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College senior Nicolas Garcia launched his bid for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives last week

Credit: Julio Sosa , Julio Sosa

For College senior Nicolas Garcia, post-graduation plans may involve swapping Locust Walk for the corridors of the Florida State Capitol.

The Florida native launched his bid for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives on Oct. 14. Garcia, a political science major, is running as a Democrat in central Florida’s 41st District, which includes his hometown of Haines City.

Although within driving distance of both Orlando and Tampa, large parts of the area remain rural. The district took a large hit during the 2008 recession, and communities like Haines City are still struggling economically.

“It’s a strong community that has a lot of pride and that wants to make sure that their kids and their families have a better life than they did,” Garcia said of his hometown.

Garcia’s interest in politics began in high school, where he participated in the American Legion Boys State, a nationally-regarded program that introduces students to politics through activities such as legislative sessions, court proceedings, law enforcement presentations and trips to state government agencies.

After coming to Penn, Garcia joined the Fox Leadership Program’s Penn Leads the Vote project and the Latin@ Coalition, whose executive board he now chairs. In fall 2013, he spent a semester as a U.S. Department of Education intern through the Penn in Washington program. This past summer, he returned to D.C. as a White House intern. These experiences helped him figure out how he could turn his interest in politics into a career.

“I always knew I was going to go into politics at some point, but not necessarily how I wanted to get into it,” he said.

Education is at the heart of Garcia’s campaign. He believes that education is the key to getting his district’s youth — many of whom come from low-income backgrounds — on the path to opportunity, success and economic productivity. Garcia personally feels an urgent need for reform since his younger sisters are still in Florida public schools.

“I want to make sure that students have the support and the networks to get out of high school, to go to college, do well and then come back and give to the community,” he said.

Garcia’s campaign is driven by a strong belief in giving back, especially to hardworking, historically underrepresented constituencies like his own. He credits Penn with instilling in him a sense of civic duty and an obligation to remain involved in the community.

“It’s important that when I come back, people can see the representative and talk to them,” he said, adding that even if he had not decided to run for office, he still would have gone back home after graduation.

Although less than a week has passed since Garcia launched his campaign, supporters have rallied to his cause. Garcia estimates that 15 to 20 people at Penn alone have already helped him out. Back in Florida, his campaign has organized over thirty volunteers who are based at local schools, along with another twenty located throughout the district, according to his estimates.

Meanwhile, his campaign Facebook page already has 316 likes as of Sunday night, while a Twitter page and website went up shortly after he announced his candidacy.

“I keep saying that this is something we’re in together, that I can’t do this alone,” he said of his volunteers.

Despite this quick mobilization, however, the upcoming campaign will not be easy. Garcia’s district is one of the most competitive in Florida. The last election cycle, the district voted 51.5 percent Republican and 48.5 percent Democratic, according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan site that collects statistics on American elections.

This cycle, Garcia is running against another Democrat and three Republicans.

Campaign finance will pose another obstacle, as many in Garcia’s hometown cannot easily afford political contributions.

“It’s hard to go out and ask them, ‘Can you give me $10’ when that $10 is going to feed their kids for the next week,” he said.

Nevertheless, his supporters have great faith in him. Garcia himself was surprised by the large number of people, both at Penn and in Florida, who have already reached out to him expressing their support.

“I’ve gotten tons of Facebook messages saying ‘how can I help you?’” he said.

His Penn acquaintances, in particular, have been quick to back him, with many citing his campus leadership experience and ability to carefully listen to other people as strong qualities.

“He’s got his opinion — strong opinions — but he also takes the time to listen and hear other people out,” 2015 Penn graduate Joshua Chilcote said.

Chilcote first met Garcia during a trip to Israel organized by the Anti-Defamation League. During this trip, Garcia navigated multiple heated student discussions about a number of controversial issues, including Israeli fortifications and settlements in the West Bank.

“He was able to listen to everyone else’s opinions, kind of synthesizing things, while also explaining his own,” Chilcote said.

Chilcote believes that governments need more people like Garcia in office, who listen to other perspectives and demonstrate as strong a commitment to service as Garcia has.

After all, the end goal, as Garcia notes, is not about helping himself.

“I’m not going for money,” he said. “I’m going to help people.”

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