A Life Of Taking Risks Led To Public Office

| Ally Cummings

We were so lucky to have Commissioner Reina Saco join us in September for a conversation all around jumping into the unknown that is a public office. Her ability to take risks has been the constant on her journey through life, ultimately leading her to become Commissioner of Gainseville, FL. An immigrant from Santiago de Cuba who spent time in a refugee camp upon her arrival to the United States, Commissioner Saco is showing women how to overcome barriers to run for office and that we all have something to bring to the table. We just need to take the risk of pulling up a chair. We just need to take the risk of pulling up a chair.

Tell us about your professional and personal background. 

I was born in Santiago de Cuba and my family left in 1994. After several months in a refugee camp, we were paroled into the US and settled in Miami. I attended law school and I graduated with an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. I focused the bulk of my legal work on housing and family law issues in low income and immigrant communities.

When did you realize you wanted to run for City Commissioner? What about the position appealed to you? 

I was asked to consider running at lunch with another commissioner. She surprised me completely and then spelled out all of the reasons I should. I’d been so incredibly frustrated by how slowly things were happening and having to ask others to do it, that the mere suggestion was enough to make it a desire. I’d never really thought of it, but the suggestion was like a lightbulb going off.

What are three key skills you would say are important to have if someone wants to run for a City Commissioner position in their town? Would you say there’s a specific background or education needed to run for this position? 

Thick skin, trust in experts and staff, and conviction. Conviction is important because you’re going to decide on a multitude of issues and have to live with those decisions. There is no required background or education for office, but I definitely think that someone should be plugged in or involved with a board or some local group before running.

Describe a typical day for you. What kind of meetings do you have? What projects are you working on?

A typical day begins the night before with checking my calendar. Some days don’t start until 1 PM, but they can start at 9 PM, too. My mornings begin with at least one update message from my executive assistant. This is usually about a meeting changing or some time-sensitive mail/packet arriving at my office. From there I review the materials for the day’s meeting. It can be a one-on-one meeting with staff to review current issues or a full meeting as a commission. 

These full regular meetings begin at 1 PM and can go until 1 or 2 AM. They are usually over by 10 or 11 PM if we’re lucky. We review everything from planning board recommendations for major construction and zoning issues to police practices to environmental concerns. We can also have joint meetings with the County Commission or other major commissions/boards. Realistically, half of the job is being present for the meetings, and it’s up to me to make it more than sitting. I spend non-meeting time with constituents or local groups, going on “field trips” to our various departments or properties like our utility company, or researching new topics I’m interested in seeing the city pursue.

How often do you speak with constituents?

I speak with at least one constituent every week. Covid has made things a little different, but I’ve had zoom meetings and phone calls with constituents since we can’t meet in person.

 

How do you balance the demands of your role with other important aspects of your life, i.e. family, personal interests, etc? 

I try to set a hard limit on time and days of work. My position is technically a part-time job that pays for 20 hours of work. Although I end up working more than those 20, I try to not work after 7 PM and avoid working on the weekend unless it’s an emergency.

What’s the best part about being a City Commissioner?

I can finally get the answers. Requesting information or answers as a private citizen didn’t always yield quick or complete answers, but now I can get those answers and pass them on to the community when they are needed.

On the flip side, what’s your least favorite part?

People are mean and I have limited power. I have to tolerate a lot of vitriol in public comment and I have to accept that my position is limited and there are things that my office can’t fix.

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your time as City Commissioner?

As of today, I’ve only been in office for 126 days, but I’ve already achieved one of my campaign promises. I was able to help pass a comprehensive overhaul of rental property rights and safety/energy efficiency requirements to better living standards in the city. This was the culmination of work I started as a private citizen and was able to vote for it. The overhaul also included allowing the construction of single-room occupancy buildings, accessory dwellings units, and removing exclusionary housing practices.

What fictional character from a TV show, movie, or book do you think would make a great City Commissioner?

Rey from the newest Star Wars trilogy. She was conscious of when she needed training or instruction from institutional memory, but she was also able to say when something needed to change.

What advice would you give a woman who’s considering running for office, but is unsure if it’s right for her?

Find a mentor in government or campaigning. I had a few frank conversations with women who had been city commissioners before and during my campaign. They gave me an honest insight into the campaign work and on the work/life balance issues once I won, and they were more than willing to spend time preparing another woman. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

 

Check out our recent Road To Run virtual event that showcased Commissioner Reina Saco and highlights how taking a risk can lead you to become a leader in your own community.