Participating in politics is, in essence, an exercise in dealing with people. The goal is to establish a method of governing or providing management services. But in the end it all comes down to developing and utilizing your ability to talk to, listen to, and work with a staggeringly diverse group of people.
Like most businessmen, I was involved in politics of a sort long before I held political office. I always suspected I would have a connection with politics after I left office, too. What I hadn’t anticipated was that my time in elective office would be so short. Productive, yes. Controversial, sometimes. Newsworthy, often. But it never occurred to me that my professional life and my political life would collide in a way that state law does not allow for.
As most General Aviation News readers are aware, I am a flight instructor, a ground instructor, and an aircraft mechanic. And while I have earned a paycheck doing all those things, I spend the vast majority of my time as a writer and aviation advocate.
Four years ago some friends at my local airport asked me if I would consider running for a seat on the city commission of Winter Haven, Florida. Our airport, which I firmly believe to be the finest general aviation airport in the world, was badly mismanaged. Our city was doing well financially, but the public was neither welcome in the decision making processes, or consulted on issues that would have long-reaching effects on residents and business owners. So after talking with my wife, and making sure my children weren’t opposed to the idea, I ran. I ran hard in a contest that put me up against a two-term incumbent mayor. I talked to people I’d never talked to before. I met with individuals, couples, small groups, and larger mobs. And when election day came I won handily, with more than 60% of the vote.
I quickly became known as the airport commissioner, not because I worked on aviation issues to the exclusion of all else, but because I spoke openly and honestly about the value of aviation to our community. I pushed hard to bring the economic benefits of aviation to the forefront, and leave my personal interest in aviation out of the discussion. By taking that approach I was able to get my fellow commissioners to start looking at the airport, and aviation in a new way. We were able to found the Polk Aviation Alliance in my home county, a group that is essentially an industry specific economic development tool. It’s working too. Aviation in Polk County and Winter Haven is healthier, more vibrant, and realizing greater potential than it has at any time in the last two decades.
I’m proud of the results all that work got us. And I’m fully aware that I didn’t do it alone. Oh no. There are plenty of others who did their share of the heavy lifting, including Lites Leenhouts at SUN ’n FUN, Kim Long at Fantasy of Flight, and the municipal airport managers in Polk, Gene Conrad, Cindy Barrow, Teresa Allen, Betty Hill, and Debbie Murphy. We all found a way to work together collaboratively, effectively, and with a keen eye on the long term goal of making aviation a bigger and more vibrant spoke in the big economic wheel that makes up our corner of the world.
Recently, the owner of a flight school based outside my county asked to speak to me. I accepted, since he was in the process of opening a base of operation at my local airport to provide flight training to students enrolled in Polk State College’s new pilot science program. That program kicks off with the new semester in January. The discussion went in a direction I never anticipated. He asked if I would be interested in managing the new base of operation and growing it as a business. That’s the kind of golden opportunity an aviation advocate like me never expects to hear. How often does a completely new college program come along? And what is the likelihood a successful school would expand into a new base and be in need of a manager to oversee the operation?
This is the chain of events that led to me accepting the position of V.P. of Operations for SunState Aviation Flight School in Winter Haven, Florida.
The hitch came the day before I accepted the position, when Winter Haven’s city attorney alerted me that accepting this position might put me in conflict with state law. It seems that since SunState has a lease with the city to occupy office space at the airport, that constitutes a business relationship. State law specifically forbids an office holder from working for a company that has a business relationship with the city he or she serves. And that became my bitter pill. To accept the flight school position, I would be required to resign from my seat as a city commissioner.
I accepted the position. I resigned my seat. And by the next morning I was once again politicking. But now my efforts really are almost exclusively focused on aviation, education, economic development, increased employment, expanded tourism, and marketing opportunities. I’m talking about general aviation, of course. We know GA is about far more than just the airport, the aircraft, and the pilots. Thanks to politics, I’ve gotten to share that news with a lot of people who had no idea. And I’m going to keep right on doing it, whether I’m an office holder or not.
I hope you’ll do the same.
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He serves as V.P. of Operations at SunState Aviation Flight School in Winter Haven, Florida. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com