Tampa attorney Bob Buesing says if the Florida Legislature were simply “doing its job” when it comes to contending with early education issues, he wouldn’t be disrupting his relatively good life to engage in running for the state Legislature at the age of 62.
But he says that after years of working with nonprofits that have sent brain scientists, economists and military leaders to advocate with legislators on that topic, he’s reached the conclusion that they simply don’t listen.
“If I thought every year the Legislature was listening, that they were moving in the right direction, they were paying attention to the science and the economics of all this, and they were making smart investments to benefit the state, I would have been happy,” he says. “But I have reached the conclusion that they are not listening. It’s not that they haven’t been told. They’ve been told by some of the best experts in America, what you need to do to get a more vibrant economy.”
Buesing has worked at the downtown Tampa law office of Trenam Kemker for 39 years, beginning as a clerk during between his second and third years of law school. The Wisconsin native’s passion is early learning education, which he says is the key to curing so many issues in the state. He says it’s the animating reason he’s decided to run for the newly created state Senate District 18 seat, where he’ll take on Republican Dana Young this fall.
His pedigree on the issue is solid: he’s served on the board of the YMCA for over 30 years. He’s the vice chair of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County, is a former chairman of the statewide Children’s Forum, and was a founder of the Business Alliance for Early Learning, a division of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
“I finally reached the conclusion if I’m going to make the impact I want to make with my life, you’ve got to go the next step,” he said earlier this week, speaking from a conference room at Trenam’s office in the Bank of America building in Tampa. “From my nonprofit volunteer work and sitting in that chamber and advocate right there for those kids and family, I can make the economic case for this.”
Buesing’s advocacy to help out children who weren’t born with the advantages of others has transcended his professional work and become part of his personal life. Over the years, he’s taken in six different teenagers at some point who were either homeless or at-risk (one currently lives with him and his wife) and proudly talks about how most of them are now successful in the workforce. “When you see them go from the edge of destitution to the middle class you go ‘holy smokes,’ why aren’t we doing this in Florida on some bigger scale?” He says helping so many more kids is a “powerful draw” for his candidacy.
When asked specifically what types of policies have lawmakers ignored that he says could begin to address some of the issues he cares about, he refers to the huge waiting list for a school readiness program for low-income working parents.
“When the brain is developing, 75 percent of the brain development in first three years, and 95 percent in first five years. So you can’t put somebody on a waiting list and wait until they’re seven years old and say, ‘OK, now you can come on to the program.’ It’s too late. You gotta do it there. So all of your early learning — the United Way, the early learning coalitions, meet every year to do their priorities, and you can’t do it all at once, an easy one to understand is you fund it at a high enough level to take everybody off the friggin’ waiting list. But they don’t do that!”
Referring to the $1 billion surplus that went into a rainy-day fund this year, Buesing says he’s all for good bond ratings, but he says it would have been a good investment of state resources to draw down some of that money to get more children into that school readiness program. “You’re going to need that for that — for the cost of repeated grades, the cost of special eduction, for all of the dropout rate programs, criminal justice, expenses. You can do it smart, and do it early.”
Equally important to Buesing is emphasizing access to quality health care, which is why he shares the sentiments of many Democrats (and pro-business organizations like the Chamber) who are still angry at the Florida Legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid. He says that was also a strong motivator for getting into the race.
That decision to me, as a citizen, appears to be a very partisan, political spat instead of what’s doing what’s right for 800,000 people, ” he says. “We Floridians pay our federal taxes, all that money goes up there, and 31 states have accepted the money but this state won’t. From my perspective as a child welfare advocate, I know that of those 800,000 people, an awful lot of them are parents, and one of the things I know is that if parents aren’t getting their health care, or they have to get really, really sick and then go into the hospital, the kids are suffering. It all works together.”
When asked about the Tampa Bay Express, the controversial toll lanes road project that is roiling people in Tampa, Buesing says he has an open mind, but wants the Department of Transportation to be more flexible.
He says that with the number one criticism from the critics being the potential damage to local neighborhoods, he says he’s asked (and is still waiting to hear back) about whether the project can take place without taking additional land. “I would cite as an example, the Selmon expressway, which built the reversible lanes, and that was almost all within existing right of way.”
He’s also distressed to hear FDOT talk about taking the funds earmarked for the project and using it in some other part of the state if the community rejects the project.
Running against Young will be a formidable challenge, but not an impossible task. The South Tampa Republican just announced that she raised $166,700 in May for her campaign, and an additional $115,785 for a political committee.
Buesing announced that he had raised more than $101,000 with 280 individual contributions, an impressive figure for his first month as a candidate.
“She will always have more money than me,” he acknowledges, but adds that “I will have enough money to get my message out.”