“At first, when I heard the Sandra Bland story, I wasn’t sure if I believed it,” Pam Keith tells New Times. Palm Beach County's 46-year-old Democratic Senate candidate, who lives in Juno Beach, knows how scary it can be to be pulled over by a police officer. She’s a woman of color and remembers getting pulled over on the island town of Palm Beach for driving a little over the speed limit.
"I was going eight or nine miles an hour over the speed limit," Keith recalls. "I didn't feel like I was being targeted. But officers have to know that people will have an attitude — rich people too. It's not just limited to poor people and minorities."
Rather than bottle these ideas and thoughts, Keith took an unconventional route for a political candidate. She took to her webcam and spoke. In a three-part series, she voiced her opinions on Sandra Bland, police discretion, and some controversial solutions. Patrick Murphy might be Florida's Democratic frontrunner gunning for Marco Rubio's seat, having raised more than $1.3 million, but that hasn’t dissuaded Keith. "I've only been a political candidate for a little less than a year. Before that, I was living [a normal civilian] life, and I respond to it the way everyone else would," she says.
In the first video that went live last week, Keith explained her take on the Sandra Bland story. She noted early on that she wouldn't comment on the medical examiner's determination that Bland committed suicide but would discuss the motivations behind Bland's incarceration and how they fit into a larger flaw within our society. Keith explained that while she was pleasant and compliant with the officer during her own traffic stop (sound advice from her mom, she says), she could've questioned the officer's authority just like Bland did. "Any encounter with an officer is scary to me, makes me nervous," Keith says in the video. "This particular officer escalated the situation... Why was he taking her down in the first place?"
She adds, "I have a lot of problems with this. And I have problems in the context of other circumstances happening in the year that have raise the same issue." Keith points to Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. "In my view, physical liberty is the most important constitutional right and should only be infringed upon if someone is a menace to society... There's no straightforward argument that [Garner, Gray, or Bland] were a menace to society."
Two days later, Keith uploaded a second video in which she talks about the problem within police departments across the country. Keith understands an officer's right to search and seizure, but she questions the officer's discretion in choosing who to stop and search. She agrees that driving while intoxicated or if someone is mentally unstable is reason enough to be pulled over. But she's dubious about an officer's right to force a woman out of her car for a lane-change violation. "That's the part of the jurisprudence that needs to be revisited," Keith says in the video. "It basically gives [officers] unfettered discretion to determine who to pull out of the car and why."
And the problem with giving police officers unfettered discretion? "The natural human biases come into play," Keith says. "Nobody's perfect — and that's including police officers. They are subject to biases and prejudices whether they're aware of it or not."
The daughter of a U.S. diplomat, Keith grew up around the world, from Turkey to Morocco to Syria. But when she moved back to the United States, hers was the only African-American family in her neighborhood. She would go on to study communications before earning a law degree at Boston College. Then, she went into the Navy. Afterward, she worked at big firms across the country on labor law. Four years ago, she moved to Juno Beach to work as in-house counsel for Florida Power and Light.
Then last year, she was watching Marco Rubio's infamous response to Obama's presidential address. "He looked ridiculous," she remembers. "It was one of the worst speeches I had ever seen. I thought, 'Why is that guy a U.S. senator? He's not an advocate for people.'"
The idea of running for U.S. Senate seeped into her thoughts. Her palms got sweaty with nerves, an experience she can liken only to the moment she decided she was going to become a lawyer after watching the Rodney King trials. She left her job at FP&L last year to dedicate more time to the campaign. Recent polls have suggested she'd take 8 percent of the vote, she says.
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"The fact that this woman is a decorated veteran, an accomplished attorney for labor, and is also on the board of directors for a nonprofit organization that helps homeless and at-risk veterans, to me, outweighs the fact that she doesn’t come from, nor has access to, a vast amount of Republican money," the feminist blog Women on the Move declared in support of Keith. "To put it quite simply, she is one of us."
As her website — pamkeithforsenate2016.com — indicates, Keith is progressive. And she's raising eyebrows for her innovative ways to lift people out of poverty and empower the middle class. She proposes programs to train Florida's unemployed instead of handing out benefits.
It's still too early to tell who's likely to win an election that is more than a year away, but most media outlets snub Keith as a Senate candidate. She polls well below Patrick Murphy. But according to Politico, there's still no clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination after Murphy lost a few points to Rep. Alan Grayson.
This week, Keith plans to release her third video on Sandra Bland and solutions on how to better monitor police biases. "I know this is extremely controversial," she says. "The police will lose their minds. It's not that it has to be Pam's way, but this needs to be addressed even if people don't agree or like me."