Building a Children’s ‘Movement’: Florida’s Savvy Children’s Campaign

Heather Szerlag
July 1, 1996

Jack Levine borrows a page from professional politicians to advance the Florida Children's Campaign. He targets the same high-frequency voter precincts for literature distribution, canvassing and volunteer campaigns.

“Those running for elected office know precisely where the frequent voters are," he said. "If we're in there ahead of them with key information about kids and how to save them, they're impressed when their own constituents say this rather than us — especially when they're talking to political contributors."

The campaign also registers voters at clinics, schools and child care centers and looks to politicize PTAs and church groups around children's issues.

Levine is director of the Tallahassee-based Florida Center for Children and Youth and has been the main agent behind the Florida Children's Campaign. Begun in 1988, the campaign is a grassroots effort to put children's issues first among the state electorate's priorities. Eve Brooks, director of the National Association of Child Advocates, says it is one of the best children's coalitions in the country.

Mark Reilly, Southeast regional director for the Child Welfare League of America, noted that political organizing is time-intensive, "tough work that no one wants to do, that too few people do." Levine and the campaign, he said, are masters at rallying constituents at the county level.

Along with its organizing, the campaign Jack Levine has also built up an impressive partnership with the Florida media. Together with the Tampa Tribune, the Campaign has been sponsoring candidate forums, focus groups and town meetings, as well as an extensive, statewide poll which found education and children's issues rank first and second, respectively, among the concerns of Florida voters.

Observing that the campaign could never have afforded a statewide poll on its own. Levine called the media "our greatest megaphone," and cited a need for reporters and editorialists to put politicians on the record concerning children's issues.

The polls and focus groups also have helped the Campaign target its own message to the community. Working with an array of providers concerned about everything from neonatal care to juvenile justice, the campaign used the poll results to assemble a twelve-plank Children's Compact which it is encouraging politicians to use in their platforms.

The third component of the campaign's strategy has been reaching out to segments of society not usually associated with children's issues. Much of that work is being informed by the campaign's board members who Levine said "are helping connect with an audience we hadn't reached until this year." This year's campaign leadership committee is chaired by Barbara Sheen Todd, former president of the National Association of Counties and a key link to what Levine considers a swing vote – Republican women. The campaign's vice-chair, Phil Lewis, is a former Florida state senator with ties to business and corporate communities.

Despite all their best efforts, Levine is reluctant to specify events that he considers campaign successes. Instead he noted, "there's been an increased level of debate and discourse on key issues. We're helping to provide the substance of the debate and solutions, rather than slogans.... Accountability is not just about who gets elected but also who defines the issues."

He did, however, point to the 1994 come-from-behind, reelection victory of Governor Lawson Chiles (D), who ran on a pro-children, prevention-based agenda, as a sign that children's issues have come to the fore in state politics. Though out-spent three to one, Chiles beat Republican George Bush, son of the former President George Bush.

"The message got out there and the candidate even did well with seniors, and he didn't talk senior issues, he talked kids," Levine said.

Szerlag, Heather. "Building a Children’s ‘Movement’: Florida’s Savvy Children’s Campaign."Youth Today, July/August 1996, p. 27.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.