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University Beat

Recent USF Grads Aim For Elected Office

Recent USF graduates Victor Sims (left) and Frank Cirillo are both running for political office this year.
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Recent USF graduates Victor Sims (left) and Frank Cirillo are both running for political office this year.

This year, while a lot of college students are getting ready to vote in their first presidential election, two recent University of South Florida graduates are running for office.

The first, Victor Sims, 20, graduated from USF St. Petersburg with a bachelor’s degree in psychology this past May. He’s running as a Democrat in the House of Representatives District 39 race, which covers parts of Polk and Osceola Counties.

For Sims, the first challenge was finding out if he could even run, as he doesn’t turn 21 until four days before Election Day in November.

“I went back and forth and basically kept calling the elections office and the Attorney General’s Office every single day, trying to just qualify and be able to say, ‘Hey, I can actually run!’” he said.

We first introduced you to Sims earlier this year when he traveled to New Hampshire with a political science class called “Road to the White House,” where he and his classmates worked on presidential campaigns ahead of the nations's first primary of this election.

"One of the cool things about that trip was seeing the amount of people that believed in the candidate," Sims, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said. "To see so many people wake up and they’re in the office before I’m there and I’m getting there eight o’clock, nine o’clock in the morning, and they’re already making calls or they’re getting ready to send people out to go knock on doors – it shows that people do believe in the same things that I believe in, that education matters...”

While acknowledging that he is young, Sims points to his life experience: he was a high school honors student, a manager at McDonald’s at age 16 and an officer in USF St. Pete student government.

And he tells people who say that that’s not enough experience that he also was in eight foster homes by the time he was 11.

“And they look at me like, ‘Okay, what does that mean?’" Sims said. "And I tell them, ‘How many people do you know who’ve lived with a Caucasian family and an Hispanic family and an African-American family? Or lived with Catholic people and Presbyterian people and Muslim people?’ I was like, ‘You don’t find that many people that can say they’ve done that, so I think I’ve got a pretty well-rounded perspective.'"

"It just opens their eyes and they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re right!’" Sims added with a laugh. "Most candidates only have one culture that they’ve been raised in.”

Experienced or not, Sims faces a daunting challenge. While he doesn’t have a primary challenger, his opponent in November is Republican incumbent, long-time Polk County politician Neil Combee, who’s served the last two years as deputy majority whip.

Sims said he gets constant reminders of Combee’s stature in the area, even when he attended a meeting with local Democratic party officials.

“It was in the Neil Combee Administrative Building and I’m running against the guy!" Sims said, laughing at the memory. "I was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to be kidding me, the Democrats are having a meeting in a building named after the guy I’m running against! They’ve got to be crazy!’”

The other candidate, Frank Cirillo, 21, graduated from USF's main Tampa campus in May with a bachelor’s in political science and economics. He’s also running as a Democrat, targeting the Florida Senate District 23 race, a newly re-drawn district that covers all of Sarasota County and part of Charlotte County.

He first has to face off against another political newcomer, New College Professor Frank Alcock III, in August’s Democratic primary. Cirillo has a small advantage: he’s been campaigning since March, while Alcock joined the race in mid-May.

“I was able to rally the real grassroots support and get my name out there at first, but it has been quite difficult – you can’t really look forward that far," Cirillo said. "Right now, we’re focused on August because if we don’t get past August, there is no November.”

If he does make it to November, his opponent would be one of five Republicans running: State Rep. Greg Stuebe, former State Rep. Doug Holder, former Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, Rick Levine or Ray Pilon.

While Cirillo doesn’t have the kind of experience his potential opponents have, he was involved in student government, has worked on two political campaigns and interned in State Senator Tom Lee’s office – all things that he says made him like politics more.

"A lot of people say, ‘You might have a passion for politics, but until you get in it and you see how the process really works, you might not be able to stomach it,'" Cirillo said. “It really fascinated me and so I knew that I wanted to push for the issues that I cared about and I wanted to be that young person, that young voice in the sea of Republicans -- to be quite frank, because I’m a Democrat -- that kind of pushed the status quo.”

Cirillo is trying to hit as much of his district as possible:  he estimates he’s attending at least 15 community events a week. And while he’s hearing people’s discontent with politics as usual, he thinks his optimistic view could serve him well.

"(People) see the in-fighting and the rhetoric that goes on, they get really turned off and I'm kind of saying, ‘I’m a young person, I love this, I’m passionate about it’ and I’m doing this for the right reasons, not because I’m seeking the power, [and] there’s really no money involved in this," Cirillo said. "I’m doing it because I believe in the issues that I stand for, I think they’re important issues that we need to focus on and solve in the state of Florida.”

Cirillo's campaign issues include gun control, particularly the right to carry guns on college campuses. Victor Sims is focusing hard on education, gun control and jobs.

Both men are confident they'll win, but added if they lose, they'll likely run for office again because of a mutual desire to want to make a difference for others – and if that’s the youthful optimism of underdog candidates talking, they say, so be it.

“Politics shouldn’t be about the money and it shouldn’t be about whether or not you can sway this many people or what your district looks like, it should be standing for principles,” Cirillo said.

“There are people that share this vision, there are people that are suffering," Sims said. "And if nobody gets involved, we’re just going to keep complaining about these problems – and I never was a complainer.”

Editor's Note: Copy and University Beat radio report updated to indicate Frank Cirillo graduated from USF's Tampa campus and not USF Sarasota-Manatee.