At just 29 years old, newly elected Republican State Senator Alexis Calatayud is one of the youngest people to ever serve in Florida’s legislature, though she’s no rookie. She’s already got more political, policy and advocacy experience on her resume than many Florida lawmakers twice her age. All four of Calatayud’s grandparents came to Florida after the Castro revolution – both of her grandfathers managed to survive the ill-fated Bay of Pigs operation to try and liberate Cuba. Her colorful family history includes frequent conversations about the importance of freedom and how to preserve it for others.
After graduating from her small high school in Miami with a 2012 senior class of just 30 students, Calatayud got elected not once, but twice, as president of the 55,000-strong student body at Florida International University, with the 4th largest enrollment in the nation.
She hasn’t stopped since. Whether it was advocating to protect the Bright Futures scholarship program for thousands of FIU freshman who couldn’t afford to finish school without it, or later working long days and late nights at the Florida Department of Education to help retool and reopen the state’s K-12 education system in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Calatayud keeps finding herself in the center of the action. And that’s exactly where she says she belongs, finding opportunities to exhibit servant leadership.
“I truly believe that service is the true extension of love,” Calatayud told The Capitolist in an exclusive interview on Friday. “It’s really about finding gaps and filling them. Do that, and you eventually find a place that has immense need.”
Now, she finds herself elected to represent Florida’s 38th Senate District in Miami-Dade County after a competitive race that saw her opponent outspend her by over a hundred thousand dollars. Calatayud said throughout the race that while her opponent campaigned on controversial social issues, she stayed focused on the “kitchen table issues” that were important to the broadest swath of South Florida voters: the economy, housing affordability, food prices, and anything else that could be perceived as having an impact on the cost of living in Miami.
She wasn’t supposed to win.
Her opponent, Democrat Janelle Perez, raised over a million dollars, as Democrats invested heavily in what was thought would be one of their few bright spots in Florida this cycle: a district with +8 Democrat advantage. But Calatayud ended up winning by 9 points. For that, she credits the policy groundwork laid by Governor Ron DeSantis, as well as investments of time and money made by a number of people and groups who supported her campaign.
“I personally knocked on over 9,000 doors in the last six months,” she says. “But my campaign knocked on over a hundred thousand. I also had lots of help from allies who invested heavily in me through mail, television, radio and text messages to help get the message out. We ran a full court press for six straight months. We didn’t take a day off, and I’m so grateful for the outcome.”
Now, Calatayud finds herself one of 40 senators in the midst of a GOP supermajority. Though she’s one of many, she says her “servant leader” approach will lead her to where the opportunities are.
“If you do the jobs other people don’t want to do, you will eventually be elevated to where you are needed the most,” Calatayud explains. “That has been my experience.”
She credits her experience at FIU as “life changing,” saying the school is a “special place with a special student population.” But it wasn’t long before she learned that a quarter of the incoming freshman class was set to lose their Bright Futures scholarships, and Calatayud was appalled.
“Fifty percent of my fellow students were the first in their family to go to college,” she says, “Losing that scholarship would obviously dramatically impact their ability to ever reach graduation. But who was talking about it? Crickets. So I started working in student government to do something about it.”
She says she didn’t initially have a game plan, or experience in how to tackle the problem. So she just ended up “following the dots.” Her goal was to prevent the problem from having a negative generational impact on her colleagues and their families.
“Higher education is the magical ladder of upward mobility that is the American dream,” she says. “Through that experience, I fell in love with advocacy for higher education.”
Her freshman experience led to her to campaign to lead FIU’s 55,000 strong student body. Her sophomore year, she won the job, making her the leading student voice on and off campus. She traveled to represent students everywhere she went, from Miami to Tallahassee to Washington D.C., working with lawmakers and advocating for her classmates. Her junior year, she was re-elected. She later worked in Washington D.C. to organize and advocate for students from 500 campuses across the nation. She attended policy conferences, worked on a wide range of higher education issues, and coordinated with student government leaders.
But, she explains, “It wasn’t leading to outcomes. So I came home, and I asked, how can I help people run for office and make a real impact?”
That question, and prayer, led her to State Representative Vance Alupis, whom she credits as a mentor. “He was exactly the type of person that I wanted to help elevate to higher office,” she says.
She served as campaign manager, helping him win a narrow victory in 2018, and helping him cruise to an easy 15-point win in 2020. Over that span, she served as his legislative assistant, which ultimately led to her recruitment to join the Florida Department of Education.
In the wake of the pandemic shutdown, only months after Florida schools reopened, Calatayud found herself working 18 hour days there, helping Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran execute an unprecedented game plan to reboot Florida’s K-12 schools amidst lingering questions about the impact of the shutdown on students. Calatayud credits Corcoran with keeping her focused on the opportunity to reset and remake Florida education
“Commissioner Corcoran saw an opening to use the pandemic pause as a way to reset education in the state, to address the differences in achievement scores, to help students who are low income, who are second language learners, who struggled through the pandemic, to create more opportunities for them, to elevate them,” she says, thinking back. “There was this immense urgency of using this moment to recalibrate the success of our schools and meet these students where they needed to be met.”
She points out that Florida K-12 system was one of the largest in the country, and as much as she was tempted to focus on helping every individual kid, she recognized that the pandemic shutdown created an opportunity during the 2020-2021 school year that was very pointedly about the education system as a whole, and every day mattered.
“What we were working towards was really about the kids and their futures and about generational upward mobility,” she says. “It was the honor of my life to serve at that time. Education has become my wheelhouse.”
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