Literally on the last day I went down to the Supervisor of Elections Office and registered to run. Aside from the fact that my two opponents were out of step with the community and competing for the same niche, it helped that I have lived in Gainesville my whole life, and earned the endorsement of the Gainesville Sun, our hometown paper, as well as 12 of the 14 organizational endorsements in the race — everyone except the Homebuilders and the Realtors. (Actually, I’m grateful to have received the Sun’s endorsement in all three of my races, much to my surprise and much to my opponents’ consternation.)
After serving six years then taking two years off, it was a tough decision to get back into politics as a candidate. Aside from the risk of defeat, running and serving in office puts a tremendous strain on your family, your finances, and your normal career. My husband and I were married last November, right in the middle of the campaign, and my engineering work has been on hold for months. But the rewards are tremendous, and this is a critical time in our city and our nation, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Well, we have to start with the fact that I have four email addresses to keep up with … one for normal work, one for politics, one for the city, and one for Alachua Conservation Trust, the land trust I work with. My city inbox is by far the most overflowing — there are probably about 1,900 emails in there. I try to respond to emails sent directly to me, but I also get copied on the messages sent to my colleagues. There are usually around 400 in my work email box, 200 in my political box, and 40 in ACT’s box. I used to be religious about responding to email, but it’s just out of control now. A phone call is often more effective these days. I’ve been thinking about getting a Blackberry, but then I wonder if I really want that stuff following me around all the time.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
These days it seems like much of my time is spent with other politicians. At yesterday’s rally for John Edwards, it was a regular who’s who, with candidates and officials from every level of government. I’m also working to help Betty Castor get elected to the U.S. Senate, and she was here for a fund-raiser on Friday.
Of course, my roots in the environmental community mean that I attend a lot of events with advocacy groups. Last night I went to a dinner celebrating 35 years of the Florida Defenders of the Environment, and chatted with Charlie Crist, our state’s Republican attorney general, as well as Buddy MacKay, our most recent Democratic governor (he took over the last few weeks of Lawton Chiles’ term upon his death) and Lt. Governor.
During less electoral times, I spent most of my time with city and county staff, citizen groups, developers, business leaders, activists, school kids, college kids … pretty much a broad cross-section of the community. I’m a real believer in thoughtful land-use and transportation planning, so I interact a lot with our city’s planners, as well as with high quality developers.
I’ve been fortunate to get elected each time with a very diverse support base, so am invited to all kinds of events and meetings. I particularly like to work with the African-American community, and spend a lot of time trying to close racial and economic divides in Gainesville.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
People who are unkind, unprofessional, and/or dishonest are tiresome, regardless of their issue, institutional role, or political perspective. I’ve seen people hurt their cause more than help it through plain old bad behavior. If you want to influence the process, you need to build relationships, credibility, and mutual respect. People who feel disenfranchised from their government can understandably become angry and lash out, but I’d argue that this rarely contributes to political victory. A movement or organization is better served by having those motivated by anger to find a role where that’s a useful and productive attribute. People who are at the negotiating table, at public events, or otherwise “inside the tent” need to be skilled at human interaction. It is really disappointing when people attack others with false information. Sadly, you see this often in the public realm, and it degrades the process. I advise activists who lobby legislators or commissioners to focus on the next vote, not the last vote. If you hold grudges it’ll prohibit you from making headway, but if you keep working at building allies, eventually you will.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Lately I’ve been dealing with a lot of folks who work for or represent Wal-Mart, and they’re generally real nice folks. Wal-Mart is trying to site at least two Supercenters in Gainesville. We turned down their first request on a vote of 5-2, but they’re coming back with another plan shortly.
In contrast, I don’t think Wal-Mart’s policies are nice at all. For example, their part-time employees (a big portion of their workforce) aren’t eligible for health coverage until they have two years on the job. That seems like inhumane behavior from the world’s largest corporation.
In general, businesspeople are nicer and present themselves more professionally than activists. This is unfortunate, as I normally feel sympathetic to the causes of activists, and disappointed when I see them exhibit ineptitude in lobbying and affecting public policy. I suppose this is because people who behave like jerks in business are probably not going to be all that successful.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born here in Gainesville at Alachua General Hospital, about two miles from where I live now. My 1941 home, which is on the local historic register, is located seven blocks directly north of the University of Florida football stadium (known as “The Swamp,” to Gator fans worldwide!). Gainesville’s one of those towns that brings people back to it again and again. Some of my high school friends got away for college and their early careers and are now moving back.
Although I’ve lived in the same town my whole life, I do strongly believe in traveling to gain a broader perspective. When I was a kid, my parents took my three siblings and me to Europe for six months. We lived in West Berlin, close to the wall, for much of that time. I also lived in Madison, Wis. for a summer — a truly great college town!
The business and government leaders of Gainesville visit other cities regularly to mine ideas and gain insight. This year we visited Norfolk, Va. and New Haven, Conn. Norfolk is a great example of a city that rebuilt its downtown after the urban core was abandoned. New Haven and Yale present a great example of Town-Gown cooperation between the city and the university. This is something I’m working on with our new university president, Bernie Machen (so far, a great guy!). In the past we’ve also visited Austin, Texas (where we got the idea for our technology incubator), Seattle (where we met with Nordstrom officials), Portland (where we studied their growth management and regional administration), Chattanooga (where we borrowed their model for a design center), and Lexington (where we learned about city/county consolidation). Our friends in Tallahassee visited Madison this year, and some of us are thinking of taking a road trip to Athens, Ga. soon.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
In about 1982, while in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. EPA in Washington, D.C., with a woman engineer who was mentoring me. It was before the final adoption of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the nation’s primary body of law regulating treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. My mentor was serving on an advisory committee for the final RCRA rulemaking. I took careful notes, even got up the nerve to ask a question, and later wrote a report on the meeting that my boss sold to a client. For a 16- year-old-kid, that was a pretty exciting experience. At that point I knew I wanted to work to help protect the environment. Looking back on it, it is absolutely stunning that this nation didn’t have substantial hazardous waste regulations until about 20 years ago. It seemed important to me at the time because it was important to our nation. Although there’s much progress yet to be made, we have come a long way since then.
These days I’m mostly motivated by environmental-justice issues, and their social and economic implications. Many of our worst environmental legacies are located in communities of color. In Gainesville, we’re working on restoring a brownfield site that is located in a historically African-American neighborhood. It’ll be a beautiful park with a lake when we’re done.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
When I worked for the county, some of my supervisors had a tendency to spin, censor, and control information. In one instance, when I was about 26, I was called into a manager’s office to explain how a group of citizens who were opposing a construction and demolition landfill project had obtained some accurate information regarding the proposed project. Apparently the owners of the site had complained to a commissioner that the opponents had reviewed their plans. “The citizens called me and asked for the data, and I provided it to them,” I answered. Since Florida has a public records law, this was exactly what I should have done. “Well, you don’t need to return their phone calls again,” the supervisor said. I responded, “It would be hard for me to know whose phone calls shouldn’t be returned. Why don’t you write me a memo explaining which citizens’ calls shouldn’t be returned, and I’ll be happy to follow your directions. Until that time, I plan to answer all my calls.” Needless to say, I never got that memo, and didn’t work there too much longer. In the final analysis it was useful for me to withstand the kind of pressure that government engineers, scientists, and planners often experience. It gives me some sympathy for the difficulty of their jobs.
What’s been the best?
My most recent election was pretty exciting. I took almost 57 percent of the vote against a worthy opponent, one of Gainesville’s most prominent businessmen.
Another great experience was writing a successful $2.88 million grant application to buy 240 acres at Blues Creek Ravine and Fox Pond. Alachua Conservation Trust and the Trust for Public Land worked together to make this happen with funding from the Florida Communities Trust, a state land acquisition program. It is incredibly gorgeous property, and when I walk on that land, I think to myself, “This forest will be here forever, long after I’m gone.” It’s a great feeling to do something that’ll outlive us all. The land’s owner is a really sweet lady who held onto the property for decades, and it was wonderful to help her create a preserve and still have something to pass on to her children.
What’s on your desk right now?
- The receipt for repair of my platinum engagement ring, which was crushed while moving furniture away from the windows during Hurricane Frances.
- Little notes from each of the competitors in “The Intern,” explaining which of the other contestants they would cut tomorrow, and why.
- Plans for a proposed redevelopment project for the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street, one of our main intersections, and a letter I’ve drafted to the head of the Florida DEP (Colleen Castille, a friend of mine) asking for help in cleaning up the groundwater underneath the site.
- A picture of John Kerry and me taken in Jacksonville last month. I’ve been planning to write a note on it and mail it to my sister, who until this weekend had been wavering on whether to vote for Kerry or not at all (this has been a real source of angst in our family … ). Luckily she had a revelation that she must vote for Kerry after all, as she’s worried about the situation in Iraq and the possibility of reinstating the draft. Thank God!
- Campaign Literature for “Better Parks, Better Roads,” two tax initiatives we’re trying to pass on Nov. 2.
- A list of places the Young Democrats want people to show up wearing T-shirts that say “Vote Naked, Ask Me How” (I am assuming that’s an absentee balloting initiative.)
- Lots of other stuff not worth mentioning …
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Probably the thing that most pained me was the construction of a huge cement plant within a few miles of the Ichetucknee River. The Ichetucknee is a gorgeous spring-fed river unlike anything you can imagine. It is crystal clear, and at night during certain times of year there are fireflies all around it. Gov. Bush and his former Environmental Protection Secretary actually came out and canoed down the river, and made an initial attempt to deny the permit, then ultimately reached agreement to issue it. I testified against it during court hearings, but don’t doubt that it met the state’s minimal requirements. It is just so unfortunate to have such a heavy industrial use at this pristine location. Aside from the substantial air-pollution impact (and deposition of pollutants to the water), it is frankly an indicator that there are plans afoot to cover this part of the state with concrete, given that we’ve already paved over much of south and central Florida.
Who is your environmental hero?
Paul Wellstone was both an environmental and a political hero to me. He was always someone you could count on to stand by his principles, and represent the interests of regular people. An ally from the Minnesota League of Conservation Voters gave me a button I love, which reads “WWWD: What Would Wellstone Do?” The day he died I was just devastated. My sister, who lives in Minnesota, called in tears, although more than once she started a conversation with me by saying something along the lines of “Liberals like you and Paul Wellstone are always …” She and I had met Sen. Wellstone at the Minnesota State Fair many years ago, and I always cherished that photo.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
I suppose it would have to be the oil and auto industries that continually fight fuel-efficiency standards and work to convince us that we ought to be driving Hummers, Escalades, and other Valdez-type vehicles.
What’s your environmental vice?
I’m a slave to fashion. I love clothes and shoes, and prioritize looking good over avoiding consumption and dry cleaning.
How do you get around?
I drive most of the time, though I bike and walk when possible, usually to UF. We have a great transit system in Gainesville, one of the best in Florida, but my schedule doesn’t really allow me to use it much. Luckily I only live about two miles from City Hall, so I don’t drive excessively.
What are you reading these days?
OK, guilty pleasure, I’m reading Bill Clinton’s book. The guy is an incredible genius with an amazing memory. I’m about a third of the way through. At this rate I’ll finish it sometime in 2006, particularly considering that it is way too heavy to take on business trips. Today John Edwards’ photographer, who worked in the Clinton White House, told me that Washingtonians suggest buying the book on tape. “Clinton reads it himself, which is great, and it’s been abridged.”
What’s your favorite meal?
There’s a really cool restaurant/bar in Gainesville called “The Top,” and the best thing there is actually called “That Spicy Thai Peanut Coconut Dish.” It’s tempeh, asparagus, and rice. Not at all South Beach. I also love veggie pad thai at Tim’s Thai in Gainesville. Noticing a trend here?
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
I read the Gainesville Sun (a New York Times paper), Newsweek, the headlines on AOL, and watch C-SPAN at all hours (right now, it’s almost 1:00 am, and Tony Blair is busy trying to defend his Iraq policy here in my family room!). During extraordinary circumstances, I’ll also read other Florida papers online. Here’s the order of interest: The St. Pete Times, The Miami Herald, The Tallahassee Democrat, The Orlando Sentinel, The Tampa Tribune, The Palm Beach Post, and The Pensacola News Journal. I even read the Jacksonville Times Union on occasion, to see what the conservative press is saying. It’s pretty far right, in my view. People are always saying to me, “Did you see such and such in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post?” The answer is no. I live in Florida. We don’t read those papers down here! I also don’t seek out too much in the alternative press, but luckily friends and listservs are always sending me links to stories, which is great. (Actually, they send links to the NYT, WSJ and WP too, under which circumstances I will read what is sent … like the Post series on The Nature Conservancy. Yikes.)
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m a vegetarian, and have been for around a decade. OK, technically I’m a pescatarian. I do eat fish, but not much. I wish I could give it up, but it’s just too good. I do at least try to be conscious not to eat those that are most damaging or endangered.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
That’s a tough one, as there are so many. I love the Ichetucknee River and Blues Creek Ravine, which I mentioned above, the St. Johns River, the mountains of Appalachia, Vancouver Island, the Greek Islands, the Cliffs of Mohr in Ireland, Florida’s Gulf Coast, and the still-wild parts of the Atlantic Coast as well.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I’d require electric hybrid technology in all cars, or at least much stronger fuel-efficiency standards. Can I also require more serious and enforceable growth-management requirements, to protect more natural and agricultural lands and create more compact cities? To me these things go hand-in-hand. Land-use patterns and wasteful transportation practices are closely linked.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
I’m a huge Kerry-Edwards supporter, and feel really optimistic about this election. I’ve met both of the senators, and attended the Democratic National Convention in Boston this summer. Having worked on every Democratic presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s campaign, I am really energized and excited this time around, and am especially impressed by the participation of young people and others who have felt previously disenfranchised. These folks don’t show up in the public opinion polls. They aren’t considered “likely voters,” and many of them don’t have landline telephones. We’re going to win this one.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Sure. It’s not the only label I think fits, though. You know, research shows that people respond more positively to the word “conservationist” than to the word “environmentalist.” It’s worth thinking about why that is — perhaps it sounds more stable, less wacky?
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Probably the Beatles. Probably still the Beatles.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Sorry to be so predictable, but that would have to be West Wing. My favorite movie is a biking film called Breaking Away. It’s set in an Indiana college town, and talks about the divide between the college and the city, and the fact that if you live in a college town, you keep getting older but the college kids stay the same age.
Mac or PC?
PC. Nowadays the question should be “Dell, Blackberry, Ipaq, or Treo?” The answer to that one is Dell Axim. But I’m looking at the others.
What are you happy about right now?
My husband Tony is really good to me. I mean really good.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Donate to your local land trust. They do a lot more tangible good than most groups. Don’t have a local land trust? Then donate to Alachua Conservation Trust. Oh, and vote, of course. Check out your state Conservation Voter League to learn how and who to support. In Florida it’s the Florida Conservation Alliance, or see the national League of Conservation Voters.