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Jax Daily Record Friday, Nov. 23, 200112:00 PM EST

Jacksonville's young lion

At 20, Clay Yarborough eying a long political career
by: Glenn Tschimpke

by Glenn Tschimpke

Staff Writer

Clay Yarborough speaks with the confidence and fluency of a man twice his age. At 20, he still lives at home with his family in East Arlington. He’s a full-time student at FCCJ’s South Campus and works part time at Ch. 7, operating cameras and helping out with set construction.

He’s not a straight A student, but he does well in school. He’s active in his church and devotes much of his time to the community. Last November, 72,610 Duval County residents voted him as their new Soil and Water Conservation District 2 Supervisor, capturing 38 percent of the vote. He was 19 at the time.

That’s where the confidence came in.

Last fall, Yarborough had been eying the political landscape, looking for an office where he could get his start. After years of operating the camera at City Council and School Board meetings, he couldn’t help wanting to get involved in politics. With no farming and agricultural experience, he hadn’t even heard of the post until shortly before the election.

“It was less than a month before the qualifying deadline before I learned of the district,” he said. “I had no knowledge of the Duval Soil and Water Conservation District. I was familiar with agriculture and consumer services through the state. I knew we had a local department of agriculture, but I did not know then about the Soil and Water Conservation District.”

Yarborough doesn’t consider his lack of experience as a detriment but rather an advantage in his position as soil and water conservation supervisor. He likens his position to the school board.

“To get a variety, to get different ideas and different perspectives, you don’t want a board full of educators because then it’s a loop,” he said. “You don’t get outside ideas. The same with soil and water. It’s exclusively for agriculture and it’s also for everyone. If you’re serving the whole county, you’ll get different ideas and maybe some perspectives you might not have had if it was just exclusively a board made up of people that were in agriculture. Now that’s the primary focus and that’s what I’m committed to to ensure it stays that way.”

How does a 19-year-old from the suburbs convince voters he’s their man to supervise their Soil and Water Conservation District? Confidence and some clever campaigning.

“I used the age to my advantage,” he said. “I know that most candidacies in most offices, you appeal to the older voters. Those are the ones who come out and vote. At first I thought it might be a little difficult but I wasn’t going to let that stand in my way. My main message was that I could offer a new perspective and maybe bring some new ideas and do my best.”

He also raised about $1,500 for his campaign, had some bumper stickers and yard signs made and hit the streets.

“My slogan, which I thought was neat, was, ‘Who better to manage soil than Clay?’” he said. “I think that really helped right there. It probably wouldn’t help if I was running for something else, but it worked for this.”

Yarborough also had strong ally in his church — the 25,000 member First Baptist Church. While he concedes that his membership may have helped his chances, he discounts any speculation that it gave him a guaranteed ticket to office.

“Somebody brought it to my attention — 25,000 people there,” he said of First Baptist Church’s congregation. “That’s one-third of the votes you have right there. I don’t think you can say that, although I think it did help me and I’m very thankful for that.

A lot of people may feel that [First Baptist Church has a political influence] because you have a large number of people that attend there. That is a big membership. As far as the political sway or anything like that, because it’s a large church and you have a handful of people that are members there, it may seem that way. The church fully advocates community activism but as far as pushing certain individuals, that’s never done.”

As a non-paid elected official, Yarborough acts as supervisor for an advisory board for the agricultural community.

“In 1953, there were approximately 150 farms and dairies in Duval County,” he said. “Over the years it’s gone down as stuff has moved out. Today, there are only seven left and most of them are in the north and northwestern quadrants of the county. What our board does is advise them if they want to construct ponds on their land, for example. We’ll look at the site — not the board members in particular — but a technician and a conservationist that work with us. It’s totally on voluntary cooperation.”

Yarborough never held any student government offices in high school. He has no aspirations to major in political science in college. Yet his political interests and aspirations extend beyond his obscure position as the Duval Soil and Water District 2 supervisor.

“That’s a place where you can gain experience,” he said. “You have lighter responsibilities, but still important ones. You’re gaining knowledge in not only politics but also fiscal responsibility and management. If I do good here and the Lord leads me, then I will pursue City Council or the School Board — probably the School Board.”

While typical college students are throwing frat parties and reveling in the indulgences of youth, Yarborough separates himself from that crowd.

“There are certainly other things I could do at my age but I just have that passion to keep doing what I’m doing,” he explained. “I’m really thankful for the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve met. I enjoy that. As far as parties and going out or being a crazy college guy, I don’t think I’m missing out. I’ve never really put much on all the parties or going to the clubs or going out like that. I love my family and I love my church. Between those, soil and water and work and everything else, it’s a lot of time. The time that there is left, I enjoy being home with family and spending time with them. And the few minutes left in the week there is to relax, I’ll go jog or whatever. I don’t feel I’m missing out. I’m pretty content. I like where I am and like what I’m doing.”

Spoken like a man twice his age.

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