Parkland’s congressman walked away from the spotlight.
Ted Deutch was standing on stage with Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, had been killed three weeks earlier in the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. An audience of a thousand people — children, parents and gun control activists — at T.C. Williams High School in liberal Northern Virginia were itching to hear from Deutch, who sparred with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during a televised town hall debate a few weeks earlier.
As Guttenberg began to speak, Deutch inched away from the light illuminating the middle of the auditorium stage, giving Guttenberg the ability to make eye contact with the dozens of students and parents and drive the conversation about how best to prevent another school mass shooting.
Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat who lives a few miles away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is playing the role of consoler and facilitator as thousands of his constituents prepare to travel to Washington for the March For Our Lives on Saturday. He’s met with the families of victims and survivors dozens of times, and he’s also devising a political game plan that turns upset parents and students across the country into single-issue voters capable of changing elections.
“We have student activists who have inspired a lot of adults, who because of them are now single-issue voters, Republicans and Democrats,” Deutch said. “We’ve seen some big-name Republicans come together to form groups to say if you aren’t committed to keeping our communities safe by getting weapons of war off of our streets, then we’re not going to support you. My colleagues now have been doing events in their districts, town hall meetings, where they tell me that for the first time there are high school kids who are coming out and they’re coming out in droves.”
Deutch’s message on guns, which doesn’t stray far from the liberal orthodoxy of banning assault weapons, limiting magazine capacity and implementing universal background checks, was well received among the attendees in Northern Virginia hearing him for the first time.
“Clearly, his constituents want him out here,” said Mary Monroe, a 38-year-old teacher from Alexandria who hadn’t heard of Deutch before his speech. “I was very impressed he came to our town hall with [Virginia Democratic Rep.] Don Beyer. To me, that just shows how much he cares.”
Deutch is also close with the Parkland students who are planning the March For Our Lives in Washington. He brought them to meet high school students in Maryland two weeks after the shooting, and sat down with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School politics club in January, less than a month before the shooting.
In the middle of Deutch’s picture from January was Emma González, the Parkland student who garnered international attention after she called out pro-gun lawmakers in a speech the weekend after the shooting.
“Congressman, thank you for fighting the good fight,” Parkland student and March For Our Lives organizer Cameron Kasky said recently on Twitter.
Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alaina Joann Petty, was killed at Stomeman Douglas, doesn’t agree with most of Deutch’s positions on guns. But he said Deutch has been helpful to every family dealing with the loss of a loved one.
“He’s clearly had strongly held beliefs and despite those strongly held beliefs he’s been able to still play an advocacy role for the families,” he said.
Petty said Deutch called him directly after Petty publicly asked him to explain why he played along with a CNN segment where the host suggested that Rubio’s newly introduced bill to make daylight savings time permanent meant that the Florida Republican wasn’t focused on trying to prevent gun violence.
“The congressman and I probably don’t agree on a lot but he’s comfortable enough to call me to try to talk through it,” Petty said. “My reaction was not to him, it was frustration with the media trying to split our congressional delegation. I believe they’ve worked very well together the past month. I saw that as an attempt to drive a wedge.”
Petty said Deutch has kept the families updated about the inner workings of Congress, and fast-tracked a bill that provides funds for school safety and coordination between school districts and law enforcement.
“I didn’t know very much about him until this happened,” Petty said. “His office reached out very early to us and I’m sure to the other families, and I thought that was very kind.”
Deutch is a fourth-term congressman who was previously mostly known in Washington for his strong support of Israel. He is the highest ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, where he works closely with Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and co-founded the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus with Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
He’s also a vegan. Deutch has a vegan chicken piccata dish named after him at the National Democratic Club’s restaurant in Washington, and his Florida-inspired veggie burger recipe once finished in third place in a Capitol Hill competition won by potential 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Before coming to Washington, Deutch served in the Florida Senate from 2006 to 2010 after moving to South Florida in 1997.
Because of his proximity to the tragedy and his stance on guns, Deutch will be a national face for gun control advocates.
“I shouldn’t need a mass shooting in my district to give me legitimacy to talk about why we need to prevent more mass shootings, but I guess that’s the sad reality,” a tearful Deutch said in February, hours after the shooting.
Some of his colleagues, like Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, already have that experience. Murphy, a Democrat with young children, has been a national advocate for gun control since 20 young children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“I talk to the parents from Sandy Hook probably every week,” Murphy said. “I’m very much plugged into those families and I would hope that members of Congress who represent those communities who are victims of mass tragedy would create a long-term relationship with these families. I think it will help guide them on what the right policy response is.”
Deutch’s policy positions are clear. In an exchange with Rubio during the CNN town hall event in Broward County, Deutch said he would be in favor of banning any gun that is similar to an AR-15, the one used by killer Nikolas Cruz in Parkland.
“Are you in favor of banning any gun that can do what the AR-15 can do?” Rubio asked.
“I am in favor,” Deutch replied. “The answer to the question is, do I support [banning] weapons that fire off 150 rounds in seven or eight minutes, weapons that are weapons of war that serve no purpose other than killing the maximum number of people they can? You bet I am,” Deutch replied, earning applause from the audience in Florida’s largest Democratic-controlled county.
Rubio later used Deutch’s answer to argue that most Democratic lawmakers who favor a ban on all semi-automatic weapons are out of touch with the majority of voters, though a poll conducted after the shooting shows that a majority of Florida voters support a nationwide ban on assault weapons and additional polling shows that more than half of Americans support a ban on all semi-automatic weapons.
“What’s happened in the past, it happened after Newtown, it happened after Pulse, it happened after Las Vegas … there’s this tremendous focus on gun violence because of the attention a particular event draws to it,” Deutch said. “Then we come back to Washington and there are dozens of issues that we have to deal with, the press has lots of issues they have to cover and the people who capitalize on that more than anyone else in this debate, it’s the gun lobby. Because they know they’ve got gun companies with unlimited resources to help influence politics. … They’ve been successful at staying on it until ultimately this issue fades into just more issues that Congress has to deal with.”
Deutch is intent on not letting that happen this time, and he says his left-leaning district expects results in Washington, whether in the policy or political sphere.
“There’s sometimes confusion about the district that I represented and Ted now represents. Just because it was progressive doesn’t mean that family values weren’t intensely held,” said former Rep. Robert Wexler, who represented Deutch’s district for 13 years before retiring in 2010. “Nothing is viewed as important as a man being a good husband and a good father, but you can still be a progressive Democrat and feel that way. I think Ted fits that description perfectly. He’s someone that exudes family values but in a way that’s warm.”
Deutch has the luxury of spending time campaigning around the country and helping elect other lawmakers who share his views on guns. His district, which includes most of coastal Broward County and Southern Palm Beach County, is solidly Democratic and he does not face a serious challenge in November.
But Deutch also said he has no plans of using his more visible public profile and numerous cable news hits as a springboard for higher office.
“It’s just hard for me to think about letting up in any way,” Deutch said. “When I came back after the shooting … I told our staff at our first staff meeting we can’t continue to just schedule meetings that just come up, we can’t continue to just fill our days the same way that we always have. Things are going to be different because we can’t afford to stop making this a priority, because it will not stop being a priority for the people of Parkland and the people of South Florida, so that’s how I’ve approached it.”