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Remembering Phil Royal

Happy Tuesday to you. This is the third Tuesday of the month so no county commission meeting as they go on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. It’s Chronicle change over day! Thank you to those who shared their thoughts on Facebook, although I do have some comments on them in about 10 minutes, and please do continue to share as we all now have the new print in hand.

I didn’t take a look at it until after my three mile run with the Key Training Center, today’s route took us to Crystal River, the Racetrack on 19, up to the sign at Crackers and back. For those familiar with that area, then you will know it passes by Lollygaggers. When I first moved out to the county, just over seven years ago, I lived off Kings Bay Drive right there and Lollygaggers was the first local place I ever went to use their WiFi while mine was being set up. This was before I had met my now-wife so needless to say I went back, and then back again. Quick diversion, yesterday’s afternoon run with the Key took us passed Withlachoochee Technical College, and if you’ve been listening to these shows for the last couple of weeks, then you know I had to wrestle with an ever-changing personal identity involving WTC. But I ran passed it with a smile.

The smile was even bigger this morning going passed Lollygaggers because I can say with only a little bit of a shame that another part of my personal identity used to be that of a fairly heavy drinker. A regular good time Charlie. And so I give a lot of credit to Mike Wright who is completely transparent in his sobriety with his audience, and while I’ll still drink two or three times a year for bachelor parties and other special events, drinking two or three times used to only take, well, two or three days but that’s long gone now. Running past the place where much of that took place at 6 am was extra satisfying and a nice reminder that you can change who you think you are and that’s okay. I’ll be there for lunch Friday, it doesn’t mean you have to give up the things or places you enjoy, but just in a new way.

It also helps explain why I, again with a little embarrassment, showed up to this morning’s run wearing a #teamroyal shirt. How could I do this? Phil Royal and Mike Prendergast ran against each other and I was, and still am, a diehard Mike Prendergast supporter. To wear that shirt is disingenuous, is blasphemous, is not who I am, it’s not my perceived identity, is, is, is….is in recognition that today commemorates the seven years since his tragic passing. I was shocked that neither Just Wright Citrus nor the Chronicle had any mention of it. Just Wright Citrus even touched on three topics, a gas station in Homosassa, Inverness Villages IV, and the tourism director situation. The Chronicle’s news section didn’t have anything nor did the commentary. Today’s editorial was about better safety for swimmers during Manatee season which doesn’t start until November and the end of the commentary section looked to have a news article about moving docks in Inverness. I’m not pointing these out tongue in cheek to degrade either publication. Mike is advocating for the residents of Homosassa and Inverness Villages IV and while I roll my eyes a little at him calling himself a policy wonk, he’s doing a good job. The Chronicle’s new print edition looks great, and congratulations to them, I mean, it’s news print so it’s still what seafood restaurants use to line their baskets so let’s temper expectations, but it does look great. I do think someone should be talking about Phil Royal today on this 7 year memorial. Maybe I’m the exact wrong person to do it. Or maybe my past, my identity, makes me the perfect one.

Let’s start at the beginning. I moved to Citrus on May 10, 2016 to run Mike Prendergast’s first sheriff’s campaign. Despite being a Florida native, I had to look up Citrus on the map and didn’t know a soul besides Mike and his wife Naomi when moving, but had worked for Mike on and off since 2010 and was completely devoted to his leadership, still am. The campaign had launched about a month prior on April 4th. We were the last ones in a four-way closed primary that was being dominated by a former Citrus County Sheriff’s Office captain named Phil Royal.

I never got to know Phil well, but he was never standoffish with me at events, even throughout late June and early July when what felt like it would be a slam dunk win for him was narrowing thanks to the hard charging efforts of Mike Prendergast who knocked more doors than dollars most people keep in a bank account. Phil was 48 years old I believe, maybe 47, and his new wife April had been pregnant when we met and they welcomed the birth of their daughter during the campaign. I celebrated it at the time, not for bringing new life into the world, but rather because I thought it would distract him even further from the campaign that was slowly slipping away from him.

At this point, you might be wondering: who do I think would have won? I was getting accurate polling data back then and I can say I do think Phil would have won, but it would certainly been by single digits, in comparison Prendergast has won all of his elections by at least 20 points, and it’s hard to predict exactly what would have happened since Mike was closing in at such a rapid pace. But we’ll never know because on July 18, 2016, I was prepping for meeting with the Builders Association, now the Building Alliance, when I got a phone call from Mike.

“Phil Royal died,” he said without even saying hi. There wasn’t a hint of joy in Mike’s voice. It was as stoic as a soldier reporting the news, someone who has himself been used to dealing with hard truths. “shut it down,” he concluded without question, “no campaigning until I say otherwise. Call the builders and tell him.” And that’s what we did. We shut down operations for a week. I went to Tampa for most of it and sat in a hotel room overlooking the University of Tampa, my undergraduate alma mater where I hoped to teach one day – I’ve been there since 2018 now – and I just reflected on how things could change in an instant – aided heavily by the bottle I mentioned was my close friend in the intro.

The month that followed was a blur. Members of the Royal camp, with the exception of the Chronicle, lined up behind Mike. I put the Chronicle in the pro-Royal, anti-Mike camp because the paper ran six consecutive front page stories about Phil’s death, something I’ve never seen anything come close to since, and which also surprises me about it’s lack of mention today. During the general election forum they sponsored in 2016, they also listed Prendergast, who had retired from a 31-year military career and served 5 years with the state as “unemployed” and his challenger who had done a shorter career with the Crystal River police dept and CCSO as “retired.” That’s the sort of stuff that has always driven me insane.

But since that initial rally behind Mike, former Royal supporters and the Sheriff have split. The Sheriff has professionalized the agency in a way I think the former Royal supporters feel compromise the sense of community central to Phil’s campaign. The election results overwhelmingly for Prendergast in 2020 demonstrate to me that these former supporters perception of what the Citrus community is to them isn’t the reality of what all residents in Citrus are but I do see their point nonetheless. So as these divisions have deepened, I should choose sides, and you already know which side I’m on, right?

That’s called common enemy identity politics. It gets back to social identity theory I discussed with Henri Tajfel who concluded the best way to strengthen your in-group is to have a well-defined out-group. So pick a side and stay there. There is another option though. There’s another approach besides common enemy and that’s the common humanity identity politics. Common humanity says we can be part of many different circles, the Royals and the Sheriff supporters and we don’t need to compromise our beliefs in the name of unity, I will never stop being a Sheriff Mike Prendergast supporter to fit in. But at the end of the day, through common humanity identity politics, we can draw a larger circle around the competing ones and never lose sight of it. I can wear #teamroyal commemorative shirts because it represents a shared vision of what was best for Citrus, the larger circle, and I believe in that mission even if I disagree with others on who gets us there. That’s common humanity politics. That’s my goal of how to view the world.

And even knowing all this, even having the terms and great familiarity with it, I fail at it. Yesterday I shared the Chronicle’s post asking for comment, and I knew they were going to get blasted which they did by a couple of commentators, and yet knowing that was what I would be inciting I shared it anyway. The commentators have every right to express their voice but I knowingly used the Concurrent as an outlet to perpetuate common enemy, come to our page to talk bad about the other guys, rather than the common good and that was unfair and uncalled for, especially given this lesson today.

I have a lot more to say on this topic but this is going long so let me start wrapping it up by saying this. Why now? Why get involved with the Key run like Phil did and start having these discussions about wearing his clothes now? Seven years is an odd number, maybe I should have done it in 2018 when my wife and I got married because we probably wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for Phil’s passing, so why now? Because we have a little girl, who at nine months is actually older than Phil’s daughter was when he passed. His mantra was do something and it meant to make this place we all love better – not really for us – but for her. For them. Not our enemy, but maybe, just maybe, for the underlying common humanity that still exists. Rest in peace, Phil, thank you for still inspiring us down here.


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