When Daniel Burgess wants to apply what he learned in his politics class at USF, he doesn’t have to wait long, in fact sometimes just hours.
In between his studies, his part-time job and the hours he devotes to USF’s Air Force ROTC, the sophomore somehow finds time to squeeze in a little practical politics to reinforce his American Political Traditions class — as a city councilor for Zephyrhills.
In April, at the tender age of l8, Burgess was elected to Seat 5 of Zephyrhills’ city council, becoming the city’s youngest-ever councilor. Not surprisingly, the presence of a fresh-faced teenager in the city chambers has triggered doubts, comments and one or two double takes. For Burgess himself, daily life has become full of contrasts.
“It’s kind of like one minute you feel like a complete adult, the next minute you go to school and you realize I’m relatively young.” Burgess said. “I feel I can interact in both realms and still be myself. I’ve found that balance.”
Despite that balance, the disparity between his civic role and his life as a student can still astound him.
“The (city’s) budget is over $30 million and all I have is a checkbook,” Burgess said. “I’m not talking too much about budgets at the moment, I’m taking it all in, which is, I feel, the right way to go.”
Burgess, who has since turned 19, said his decision to run for office is part of his long-term ambition to enter politics, a goal that he will put on hold while he serves a three-and-a-half-year commission with the Air Force after he graduates.
Having made the decision to run for office, Burgess’ first task was to convince his parents that he could handle the extra workload. Once he had done that, he found them willing supporters.
“You teach your children from when they’re small that they can do anything if they set their mind to it,” said Burgess’ mother, Beverly. “We knew he was really into politics. As he got older, he got more and more involved. When the city council race came he said, ‘How will I really know if this is what I want to do unless I get involved?'”
A Republican, Burgess said he received advice and support from the local Republican Party during his April campaign. With donations and fundraisers, he ended up raising $2,000, of which he spent every penny down to 12 cents.
While Burgess may be young and inexperienced, he proved that he could handle himself in a heated campaign. Burgess tapped into the electorate’s unease over the city council controversially overturning its own decision to rename Sixth Avenue after Martin Luther King Jr. in 2004. Burgess’ opponent in the race, incumbent Celia Graham, had voted in favor of the name change on several occasions. Graham could not be reached for comment.
The council’s about-face came after residents of the avenue said renaming the road would devalue property prices. The 2004 council elections included two candidates who said they would reverse the name change. One of the two, Gina King, was elected. The issue divided the community, with proponents of the name change saying that residents’ opposition to the change was evidence of racist attitudes.
Letters to local newspapers criticized Burgess for bringing the issue into the 2005 election. Supporters of his opponents also questioned the appropriateness of Burgess making budget decisions when he does not pay property taxes.
Burgess said that he was only criticizing the council’s handling of the issue.
“One lady went so far as to call my family racist,” Burgess said. “I have been criticized in many ways.”
At the election on April 12, Burgess polled 382 votes to Graham’s 251. Only 8 percent of the electorate cast a vote.
“Nobody in a million years thought if I won it would be by that much,” Burgess said. “I thought it was going to be a very close race. It took me a whole day to get off my cloud.”
Having won the election, Burgess had to earn the respect of his fellow councilors and the city’s mayor, Cliff McDuffie, who expressed concern over Burgess’ lack of experience when he first saw his new councilor. Although there are still some who doubt his ability, Burgess said he is slowly winning over people.
“Some people are still sketchy about my age,” he said. “I’m showing them when there is stuff I don’t know, I’ll ask people. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job.”
Zephyrhills’ youngest councilor attends council meetings every second and fourth Monday. Burgess said he receives up to 90 pages of meeting documents the previous Thursday. He is paid $400 per month by the city.
Beverly Burgess shrugs off comments that her son lacks the experience required for local government.
“The city council is made of five of them; he can’t pass anything himself,” she said. “He told me one night after a meeting, ‘I sit and I listen a lot.’ I give him a lot of credit. A lot of kids just spout off and think they’re right.”