Gavin Rollins looked out into the audience and saw few familiar faces.  The city council chamber was packed with people listening attentively as his opponent presented his ideas for city government.

“I have thirty years of experience in business, creating budgets,” Rollins’ opponent said.  Some of the audience members nodded in approval, and Rollins’ throat tightened.  Even he had to admit the other candidate – and his long resume — were quite impressive.

Rollins was young. In fact, no one his age had ever been elected to city council in Clay County, Florida, a northeastern Florida town nestled among beautiful sand bottom lakes.  At 22, he would be the youngest person ever elected.  That is, if he survived this debate.  He’d never even been in a debate before, but earlier that day he did watch some old footage of Ronald Reagan in debates.  Rollins loved studying the way important people in history communicated, and he learned from the Reagan clips that he simply wanted to connect with the audience.  That’s one of the reasons he didn’t bring any note cards to the podium.  He memorized his key points, and otherwise wanted to speak from the heart.

His opponent stopped speaking, and everyone turned to look at Rollins. He knew he couldn’t match his opponent’s three decades worth of budgetary experience, so he cleared his throat and leaned into the microphone.

“Well,” he began.  “I’ve been alive for 22 years.”

When the crowd laughed, he knew he had an opening to share his vision for his city. “I have three priorities,” he said.  “To keep Keystone Heights a family friendly place, to work on low water levels in the area lakes, and to keep taxes low.”

Rollins wanted to get involved in his community ever since in tenth grade, when he spent five days at “Student Leadership University” in Washington, DC.  There, he was taught to think seriously about America’s history, faith, and the responsibilities of being a citizen. “From that point on,” he said, “I got more involved in leadership roles in student government and high school clubs and I also sought out a mentor.”  When he attended Santa Fe College, he ran for student body president by making signs, speeches, and talking to students.  But, after the votes were counted, he came up short.  “The loss taught me a lot about building the right team,” he said.

He took a year off from Santa Fe College, joined the Army National Guard, and went to South Carolina for Basic Combat training and advanced individual training. After his return to his hometown Keystone Heights – a small, historic town of 1,300 —  he began attending city council meetings to learn more about community issues.  At first the details of city governance seemed a little overwhelming.  But as he listened, he began to have ideas of his own.  “A lot of this is common sense,” he thought.  He started to bring a pad of paper so he could write his thoughts down.

During his last semester at Santa Fe, he decided to put some of those ideas into action, by running for Keystone Heights City Council.  “Many people told me to wait my turn, that I was too young,” Rollins said.  “However, I felt I could make a difference.”

His first debate went well, but he and a team of friends and family had a great deal of work to do.  They headed out into the community to get his message out to voters – all voters.  He specifically targeted people who aren’t normally prone to vote in local elections and others who normally aren’t politically involved.

“We knocked on doors, made phone calls, did a mailing, created a website, and started a Facebook group. We left no stone unturned.”  But as he went into the community, people questioned his candidacy.  “Are you even old enough to vote?” some citizens asked suspiciously.  Week after week, Rollins pressed on.

On March 3rd 2009, Rollins was with his father in the council chamber waiting for the result to be announced. After the votes were tallied, Gavin Rollins became the youngest city councilman in Clay County history.

He won by three votes.

After the results were announced, his opponent graciously congratulated him, before Rollins immediately walked across the street to thank his volunteers.  “They got quiet as I entered the room, because they hadn’t heard the results.”  He paused for just a second, told them he had actually pulled it off, and everyone erupted into cheers. “It was so special to share that monument with the team that had made it possible,” he said, before adding, “Every vote really does count.”

Of course, this was just the beginning. Even as a councilman, people were confused over his role, sometimes mistaking him for an intern or an assistant.  However, when a property tax hike was proposed, things got serious pretty quickly.  It was a whopping 64% tax increase, which directly violated one of Rollins’ three campaign platform principles.  In Florida, cities may not increase property taxes by more than 12% without a unanimous vote of their city council.  This meant Rollins’ vote could kill the whole deal.

He’d always had a philosophical opposition to tax increases, but how would his principle play out in the real world of “give and take” politics?  All of the other city councilmen – as well as the mayor — supported the tax increase.  “The other councilmen pressured me greatly,” he said.  “They said all kinds of things to get me to change. They criticized my youth, my judgment, and told me how terrible things would be if I didn’t support it.”

“I considered both sides of the issue and asked lots of citizens what they thought. Many told me the increase would be very difficult for them.”  He admits that it was an intimidating situation, but the pressure didn’t work.  “I had to ask how this would impact the citizens… not just the government. I wasn’t elected to turn government money into my own personal allowance for pet projects.”  As an alternative, young Rollins proposed a good old fashioned belt tightening.  “I felt we could do more to reduce cost by making things more efficient.  Also, I proposed getting volunteers to do many of the projects the city claimed it needed extra revenue to fund.”

The vote was 4 to 1, and his solitary vote stopped 52% of the tax increase.

The other council members resented Rollins’ unwillingness to “go along to get along.”

“I was told I would lose re-election the following march for voting against it,” he said.  In fact, the mayor and the city council stayed true to their promise to make his city council career a short one. “They recruited a strong candidate to run against me and helped him campaign.”  However, apparently the property owners of Clay County actually appreciated Rollins’ vote, which allowed them to keep more of the money they had earned, as he was re-elected by a sixty percent margin for a 3 year term.

“But this isn’t a Gavin Rollins story,” he said.  “It’s a story of building a coalition of regular citizens who wanted to make a difference.  In fact, citizens of every age can make an impact by staying involved and offering solutions,” Rollins said.  “That’s what I am passionate about: finding ways of innovating government, engaging the community in the process, and – ultimately — empowering the people.”

Sounds a lot like common sense to us.

Bonus Interview with Gavin Rollins:

CSG: Where were you born?

Rollins:  In Penang, Malaysia to missionary parents.  We moved back to Florida when I was very young, and I have lived in Florida since except during military training.

CSG: Was it tough to balance all of your civic involvement and school?

Rollins:  Yes while on the council and running two elections in less than a year, I was also in school at the University of Florida, serving in the Florida Army National Guard and doing ROTC at UF. This schedule was challenging but when the goal is big enough the passion and commitment follow.  I’m fortunate to have a loving family and supportive friends. The team made it possible. I graduated the University of Florida with honors in 2011, was commissioned as an officer in the Army National Guard, and inducted in the University of Florida Hall of Fame.

CSG:  What have you been doing lately?

Rollins:  I worked to help a decorated war hero a man of character with his successful race for Superintendent of Schools in the county I’m from. I then went to work for him fulltime helping to innovate the school system, engage the community and empower teachers and employees. I was again recently called to active duty for training this time as a Military Intelligence officer. I am currently in training until the end of June.  I will return to Florida after training and continue to work for the Clay county School System. I will also remain involved in the community and work for strong leadership for our county’s future.

 CSG: Do you have any advice for young people who want to make a difference in their community?

Rollins: I have had the opportunity to speak on various occasions to young people I share with them three things I have learned.

1. Failure is part of the process.  Don’t fear it learn from it.

2. Build a team; this is absolutely essential to success. You can’t do it alone.

3. Today matters.  Make the most of it, and don’t wait around to make a difference.  If you have good ideas, then you have a seat at the table in the United States.  You don’t have to wait your turn to make a difference.  Do it today.

CSG: So, do you watch the popular NBC sitcom Parks and Rec in which character Leslie Knope had a rather humorous run for city council?  How did that compare to your city council run?  With whom do you most identify on that show?

I have watched the show. Many parts of it certainly remind me of small town politics. I often said after heated council meetings when emotions were intense that our city should do a reality TV show.

CSG: If people would like to connect with you, what is the best way to do so?

Rollins: They can find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/gavin.rollins.3 and on Twitter at @gavinrollins.  Also, I’d love to connect with young conservatives who have a passion to return government to the people.  Our nation is in need of conservatives to step up and get involved. Especially to my fellow young conservatives now is our time lets lead!

About The Author

Mark Meckler

Mark was a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, and served as the national coordinator. He left the organization to work more broadly on expanding the self-governance movement beyond the partisan divide. Mark appears regularly on television in outlets as diverse as MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox News, CNN, Bloomberg, Fox Business and the BBC. He’s highly sought after for the tea party perspective from print and electronic media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Examiner, Politico and the The Hill. Mark blogs at MarkMeckler.com, and his opinion editorials regularly run in many of the leading political newspapers both on and offline. Mark has a BA in English from San Diego State University and graduated with honors from University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law in 1988. He practiced real estate and business law for almost a decade. For the last eleven years of his legal career he specialized in Internet advertising law. When not fighting for the future of our nation, Mark is an avid horseman, and lives in rural northern California with his wife Patty and two children.

No Responses

  1. Tim Mauro-Vetter

    HOORAY!! Keep up the great work. You are a leader among the younger generation by your excellent example.

    Reply
  2. Lester D. Gabriel

    I no longer qualify as a “young conservative”, but I would love to mentor someone who might build a remarkable story like yours. Perhaps you might have some tips on how we might identify and encourage them.

    Reply
    • Mike Ruthenberg

      Thank you for your interest! There are many college campuses that have conservative groups that often develop these young conservative minds. You may attend some meetings or events as well as invite some of the leaders of those organizations to present at your local tea party or other conservative event.

      Hope this helps.

      Mike

      Reply
  3. Mrs. Dorothy Robbins

    For help on campuses you might contact Morton Blackwell of “Leadership Institute” (LI) at http://www.leadershipinstitute.org
    I highly recommend this organization. What they are doing to train young college age people for service to our country is astounding.

    I would be pleased if you get help and cooperation from LI.

    I would also be pleased to hear from you. My prayers to our great Creator are for you.

    Reply
  4. Mrs. Dorothy Robbins

    One more thing: the AmericanChristianHistory.com website was designed to educate folks like me who learned the hard way about how government is run and about those who devised our form of government-our Founding Fathers.

    Reply

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