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Byron Donalds: From Crown Heights to Congress

The Florida Congressman and underdog potential VP pick reflects on his life journey in an interview with The American Conservative.

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Photo Credit: byrondonalds.com

“It was never my goal to get into politics,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) told The American Conservative in an interview. “People asked me to run. I didn’t personally want to do it.”

After acquiescing to that first run for Congress at 33 years old in 2012, he lost in the primary. Since then, Donalds’s star has only risen. Now 45, the former Florida legislator is serving his second term in the House of Representatives for Florida’s 19th District and, reportedly, is on former President Donald Trump’s short list for VP.


As POLITICO reported in early June, Trump has started vetting at least eight potential vice presidential picks. Most of the potential running mates Trump had vetted were as expected: Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND), Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Donalds, however, was a surprise addition to the mix—but an enterprising one.

In many respects, Donalds represents the new face of the Republican party. From his upbringing in a rough part of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, to troubles in his early 20s before converting to Christianity, to joining the Tea Party movement around the same time Trump was shifting toward the GOP, Donalds understands realignment because his life encapsulates it. He’s young, black, and has a working-class background—all demographics into which Republicans are making inroads. 

Since coming to Congress in 2020 after winning a crowded primary by flexing his MAGA bona fides and earning Trump’s endorsement, Donalds has repeatedly bucked the establishment as a member of the House Freedom Caucus. At the same time, he has remained well-liked in the fractious GOP conference. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) managed to become speaker of the House in October of last year simply by being the most well-liked, or maybe the least hated, candidate left. The rationale for a Vice President Donalds could very well be the same: a GOP unity pick who is strongly Trump aligned.

But that’s not top priority for Donalds right now. Though he’s taking an increasingly high-profile role in the Trump campaign (last weekend, Donalds was with Trump in Detroit as the former president unveiled his “Black Americans for Trump” get-out-the-vote effort), Donalds is less focused on himself and more focused on the stakes of the 2024 presidential election.

“Everybody wants to talk about ‘the -isms’—socialism, communism, conservatism,” Donalds told TAC. “I think it’s much more about a common-sense approach.”


“What’s at stake in 2024 is a fundamental shift in the country,” Donalds explained. “The country has to decide which way it wants to go: Are we going to go down the line of a much more centralized, authoritarian mode in American government, where the presidency is incredibly empowered, regardless of statute, regardless of the other branches? Or are we going to move towards a more common sense, decentralized form of government?”

Donalds believes most people in the country want the latter.

“In the city, you have to grow up tough,” Donalds told TAC. Donalds grew up in Crown Heights, a relatively poor, multiethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Its crime rates were high—above average by New York City standards—as Donalds grew up. 

Though crime was a constant, sometimes it came in sudden, surging waves. In 1977, the year before Donalds was born, Crown Heights was brutalized during a New York City blackout. As a young teenager in 1991, Donalds saw racial violence ravage his community in the three-day Crown Heights Riot, which pitted the black community against the Hasidic Jewish community.

Drugs also abounded. “That was the middle to the end of the crack epidemic in New York,” Donalds recalled. 

“My mom did everything she could to just keep me out of harm’s way,” Donalds said. Meredith Brown, the single mother to Donalds and his two siblings, kept him focused on school and sports.

Try as one might, Donalds’s mom could not protect him from the harsh realities of ’90s New York. In fifth grade, Donalds was jumped by a gang. The perpetrators stole his Walkman and train pass. “That train pass, that was like gold,” Donalds previously recalled for the News-Press. “You don’t have a choice but to heal. You better. Or you’re just going to fall victim to the next person who comes along. So you have to learn really quickly to let it go, get past it. Because if you don’t, the city will swallow you up.”

“It was difficult,” Donalds told the News-Press. “We were poor. My mom lost her job with the city of New York when I was in middle school, so we struggled.”

Donalds’s experiences as a youth in New York informs his thoughts on the cultural and social decay happening in America today.

“The country is not in good shape,” Donalds said. “The fact that the country is not in good shape and that things are far more polarized in terms of ideology and issue sets, I think gives people more angst than puts them at ease.”

Polarization, whether political, cultural, racial, or religious, has gotten worse because the American regime’s ability to provide for people’s basic needs is crumbling. “If the basic economic issues were in much better shape,” Donalds said, for example, “I think the differences wouldn’t be as potentially toxic.”

Donalds himself fell into wayward habits in his late teens and early twenties. In 1997, a year after graduating high school, Donalds was charged with possession of marijuana. Those charges were dropped, however, when his case took part in a pretrial diversion program. Donalds paid a fine of $150. Three years later, Donalds was arrested and charged with felony theft for allegedly attempting to defraud his bank. In a bizarre tale, Donalds told the Naples Daily News about a decade ago that a female acquaintance offered Donalds $1,000 for his debit card and PIN number. He gave the woman his debit card and PIN and never received the $1,000 payment; but someone went on to use his bank account to bounce $7,000 in bad checks. Donalds pleaded no contest and later was able to get the records sealed and expunged. Those records were leaked when Donalds entered political life.

“These were the actions of a young kid,” Donalds told FOX 4 Now, the Fox affiliate for southwestern Florida, in 2014.

“I can’t undo my mistakes,” Donalds continued. “The only thing I can do is show and become the man that I am today for my family and the community that I love.”

Going to college wasn’t an easy adjustment for Donalds. He left his home of New York City on a one-way Greyhound bus for Florida A&M University. His grade point average was low. Donalds was more focused on finding work to make ends meet.

“I was literally living hand-to-mouth,” Donalds told News-Press. “Me and my friends, we would sell plasma to get money, we would work odd jobs, I’d call home all the time, ‘Hey, Mom, I need money.’”

It was during this time in his life when Donalds was arrested on theft charges: “I was desperate, I was out of money, I didn’t have a job, my rent was overdue,” Donalds said, according to the News-Press. “My pastor always says that everybody in life is 15 seconds away from stupid, but when you’re desperate, you’re three seconds away. And I was desperate.”

“At 20, 21, I was pretty lost, trying to figure out ways to get my life on track, figure out what I was really supposed to be doing with life,” Donalds told TAC.

Donalds’ life started to change when he transferred to Florida State University. By transferring to another Florida state system university, Donalds was allowed to keep the credits, but reset his grade point average. Once enrolled, he joined a business fraternity, where he met his future wife, Erika. 

Erika brought Byron to Christ. “My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, started going back to church and she invited me to go,” Donalds recalled. “You hear the sermons, and you sometimes think the sermons are all about you. And you’re like, ‘Oh, man, this guy talked to my mom or something to find out all the things that were going on with me!’”

Soon thereafter, Donalds devoted his life to Christ. He was 21 years old. “What you realize as a more mature Christian, is that the Word of God is really in a lot of respects the owner’s manual to the soul and the human condition,” Donalds told TAC. “You should be trying to find ways to just really engage in it, listen to it, and figure out a lot of things about your own personal life and personal issues.”

Donalds understands the plight of millions of young, American men who feel listless, alienated, and increasingly angry. His message for them: find God. “God’s Word is something that really has answers for people who are lost, or who are looking,” Donalds said. “Try to find a good church, and really just try to listen.”

Donalds encourages young men today to “constantly be striving, be grinding towards a goal, because that really reveals your own personal strengths, gifts, characteristics, what God has for you.”

“That’s something everybody’s parents tell them when they’re young, and they don’t listen to them,” Donalds said. It was a lesson he learned the hard way.

After graduating college, Byron married Erika and got a job in finance. He was a registered Democrat, but was not overtly political. 

The Great Recession changed that. “I was really frustrated with the economy—big bank bailouts, all that sort of stuff,” Donalds explained.

Then the Tea Party movement came along. The Tea Party’s disdain for big business bailouts orchestrated by big government piqued Donalds’s curiosity: “When you started seeing a group of people who were opposed to that policy, you started to really think about it: ‘Well, if they're opposed to this policy, let me see what they're talking about.’” Around the same time Trump made the switch to the GOP, Donalds did as well.

The Tea Party gave Donalds a crash-course in American politics. “When I started getting into the Tea Party movement, it was much more of a philosophical movement, as opposed to the ideological movement,” Donalds explained. “So a lot of what we talked about was what the Framers’ intent was, the actual purposes of political philosophy, the rule of law, et cetera. And then, of course, the overlay was of Republicans, Democrats, and that kind of stuff.”

Donalds became one of his area’s most prominent Tea Partiers. In 2012, he launched his first bid to represent Florida’s 19th District in Washington. That November, Florida’s 19th would flip from blue to red (and has stayed red ever since), but Donalds wasn’t on the ballot. He placed fifth of six candidates in the GOP primary earlier that year. Two years later, he declined to run for the same seat, which was vacated by former Rep. Trey Radel after the representative was arrested for attempting to buy cocaine from a federal officer.

“Timing is everything in politics and in life, and the timing wasn’t right,” Donalds said of declining to run in 2014.

The next election cycle, Donalds ran for office in Tallahassee, not Washington. Donalds ran up a nearly 30 point advantage over his primary opponent, Joe Davidow, and ran unopposed in the general election to be Florida’s 80th District representative in the state House.

The grassroots energy of the Republican party was shifting from the Tea Party to MAGA, and Donalds was a natural character to rise amidst the shift. MAGA stripped the Tea Party of its libertarian excesses and accentuated its populist features. Politics became less philosophical, more practical.

Nevertheless, while MAGA was a major shift in American politics, Donalds still sees some of its Tea Party roots. “There are still a lot of those people who have a philosophical view of government, and of the rule of law, and of political philosophy. A good chunk of that has declined with a more populist view that is the current MAGA movement,” Donalds said. “A lot of those people are still the same though.”

Fixing the country, Donalds said, “requires a much more active stance,” not just a marketplace of ideas.

Donalds eventually ran again for Florida’s 19th District seat in 2020, where he topped a nine-person GOP primary by 770 votes. Donalds pitched himself as a “Trump-supporting, gun-owning, liberty-loving, pro-life, politically incorrect Black man.” The central issues of his campaign were the basic needs of constituents, the kind of social goods difficult to come by as a young man in Crown Heights: a good economy, clean water, a safe nation, and secure borders.

“People in my district saw the necessary understanding of policy, the need for leadership, the willingness to speak openly and truthfully, and they figured I’d be good at doing the actual job,” Donalds said.

Since coming to Washington, Donalds has cast a series of bold votes without alienating large portions of the GOP conference. In June of 2021, for example, Donalds was among 49 House Republicans to vote to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002. Similarly, in 2023, Donalds voted to have President Joe Biden pull all remaining U.S. troops out of Syria in six months. And, ahead of a potential debt crisis, Donalds sided with conservatives in voting against the Fiscal Responsibility Act brokered between Biden and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Donalds, however, massively increased his standing in the House when he was the first to switch his vote in the speaker’s fight in January 2023 from pro-McCarthy to anti-McCarthy. Donalds quickly became the McCarthy objector’s nominee for speaker of the House, and played a large role in the negotiations that resulted in major concessions for House conservatives.

As he learned from going to church, Donalds knows that the people around you shape your horizons of possibility. “A lot of stuff depends on who you surround yourself with. If you’re with somebody who has goals and vision, then you typically have goals and vision. If you hang around people who really are just hanging out, you kind of hang out and do nothing much.”

Since coming to Washington, Donalds has inserted himself in the House GOP’s most contentious debates, surrounded by some of Congress’s biggest personalities. And Donalds has managed to hold his own without making many enemies—an impressive feat that shouldn’t be underestimated.