As 20 Democratic presidential candidates took the stage over two nights in Miami, one of Watertown’s own was in attendance.
Jeff Branch moved to Watertown from east St. Louis in second grade and graduated from Watertown High School in 2001. His mother and siblings still live here. And it was in Watertown that he began his journey in politics that brought him to Miami on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
“It takes a village, and Watertown was the basis of that village,” Mr. Branch said. “I am where I am today because of Watertown.”
Mr. Branch is now a legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities, and he has years of experience working in almost every aspect of Democratic politics in Florida. His first campaign, though, was in the north country.
“I always knew I wanted to get into politics,” Mr. Branch said.
He began running for student office, winning a spot as the student council representative in seventh grade. Later he ran for, and won, student body president.
“I got re-elected every year until I graduated,” he said.
After high school, Mr. Branch went to Bethune–Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he built a relationship with the university president and met a number of politicians who came the campus. When he left, he began working as a legal analyst at the state Democratic Caucus, taking time off when the legislature was not in session to work on campaigns.
“I started moving around, running campaigns or working on campaigns,” he said.
Mr. Branch does not campaign anymore — he has moved into a more stable role lobbying on behalf of the 412 cities in Florida on issues from affordable housing to emergency planning.
“Campaigns at 36 years old is way different from campaigns at 22 years old,” he said.
But Mr. Branch is still deeply tied to Florida Democratic politics, and manages to get to most of the major events — like the two presidential debates.
“Obviously I have friends that work on all sides, on every Democratic campaign,” he said. “It was great to be in Miami to witness those debates.”
Mr. Branch doesn’t have a candidate he is supporting yet, but offered some observations.
“Even though the second night was more fiery, I actually enjoyed the first night more,” he said, seeing how some of the second tier candidates would stand out from the crowd.
He was pleasantly surprised by former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, and admired South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg’s honesty.
After a recent police shooting of a black man in South Bend, Mr. Buttigieg was asked during the debate why the South Bend Police Department is 6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black; Mr. Buttigieg replied, “Because I couldn’t get it done.”
“He owned it — no one expects anyone running for president to be perfect,” Mr. Branch said. “We do expect them to be honest.”
On the other hand, Mr. Branch thought former Vice President Joseph Biden came across as “a little weak,” especially when asked about his past opposition to integrating schools through busing.
“You have to have a better answer,” Mr. Branch said. “He continues to sort of dance around the issue.”
Besides seeing the candidates live, there’s another advantage to being at the debate — Mr. Branch got to see his friends who are still living the campaign life.
“Because I’m no longer working in campaign world, it was great to see my friends,” he said.
Mr. Branch is unlikely to be at the next debate in person, as it will be outside Florida. These two debates, though, were special.
“It was just great to be there, to experience — it was historic, regardless of which side of the political spectrum you’re on,” he said.