On the outside, it’s your typical three-bedroom home in an older, working-class Titusville neighborhood.
Inside, one of those bedrooms has been converted into a Presidential-type office complete with an antique desk, large American and Florida flags standing in the corners and framed photos and letters from Gov. Charlie Crist and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hanging on the walls.
This is where 21-year-old Tyler Winik is building his political future.
It’s where he dispatches press releases, issues political endorsements and awards a $250 public service scholarship every year from the “Office of A. T. Karberg Winik.”
“I have to pull myself back and realize that I’m a 21-year-old student who goes to UCF,” Winik said. “But at the same time, I’m doing things that most 21-year-old students who go to UCF aren’t doing.”
The Brevard Community College alumnus commutes to Orlando twice a week for political science classes at the University of Central Florida.
His “free” time is spent meeting with lawmakers and county leaders, drumming up support for bills before the Florida Legislature and participating in conference calls with the governor’s staff on issues like education funding.
ON A MISSION
Sept. 17, 2006. That was the day Winik felt compelled to get involved.
It was a Sunday. Two of his Astronaut High classmates, Chelsea Beck, a senior, and Morgan Gordon, a junior, spent Saturday night at a party where alcohol was served.
According to police, the girls were driving home early Sunday morning when their vehicle, traveling 70 mph on a 45 mph curve, veered off the road, flipped several times and landed upside down in a water-filled ditch.
Empty beer cans were found at the crash scene. Both girls died.
Winik, a senior at the time, wasn’t super close to either girl, but he knew both and was struck by the senselessness of the tragedy.
He stopped going to parties where students were drinking. He was shocked when about a month after the crash some of his classmates reverted back to their partying ways.
Winik started a letter-writing campaign to local politicians advocating stricter penalties for those who give or sell alcohol to minors. While his political contacts grew, the 17-year-old’s social group shrank.
“I wasn’t invited to parties anymore,” said Winik, a Democrat. “People left me alone to do my thing.”
Cheryl Shivel, a math teacher at Astronaut High, noticed the shift in how others treated Winik.
“They couldn’t understand what the big deal was,” Shivel said. “They weren’t mean to him, they just didn’t include him in their circle of friends. And that was OK because he was on a mission.”
NO TYPICAL TEEN
Winik knows he doesn’t come across as a typical 21-year-old. Not many college students would choose to go to a political fundraiser for a fellow Democrat over a keg party.
Or wear a lapel pin featuring the Florida and American flags. He calls himself a political adviser and even has his own motto, “Getting involved for Florida’s future.”
Rather than update his social networking site with photos from alcohol-filled weekend parties, Winik posts snapshots of himself with political bigwigs from Vice President Joe Biden to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
He’s worked on campaigns for fellow Democrats across Florida and was selected as a delegate for the party’s state convention in Oct., 2009. Winik also applied to fill an open seat on the UCF Board of Trustees.
“Some think as a 21-year-old, I work too hard or I push too much,” he said. “Ninety percent of the time, things go wonderfully and 10 percent of the time people see the 21-year-old instead of just Tyler.”
Justine Winik said her only child, born Andrew Tyler Karberg Winik, didn’t get the political bug from his parents. What Winik does get from them is support.
He estimates his operation, from custom stationary to trips to Tallahassee several times a year to maintaining his professional-looking Web site, can cost as much $25,000.
A part-time job at the county clerk’s office and “generous” parents pay for it.
“The trips to Tallahassee and all the office supplies, all of that is just our investment in his future,” said Justine Winik.
IN HIS FREE TIME
When he’s not making calls to the governor’s office or researching the latest underage drinking statistics, Tyler enjoys watching the TV show “Glee,” shopping and spending time with family and friends.
His core group of friends is mostly older, but 33-year-old Wayne Kyle said Winik fits in just fine.
“He doesn’t come across as a normal 21-year-old,” Kyle said. “He’s very mature, which I think has to do with his political aspirations, but he can also laugh and joke about stupid things one minute and have a serious conversation the next.”
Winik doesn’t force his political views on the group, Kyle said.
He makes it his goal to reach out to others, regardless of their views, and he hopes people lend him the same courtesy.
It’s a challenge, especially because he is gay. It’s not the first thing he shares with his political colleagues, but neither does he hide it.
“Does it potentially present a problem — yes,” Winik said. “I’m Tyler Winik, regardless of my sexual orientation. If I had a girlfriend instead of a boyfriend I would be doing the exact same things.”
WORKING ON BILLS
The work started to become real in March 2007 when the alcohol-related bills Winik worked on were introduced to House and Senate committees in Tallahassee.
“It was a surreal moment for me,” Winik said. “I wasn’t quite sure how the legislative process was going to work or where it was going to take me, but I was extremely excited and nervous about the new venture.”
One bill, sponsored by then-Republican State Sen. Bill Posey, made it through the committees. It passed in the Senate, but died on the House floor in April 2008.
“Just because it’s not going through doesn’t mean it’s not important,” Winik said. “Look at other pieces of legislation that took up to a decade to get through, including the seatbelt law.”
Last year, Winik approached Republican lawmaker Thad Altman and asked whether he would help. And now, for the second year in a row, Altman, R-Viera, is sponsoring two bills in the Senate that Tyler worked on.
“For so many young people, it’s hard enough to get them out to vote.” Altman said. “He’s unique.”
NO RUSH TO RUN
Winik said he’s often asked the question: “So when are you going to run?”
He doesn’t have a definite answer. There’s time.
“I would not mind running for public office and that whole bit, but it takes time to build contacts and that’s what I’m doing,” Winik said. “Right now, in the immediate, it’s about making a difference in Brevard County.”
Next year, Winik expects to graduate with his bachelor’s, and then he may attend law school or work for a consulting firm.
On a table behind Winik’s desk is a black-and-white photo of two girls in a playful, carefree pose. It’s Chelsea Beck and Morgan Gordon, the two classmates he lost in high school.
“It’s a reminder to me that the work I’m doing has a personal face,” Winik said.