Nate Douglas shuffled into his family’s kitchen one morning in 2008 to greet his mother and father.
The then-8-year-old said he found them standing still at the counter. The three didn’t talk but instead communicated through stares. He followed the invisible line from their forlorn gaze to a stack of unopened envelopes in front of them.
The tower of paper grew every day, taunting the family of five supported by the salaries of a teacher and a landscaper. The memories of the Great Recession still motivate the now 19-year-old Douglas. They even pushed him to run — and win — elected office.
Douglas, an Orlando native and UF economics junior, became Orange County’s Soil and Water Conservation District 1 supervisor-elect on Nov. 3, defeating two opponents — both of whom are more than a decade his senior. Douglas won 49% of the vote after leading a campaign focused on sustainability and climate change.
He’s the youngest person in Orange County history to hold the position and the youngest elected official in Florida. Douglas will serve a four-year-term as a nonpartisan supervisor, replacing lawyer and incumbent Michael Barber, who wasn’t seeking reelection.
Douglas was leaning on the same kitchen table 12 years after the 2008 financial crisis. He watched the Orange County election results roll in on his laptop while CNN’s presidential election coverage played in the background.
When he saw the results coming in on the local news, he said he laughed.
“I saw 49%, and I thought there was a mistake,” he said. “So I was just pacing around and waiting for them to update the website — and that never happened.”
Social media was the backbone of Douglas’ campaign, he said. When he decided to run, he only had $1,700 for the election — just enough for signs and T-shirts.
His desire to mitigate the fast-growing threat of climate change came before his interest in politics, he added. He’s involved in the Sunrise Movement, an initiative that aims to slow down climate change while creating green jobs.
He said he realized that there was a place for progressives in politics the day Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former waitress from New York, won a seat in the House of Representatives. With her nomination, Douglas saw that a normal person could become a politician.
His first step to push for a greener Orange County will be to better communicate with city and county commissioners, Douglas said. He also wants to improve community education efforts and update the office’s social media.
He added that he wishes to create resolutions and coalitions with environmental activism and community groups, such as Sierra Club, a grassroots climate action organization that endorsed him on Oct. 20.
Seminole County’s board, which has been touted as superior to Orange County’s in the past, has focused on forming relationships with community organizations, local schools and researchers for its conservation efforts.
Douglas credits his election to his experience in debate at Apopka High School. It also connected him to his mentor, Cathy Brown.
Brown, a 56-year-old English teacher, said she was impressed by Douglas from the moment she met him his freshman year of high school. She always believed he would achieve a spot as an elected official, but she said she didn’t imagine his moment would come so soon.
“He is very open minded, and he embraces everyone he meets,” Brown said. “He is willing to listen, no matter what.”
When Douglas won, he texted her a screenshot of the results, and Brown shared the picture with her peers in the debate community. His success helped her set an example for her current students of young people using their voices.
Despite criticism over his age, Douglas said he believes he has vital insight that other politicians tend to ignore.
“People who are around my age understand that climate change is something that is going to be impacting us the most,” he said.
Tim Veigle, a 41-year-old realtor, ran against Douglas — fighting for a dream he has had since he was a University of Central Florida marketing student. He currently serves as the President of the Casselberry Chamber of Commerce, but he wanted to use the skills he learned in the position to revamp Orange County.
Veigle said he ran because the soil and water conservation board is in dire need of leadership, with Orange County citizens even nicknaming it the “do-nothing board.”
While he’s not concerned about Douglas’ ability to handle the job, he has some reservations about his lack of experience.
“This is a tough position to run for because there really aren’t any rules,” he said. “No one really knows what the soil and water conservation supervisor is.”
When he first heard he was running against a UF student, Veigle said he thought little about Douglas. Instead, he put his main focus on his other rival, Bobby Agagnina. Agagnina, a high school teacher, was a candidate in the 2018 Seminole County School Board race.
According to his website, Agagnina considered himself a fighter for “progressive causes.”
While most politicians don’t have to worry about balancing meetings with midterms, Douglas said he’s up for the challenge.
“That's definitely going to be tough,” he said. “I'm still a college student — I am no stranger to procrastinating in college.”
Douglas said he wants people to realize he’s a normal, relatable 19-year-old college student who stresses about economics exams, texts his friends and stays up until the sun creeps to the edge of the horizon.
He added that he wants young people to realize that politicians don’t have to be the richest or the smartest person in the room — they just have to be willing to speak up for their communities.
“Be bold,” he said. “You're going to feel like it's either too much on your plate or you're too young, but at this age, this is the time to have so much on your plate. So go for it.”