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One on One: Pat Neal
Florida builder contemplates another run for state office, says others in housing industry should do the same.
|Pat Neal says we need more builders in the halls of government.
Bradenton, Fla.-based builder and developer Pat Neal, 51, was first elected to the Florida Legislature, as a Democrat, in 1974. He moved to the Florida Senate in 1978, and became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1984. But in 1986, Neal was caught on the wrong side of the Reagan revolution, just as population growth and shifting demographics pushed Southwest Florida strongly into the Republican camp. He lost his seat.
Neal switched to the Republican Party four days later, but never again ran for office. Instead, he concentrated on building Neal Communities into one of Southwest Florida’s most successful golf community developers and home building firms. However, Neal remains very active in the Republican Party and local community political affairs.
Now, he is considering another run for the Florida Legislature, and holds strong views that builders across the country should be more politically active.
PROFESSIONAL BUILDER: When will you announce whether or not you will again run for the Florida Senate?
Pat Neal: If I run, it will be in 2002. I won’t announce before the end of 2001. If I were to announce before that, I’d have to do a lot of campaign filing and reporting. It’s too early to make a decision yet, but I am strongly considering it because we are approaching a most critical period in Florida.
What makes these times so crucial?
Builders need to get involved politically because the people are so much more involved than ever before. And all across the Sun Belt, where there’s been so much economic growth over the past two decades, people are now thinking about slamming the door on future growth and development. They just don’t like sitting in traffic jams on the Interstates. They’re looking for scapegoats, and builders and developers are targets.
And all of this is happening just as we enter the most important era of my building career.
Why do you say that?
There’s an impending population bomb about to drop on Florida. The first baby boomers were born in 1946 and are now 54 years old. That’s the prime age for people to start looking for homes in Florida that will eventually be retirement destinations. The baby boom is about to descend on Florida en masse, and we are not ready for them. Instead, we have governments tilting toward telling all those people to go elsewhere. But that won’t work! They will come anyway.
The older voters moving to Florida really change the politics too, don’t they?
Yes. These residents are not inclined to vote for tax levies aimed at providing funding for new schools and roads. When they face traffic jams and other unpleasantness, their instincts will be even more toward stopping the growth. The drawbridge mentality kicks in. “I’ve got my home in the sun. Everybody else can go somewhere else!”
Builders and developers are seen as bad guys by a lot of people today. How can a builder shake that image and be elected to public office today?
You’re right, of course, about builders having a black hat image. I just came from a meeting with a political consultant who conducted a poll on the subject. One of the questions was, “Would you be more likely to vote for or against a political candidate who lists ‘real estate developer’ as his occupation? The results were: 11% more likely, 55% less, 34% undecided. Obviously, our industry is perceived in a bad light.
But I believe we’ve really allowed that to happen by being uninvolved in the political arena. We, as builders, rarely focus on our public perception. We shy away from public processes when others are deeply involved. That’s got to change or we’re not going to be able to earn a living.
Does being a ‘green’ builder, getting on the positive side of these issues, help you as a candidate?
We do it. We build green, we recycle materials, we do xeriscaping. But I think there’s little or no knowledge among the public of all the things we do.
Even more important, they don’t understand that growth is another word for prosperity. We’re creating a lot of employment at the same time we’re meeting the demand for better lifestyles and more technologically sophisticated homes.
Home builders just meet society’s demand for a basic human need. What makes us the bad guys?
We’re an easy target. It’s easy to think that if no houses are built, there will be no increase in traffic, no increase in demand for public services, and therefore no need to raise taxes. The consumer media thrive on reporting conflict and they are all over these battles over growth issues. And government officials, who are usually focused on survival, have to give attention to local special interest groups, especially those that represent major voting blocks.
Is that why you are contemplating running for office again?
Not entirely. My interest in politics is based on the fact that we give so much power to government in our society that it’s difficult to get anything accomplished without being engaged in the political process. Today, so much of the power over what gets built, and where, resides within government that if you want to change things, you almost have to get into the government to do it.
What do you propose other builders across the country should do?
Get involved. Not necessarily run for office, although I think that’s a good idea. When I go to Republican committee meetings, there’s not one other home builder there.
You could run for office in the last third of your career. I think it’s a great topping-off experience. People bring their life’s experiences to government service, and right now, too few of the people in elective office have ever run a business of any kind. Mark Neumann was a shining example for all of us when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and ran for the U.S. Senate. That’s a much higher level than most of us will ever reach. But keep in mind, local and state governments are where the rubber meets the road on land-use issues.
But can any builder actually get elected?
Builders are generalists with terrific powers of persuasion. The trouble is, too many are discouraged by all the conflict associated with running for office. You do need to be a battler. But with the demographics of the electorate still dominated by the baby boom generation, I think experienced, successful builders in their early 50s would have enormous appeal.
What would be the biggest benefit if more builders ran for office?
We’d see their life experiences reflected in the policies adopted by the political parties, and by the governments we elect. Right now, we’ve got all the lawyers, activists, and educators we need. We can moan about our bad image and the bad press our industry gets, or we can take our case directly to the people. Mark Neumann set a good example.