Robert Huffman’s skimming down the shore of a deserted beach. It’s the summer after his freshman year at FAU and he’s down in Cabo San Lucas to catch some waves. It’ll be a couple years before the tight-lipped kid from Tennessee rises up the ranks in Student Government to be the man in charge.
Right now though, Huffman’s swimming out past the first few breaks for better waves. After waiting out a few of the weaker ones, he sees an 8 footer fast approaching — it’s his for the taking.
He catches a side wave and rides it over to the one he wants. His heart is pounding. It is, after all, the biggest wave he’s tried in his life. The water starts to lift him and his board. Huffman rises with it, planting his feet and standing up with just enough caution to stay on, just enough speed to keep up.
The wave is 10 feet tall now, at least it feels that way to Huffman. He looks out to shore, now back down at his board. It slips out from under him, vanishing into the swelling blue. His eyes close, he tumbles through the swirling sands and slams onto land.
Huffman sees neither a sweet victory for challenging himself, nor a salty defeat for falling short of his own expectation. Instead he stands up — quiet and reserved — and grabs his board, going right back to skimming along.
Silence fills the Boca House chambers. Huffman has to give a report to the Boca House of Representatives once a week now that he’s president. There are 28 representatives with 28 pairs of judgmental eyes fixed on him as he walks over to the podium to speak. There’s little to no sunlight for Huffman in the chambers — this isn’t Cabo.
And this isn’t the first time Huffman’s reported to the Boca House, but it is his first time reporting to them as student body president. His update is short — riddled with words Huffman stutters and stumbles over. He’s still finding his voice.
It’s clear the most important part of Huffman’s job is bound to be the most challenging for him: speaking in public.
His first report as president is so brief, the 28 members of the House let Huffman retreat to his chair in the farthest row back. On any other day they could have hammered him with questions and concerns. Not today, Huffman is too new to the position.
His hard time with public speaking doesn’t go unnoticed by others in SG. Former student body president Ayden Maher used to count how many times Huffman said “um” in his reports.
“We had a tough love kind of relationship,” Huffman says.
“I don’t really like being in the spotlight or being in front of people,” he says. “I just like doing work behind the scenes.”
So he ran to be the student body president — and won.
It’s 7:45 on a cold Thursday morning in March.
“Man, it was brisk,” Huffman recalls.
His running mate, April Turner’s racing out her front door in yoga pants and a sweatshirt. She freezes in the doorway — struck with chills — and runs back in to grab a hoodie.
“If the press is here and they get a picture of me and Robert,” Turner remembers, “they’re gonna be like, who brought the unabomber?”
The duo’s plan is to meet up when the results are announced. Turner gets to campus before Huffman and starts walking up the stairs of the Student Union.
“It was kind of like Christmas,” Turner says.
The results of the elections are expected to be posted on the bulletin board in the SG office at exactly 8:10 a.m.
Huffman’s already made plans with his girlfriend Taylor Stewart, win or lose. And the same with Turner and her boyfriend. If the pair wins the election, Huffman will text Stewart a smiley and Turner will call her boyfriend. The plans for losing aren’t on Huffman’s mind.
They meet up downstairs in the parking lot in front of the Union after Turner sees the results posted and takes a picture of them for proof.
Huffman sees for himself and lets out an emphatic yell.
“He just started running around the parking lot,” Turner says. “He only went to the first two rows, but he was running the whole time. He was so excited.”
Turner calls her boyfriend.
“Hello, Ms. Vice President?” he answers.
Huffman texts Stewart the smiley.
“He’s the same guy he was before he won the election,” Boris Bastidas says. “But I think he realizes things have to be done better.”
Bastidas is the House Speaker of the Boca House of Representatives. As speaker for more than a year, Bastidas saw the last student body president struggle with the same issues Huffman’s tackling now.
The Boca House is the only one of the campus Houses in SG to hand the last two presidents a vote of no-confidence, the first step to impeachment.
Now he’s up against a different kind of wave in the House. Huffman’s up against the confidence of the House reps — and their short fused tolerance for a president who hasn’t represented them.
“He’s not one to play politics, and I respect him for that,” Bastidas says. “Huffman doesn’t care; He doesn’t have time for the politics.”
Bastidas played a part in the vote of no confidence passed against Maher. It was just after Huffman had been elected and just before Maher left office. Bastidas and others in the House wanted to send a message to the next guy.
“He’s different,” Bastidas says. “I see it all the time.”
Huffman wields a power no other student at FAU does — a vote and seat on the university’s Board of Trustees. The Board comprises FAU’s 13 highest ranking officials. They vote on every major decision the university makes, so now Huffman has a voice — whether he wants it or not.
Usually the student body president includes an update on the Board in his report to the Boca House during their meetings. When the last student body president missed multiple meetings and stopped sending reports, the House passed its vote of no-confidence. Yet Bastidas feels a camaraderie with Huffman — for now.
“We could be in the heat of battle and I could ask him to chill out and grab a beer, and he’d do it,” Bastidas says.
Huffman just voted to raise the amount of money students pay in fees for student government and athletics. It’s Huffman’s first Board of Trustees meeting.
He’s mixed about the decision. His eyebrows are pushed together for most of the meeting, revealing his inner conflict. His decision boils down to letting problems get worse for students without the money to fix them, or letting administration charge students a little more money to fix the problems.
He had a cold that day, and barely spoke during the meeting. He’s still seeking out his voice. The Board meeting was held in a quiet room tucked away in the Education Building of the Jupiter campus. Rain fell the morning of the meeting and persisted until after it was over.
“I’m looking to put the new guy in the hot seat,” Trustee William McDaniel said during the meeting. McDaniel is the only sitting trustee that is also a part of FAU’s faculty.
Huffman approached me after it ended, but was quickly pulled away by the head administrator in student government, Charles Brown. Brown is the vice president of student affairs and the man who signs after Huffman on anything SG does.
His plans for the weekend were to stay in all day and get better with his dog, Hurley. He’s a puggle with his own Facebook page, “Hurley Curley.” His dog seized up earlier that week and he took him to the vet. All Huffman looked forward to was resting up and getting better with Hurley, to some quiet. He missed that quiet.
Robert Huffman’s climbing up a log in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He’s 5 years old and still living in the city he was born.
Now he’s hanging by his underwear. He reached the top and slipped. Luckily, a branch snagged his undies before he hit the ground. His arms flail as he yells for help getting down.
In a year’s time Huffman will be living in Baton Rouge, La. The year after that, Huffman will be going to school in Waco, Texas.
“We did move around a lot,” Huffman’s mother says.
His parents split when Huffman was still in elementary school. Before the split, Huffman moved around because his dad took promotions and transfers at his job. Whenever his mom moved after the split, his dad moved too so he could stay close to his kids.
“Moving around a lot sucked,” Huffman says. “But it was probably for the best and worst. It taught me to be flexible and independent and not to judge people. You get to know people for who they are and not where they’re from.”
“I’ve learned to forget about things and move on.”
Huffman went from Waco to Orlando, Fla., when he was 8 and stayed until halfway through sixth grade. Then Huffman went to Bowling Green, Ky., until the end of seventh. His dad moved to Columbus, Ga.
“Six hours away was better than fifteen,” Huffman says.
“He would drive 12 hours to see Robert play baseball,” his mom says of Huffman’s dad.
Huffman would get excited and nervous when his dad went to games.
“Especially if he didn’t know his dad was coming and he saw him in the stands,” Huffman’s mom says.
Then he settled back in Orlando for eighth grade and high school.
Huffman wouldn’t be the new kid on the first day anymore — he was still quiet, still reserved.
We’re driving south on I-95 and I’m giving Huffman directions to the Davie campus. We’re on the way down to his first Board of Executives meeting as president. The Board of Executives comprises the SG president, vice president, campus governors and house speakers.
He’s drumming his fingers on the steering wheel of his white Ford F-150 to songs on a CD Huffman burned in high school.
Scheduling it in Davie is part of Huffman and Turner’s plan for transparency in their administration. No two meetings held back to back will be on the same campus in their term.
When the meeting is over, Huffman comes over to me in the parking lot. He apologizes. He’s worried the day hasn’t been exciting enough to meet my expectations.
Huffman and Turner each had very different approaches to running for office. Huffman thought long before announcing his candidacy, needing plenty of encouragement from others. Turner knew before him.
It started as a joke. They were out one night with friends last December — someone asked Huffman if he’d considered running for president.
Turner realized if she didn’t tell him now, she might never get it out. She nudged Huffman.
“If you run,” she told him, “I’ll run with you.”
Huffman was still unsure.
“He’s very methodical, always thinks before he says anything,” Turner says of her boss. After being encouraged by his friends, Huffman called both his parents for advice.
“He’s always very careful when making decisions,” Huffman mom says. “He calls me for advice sometimes, but ultimately he makes them by himself.”
But even after Huffman made up his mind to run, the pair weren’t sure they could win the election. They joked about it too.
“I think we’ll make it to the runoff,” Huffman and Turner used to say. Of the 1,925 votes cast, the duo nabbed 1,123 of them — an overwhelming majority. They didn’t need a runoff election.
Robert Huffman’s been in and out of meetings all day. He’s ready to go home, but not before we play a few holes on the Red Reef golf course.
The sun is setting and the maintenance guy is following us in his cart. We have an hour left before the course closes for the night, but he wants Huffman and I to leave — soon.
So he starts bugging us with little comments at each hole.
“Make sure you place the rake in the bunker,” he says to Huffman at one point. His reminder is already printed on the rake.
Huffman looks over at me and asks if I want to keep playing or if we should just leave now. We agree to play a couple more holes.
“I’ve never seen him mad,” Huffman’s mother says. His vice president, Turner, agrees.
Huffman tees off, his ball sails through the air, landing right by the pin.
It’s still not clear why the middle class, midwestern kid who doesn’t like speaking in public wants to be the student body president.
“I like to challenge myself,” he says. “At first I was scared because I thought I sucked at speaking and I didn’t think I could do things like graduation speeches. Then I realized just because someone’s not perfect on the outside doesn’t mean they can’t be a leader.”
He didn’t stutter. The president started to find his voice.