In the 10 years since graduating from USF, Omar Khan has worked on campaigns for a number big name politicians, including Bob Buckhorn, Joe Biden and Barack Obama.
Now, as newly appointed campaign manager for Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, Khan is relying on many of the lessons he learned in his time at USF as the former governor hopes he will help him back to a second term in Tallahassee.
“I love him,” Crist said to reporters through his spokesperson. “He loves Florida. He’s coming home to help us put the people back in charge.”
Khan was given the nod in late December after Bill Hyers, former campaign manager for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, chose to stay in New York. Khan was visiting his family in Florida when Crist invited him to his home in St. Petersburg.
“I wanted to be helpful…I was talking about other possible candidates and stuff and he surprised me by pretty much asking me to do it,” Khan said.
After working with the Environmental Protection Agency as Director of Public Engagement for only a few short months, Khan packed his bags and returned to Florida.
Khan was almost immediately met with a familiar scene in the first week on the campaign, accompanying Crist on his visit to USF in support of Jean Cocco’s bid for Student Government (SG) president.
More than the scenery however, Khan was all too familiar with the energy, excitement and urgency that surrounded the campus-wide election.
In 2003, Khan successfully ran for the SG presidency, achieving what he called “an underdog victory” by a margin of only two votes. Having never served in Student Government or a part of Greek life, Khan and his running mate Ryan Morris shouldn’t have even made it to the runoff elections, they remember.
“It wasn’t just that we didn’t really think we were going to win, it was that most people didn’t think we were going to win,” Morris said. “In the initial vote, our ticket received 49 percent of the votes and I think that really surprised a lot of people including us.”
Khan and Morris first met in the fall semester of 2000 when they shared a suite in Epsilon Hall.
Morris appreciated Khan’s way with people and his ability to inspire those around him, telling Khan “If you do it, so will I.”
When Khan confided to Morris in 2003 that he was contemplating running for SG President, Morris told Khan, “If you run, I’ll be your Vice President.”
The Khan/Morris ticket attempted to tackle some of the biggest issues at the time while focusing their campaigning primarily on inclusion.
They spoke out against block tuition and a possible end to the Bright Futures Scholarship, and when the Iraq War began only a few weeks in to the race, they spoke out against new government programs that targeted students from the Middle East.
On top of their lack of political expertise, neither Khan nor Morris had ever spoken in front of a large number of people.
During the first week of the event, Khan and Morris said they fumbled over their words at events and found it difficult to stay on message.
It wasn’t until a large event was held in the Marshall Student Center during the second week of campaigning that Khan was able to find his footing as a public speaker.
Speaking to a crowd of over 200 students, Morris said Khan was finally able to clearly communicate his ideas and connect with the crowd in a way he previously couldn’t.
“(Khan) got up and floored everyone,” Morris said. “The things he was able to say from that point on were just as passionate as he was about the issues. He able to communicate things in a way he couldn’t before … Since then he’s been very much a campaigner.”
During his time as student body president, Khan found a mentor in then-Tampa City Councilman Bob Buckhorn.
Buckhorn said he invited Khan to work with him during his unsuccessful campaign for Tampa Mayor in 2003 and he and Khan continue to remain in touch to this day.
“I saw in (Khan) a lot of what I saw in myself at that age, which was someone who cared deeply about public service and had a passion for politics,” Buckhorn said. “…I’ve appreciated his willingness to sort of let me give him advice when asked and try and avoid any potholes that I certainly stepped in when I was a young man.”
Khan said his time spent working within SG and discussing the issues that had a formative influence on his career.
“USF was where I really saw the ability, even in small positions, to make change and advocate for things you believe in,” Khan said. “When you’re trying to be inclusive and reach out to new groups, you come out with great ideas and fresh ideas and a lot of passion.”
Khan took that passion with him when he graduated from USF in 2004.
Fresh out of college, Khan began working for the Florida Democratic Party and was selected to oversee Charlie Justice’s bid for the state Senate in 2006.
Justice was competing against Republican candidate Kim Berfield for the 16th District Seat in Pinellas County.
At the time, the 16th District swung almost seven points toward Republicans. Justice said he was also worried that his opponent was spending dramatically more money than he could raise.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Berfield had Justice outspent nearly five to one in the 2006 race, but Justice won with 51.2 percent of the vote.
“We were really fighting every day to get the resources, get people to support us by knocking on doors, get enough money to be on TV,” Justice said. “When you’re in a contested district and the other side has so much money, people had a hard time believing we had won.”
Justice said the race was a big deal for the Florida Democratic Party and allowed him to go to the Senate as well as allowed for many of his campaign staffers to assume larger roles in national campaigns.
For Khan, it was the first campaign that he said really opened his eyes to what could be accomplished through political campaigning.
“That race really shaped me professionally in how I pursue my work, but also why I do it,” Khan said. “(Justice) was your citizen legislator, one that people don’t think exist … I remember thinking on election day, ‘Man, if I can keep on electing good people like that to office this is great’…That race really taught me to be very picky about who you decide to work for and what it means.”
Following the Justice campaign, Khan entered on to the national stage, working on Joe Biden’s brief presidential campaign and then the Barack Obama for America campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
In the 2012 campaign, Khan worked in Chicago alongside Mitch Stewart, the Battleground States Director for the Obama for America 2012 campaign.
Khan was tasked with helping the campaign to build better relationships with different constituencies and furthering the campaign’s grassroots efforts.
“Working on the Obama campaign, especially in 2008, but also in 2012, there was really a grassroots element to it that was new and had a lot of energy around it,” Khan said. “It reminded me of SG stuff. I thought ‘Wow, this is kind of like an SG race.'”
It was during his time working for the Obama campaign when Khan first met Crist.
Stewart said Khan had a way of sticking out from the other staffers, which undoubtedly drew the attention of Crist.
“One of the things Omar really did was distinguish himself in an office full of people who were working incredibly hard,” Stewart said. “He’s really easy to like and people generally tend to follow people who are hard working and easy to like, so I expect the Crist campaign will be a lot of fun and have a lot of energy based off Omar’s leadership.”
When Khan was initially approached by Crist to run his campaign, he told Crist he didn’t believe his work with campaigning over the last 10 years was enough qualification for the job.
The people Khan worked with along the way, however, said Khan has a natural talent for connecting with others and finding a common ground.
Morris said he believes Khan’s ability to communicate is why he’s been so successful in his career thus far and one of the reasons he believes Crist decided to appoint Khan to manage his campaign.
“Even back then (during the SG presidential race) it was pretty clear that Omar (Khan) had a raw skill for fostering communication between people that most people did not,” he said. “Even back then people could see that in him and I think that’s how Omar has garnered and continues to garner such respect in the political campaigning world.”