Freshman Florida Congressman Honed Political Skills at Rutgers

Freshman Florida Congressman Honed Political Skills at Rutgers

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto first Puerto Rican from Florida elected to House of Representatives

Darren Soto
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, the first Puerto Rican elected from Florida.
Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Rep. Darren Soto

“It’s all about building relationships. “It’s something I learned early on at Rutgers and I still follow to this day.”
 – U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla.

The retail-style politics of knocking on doors, talking to constituents and shaking more hands than your opponent is something U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., learned two decades ago when he was an undergraduate honors student at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

“It’s all about building relationships,” said Soto, 39, the first Puerto Rican elected to the House of Representatives from Florida who was sworn into his first term in January after spending a decade in the Florida House of Representatives and state Senate. “It’s something I learned early on at Rutgers and I still follow to this day.”

This philosophy, Soto said, began during his second semester at Rutgers as an undergraduate honors student living at Brett Hall. Soto, whose father and brother also graduated from Rutgers, hadn’t yet become involved in any student organizations and decided that rushing a fraternity would enable him to meet new people and make lifelong friends.

This was one of the best decisions of his life, said Soto who became a member of Alpha Chi Rho and spent the next three years at Rutgers developing the social skills that he insists are critical for public office.

“It is a fight to get a seat at the table, where there is a lot of money and a lot of famous last names,” said Soto, who grew up in Ringwood in Passaic County. “So you have to get out there, shake hands and talk to a lot more people than the next guy.”

Soto’s go-getter attitude has served him well.  Graduating from Rutgers in 2000 with a degree in economics and a minor in history, he worked for a year before going to law school at George Washington University. After graduating in 2004, Soto moved to central Florida, opened a law practice and was elected to the Florida House of Representatives three years later. The state senate came next. He served from 2012-2016 before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 9th District.

Although Soto does not consider himself to be a rabble-rouser, it is clear where he stands on the issues. In January, less than three weeks after being sworn into office, Soto joined dozens of seasoned legislative colleagues and boycotted President Donald Trump’s inauguration after Trump, he said, insulted veteran Georgia Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, one of his mentors.

Rutgers graduate Darren Soto
Congressman Darren Soto with his mother when he graduated from Rutgers-New Brunswick in 2000.
Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Rep. Darren Soto
Since then Soto has stood with family members at the Orlando International Airport in protest against the restrictions suspending refugees from seven (now six) countries.

He has also met with local school officials to make sure that students aren’t asked about their immigration status and is working against the new immigration policy that, Soto said, not only pulls families apart but also causes problems for the state’s tourism and agriculture industries.

“I don’t’ commit acts of rebellion like this lightly but sometimes you have to be principled,” Soto said about his decision not to attend the presidential inauguration. “There is a fierce opposition and energy throughout the nation about not moving back on equality, minority and civil rights issues.”

Believing that all politics is local, Soto has made it his goal to support legislation that protects the lakes and springs and keep the beaches and oceans pristine in his district, which includes part of Orlando and cities like Kissimmee and St. Cloud, all major tourist destinations.

He recently unveiled a bill that would expand programs for mosquito-borne and vector-borne disease, surveillance and control and extend CDC grants to pay for research and treatment in areas facing health-related crises, like last year’s Zika virus.

Last month, Soto introduced his first bill in Congress – the American Science Principal and Interest Reduction and Employment (ASPIRE) Act – that would reduce student loan debt for students who obtain degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines by 25 percent.

“These jobs are the future of our economy,” said Soto, one of only three freshman congressman selected by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to be part of the House of Representatives Steering and Policy Committee. “I worry that young people being saddled with student loan debt will hurt that future.”

Soto is hoping to be able to work not only with Democrats but also with Republicans on this and other legislation that will help create jobs, protect the environment, provide health care and champion women’s, immigrants and civil rights.

“These issues are near and dear to me,” said Soto. “I am putting one foot in front of the other and looking at what I have to get done now.”

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