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The families of the 17 students and staff killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have spent the past eight months lobbying lawmakers and informing the public about various measures that can be taken to end school shootings, but with Election Day approaching some of the families are getting political.
Andrew Pollack cut an ad touting Republican Rick Scott’s U.S. Senate bid. Fred Guttenberg has traveled around the country to promote Democratic candidates who favor restrictions on assault-style weapons. Ryan Petty endorsed Republican Ron DeSantis for governor after multiple heart-to-heart conversations with the former congressman. And Manuel Oliver has used art to oppose the National Rifle Association and the politicians it supports.
The families of some of the Parkland victims are getting directly involved with political campaigns inside and outside of Florida ahead of Election Day, a different approach than the student-led March For Our Lives movement, which spent the summer trying to register young people to vote and is now focused on getting them to the polls.
After successfully pushing the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott to sign the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a bill that raised the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21 and implemented a school guardian program, the parents have experience in influencing policy and inserting themselves into politics.
“These students have been amazing and are doing amazing work to get out the vote, and they’re trying to do their work in a non-partisan way,” Guttenberg said. “Manny [Oliver] and I take stands that makes us a little different form the kids. We do take stands in support of candidates on [gun control]. Manny and I have a different tactic but we want the same outcome. Mine is through words, Manny’s is through art.”
The Parkland parents have differing political views. While Guttenberg and Oliver generally support liberal candidates, Pollack is a conservative who strongly feels that additional gun-control laws would not have prevented the mass shooting, and he did a TV ad for Scott last week, praising the governor’s approach to pass a bill that some on the left and right didn’t like.
“I do it for my daughter,” Pollack said of his political work. “I don’t do it to be in the news. It’s not really fun going on live TV. It’s a little stressful, do you know what I mean? What I need to do is I need is to expose all the people who failed my daughter that day.”
Pollack, who also did a video touting his support for DeSantis that received more than 100,000 views in less than a week, said he’s focused solely on Florida races, notably governor and Senate, because those positions are the most likely to affect local policies that he cares about, such as keeping Florida’s voucher program for parents who want to choose where their child goes to school and providing funding for school resource officers and other employees to be trained in techniques that can minimize loss of life if another school shooting occurs.
Petty, who supports Scott and DeSantis but also Democratic state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, said his focus is on promoting school safety efforts that begin with the federal Department of Education, arguing that the right for someone to access free public education doesn’t outweigh the safety concerns for students and staff.
“I’m focused on Florida candidates who could make changes in both Florida and at the national level,” Petty said. “I’ve endorsed Gov. Scott for Senate because I believe he gets the threat, I think he understands uniquely in that race the events that led up to and contributed to the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas. I’m supporting DeSantis for governor, I’ve had some heart-to-heart conversations with him. I continue to support Jared Moskowitz who is running for reelection. Those are examples of candidates on both sides of the aisle that I supported who I believe understand the issue and care about it deeply.”
Petty, who ran unsuccessfully for a Broward school board seat in August, hasn’t made any ads yet this cycle but has appeared at campaign events on behalf of Scott, who is running against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson.
On the other side, Guttenberg has emerged as the most vocal Parkland parent promoting gun control, giving speeches around the country at political rallies and causing a stir during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing when he tried to introduce himself but was rebuffed. Last week, he campaigned in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York and is headed to California and Georgia this week.
“I want to flip the House and Senate and get in place leadership who will do something about this issue,” Guttenberg said. “I am a one-issue voter right now, a one-issue citizen. Gun safety, we must do something about it. We have leadership in place right now that will not. If we flip the House and Senate there are members on both sides of the aisle who are ready do something.”
Guttenberg appeared with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in Coral Springs last week, where the longtime Democratic leader pledged that pursuing comprehensive background checks will be at the top of Democrats’ agenda if they gain a House majority in the November elections.
“We will get this done and it has to be non-partisan,” Pelosi said.
Oliver’s artwork, including a sculpture depicting a child hiding under a desk during a lockdown drill that was shown in 10 competitive congressional districts around the country, is the way he is trying to influence votes in November.
“I have a spotlight over my shoulder,” Oliver said. “I didn’t ask for it, it’s a very sad situation. But people are looking at what we’re doing and we need to take advantage of that.”
March For Our Lives political director Charlie Mirksy, a recent high school student who is lobbying lawmakers in Washington on behalf of the movement, said this week that the group’s main interest is voter turnout. Now that voter registration deadlines have passed in most states, including Florida, the group is putting resources toward getting young people to the polls.
“These voter reg deadlines have run out so it’s all about voting now,” Mirksy said. “We’re going to be busing students on double-decker buses and be doing concerts where we are busing people from the concerts to the polls. We are going to colleges and were going to be active in this midterm cycle.”
Petty praised the March For Our Lives, even though many of its most visible leaders support different candidates than he does.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions between the two groups and there was some disagreement during the school board race on how much the students should focus on local versus national issues,” Petty said. “I think there’s room for both. When you look at some of the efforts of students to encourage people to vote, that lends itself to a national presence and I applaud their presence about getting people excited about voting.”
But the Nov. 6 elections won’t represent an end to their political efforts. At the state level, a DeSantis or Andrew Gillum victory could alter the state Legislature’s approach to myriad issues that the parents care deeply about. The potential for a Democratic-controlled Congress with Donald Trump in office means it’s unlikely that Congress will pass sweeping gun-control legislation before the 2020 election.
“I’m going to be with the president again for Hanukkah,” Pollack said. “I’m hoping to get into his ear again.”
Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.
Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049