Tuesday's gubernatorial race will be close. Polls show Democrat Bill McBride nipping at Gov. Jeb Bush's heels, closing a gap that's already within the margin of error. All of which doesn't bode well for a state that's screwed up its last two big elections.
Brace yourself for another nail-biter -- complete with all the recounts and allegations of voter discrimination that made Florida a laughingstock in 2000, and again this September.
On the right there's Bush, the master politician who, as the president's brother, has all the resources of the national Republican Party behind him. He's spent his term fighting for lower taxes (especially for corporations) and school accountability that relies myopically on one test, the much-maligned FCAT.
On what passes for the left is McBride, the aw-shucks good ole' boy running (surprisingly well) on the notion that he's not Jeb Bush, plus a nod to education reform. Since Bush has managed to associate McBride with the multibillion-dollar class-size amendment voters will likely approve next week, McBride's enemies have also managed to paint him as a tax-and-spend liberal.
In the spoiler role is gay-rights activist Bob Kunst, whose independent run will probably eat at McBride's support. Kunst won't take many votes, but if the 2000 election taught us anything, it's that even a few hundred votes lost (or stolen) can tip an election.
At stake is more than the governor's mansion and control over the Sunshine State for the next four years. Both political parties are looking to Tuesday's election as a precursor to the presidential election in 2004. Democratic activists are rallying the troops under the "we was robbed" mantra, while Republicans are banking on the notion that a win for Jeb forebodes a win for George W. Bush. This is the real deal, the most important governor's race in the country.
So Orlando Weekly decided to put the candidates to the test, our Election Litmus Test to be precise. It's a devious instrument designed to out the candidates on issues of integrity, accessibility, responsiveness and political fortitude. Enjoy. And remember that a vote for Bush is a vote for the apocalypse (see below).
Test No. 1: Integrity
Just how honest are these men who would be governor? There's no better way to find out than to dangle a little cash in front of them.
We submitted a $25 check to each candidate, written on the account of an Orlando Weekly staffer's spouse so the money couldn't be traced to the paper. Along with the check we wrote the candidates a letter thanking them for supporting a cause they don't. Would the candidates do the honest thing and send the money back, or the political thing and cash the checks?
Our letter to Bush offered kudos for re-thinking his advocacy of school vouchers. Of course he's done no such about-face. In fact, the governor is rabidly pro-voucher. He'd like to give more federal money to private, religious schools if he could. (At the moment he can't -- vouchers are being challenged in Florida state court.)
Our donation to the McBride camp came with an earnest missive thanking him for being a proud, unabashed liberal sworn to rid Florida of the death penalty. In the real world, McBride made no such pledge. He's been somewhat mum on capital punishment during the campaign, but McBride wants a moratorium to examine the system's fairness. So he's all for killing people, just not so quickly.
Both sides cashed the checks, took the money and ran. So we offered them a chance at redemption.
After the checks cleared, we penned letters asking for a refund. Only later did we realize our mistake, we whined, and how dare the candidates take the money when they shouldn't have.
Within a week team Jeb sent the money back. And, as if to show there are no hard feelings, they even invited us to Bush's election night soiree in Miami. What a guy.
A week after asking McBride for a refund we got a letter from him thanking us for our support. And we're still waiting for the check.
Test No. 2: Responsiveness
Both candidates paint themselves as men of the people. They listen to common folk, they understand our concerns. They care. (And we've obviously seen far too many TV campaign ads.)
But we wanted to know which candidate cares the most, as demonstrated by which would be quickest to respond to the concerns of the great unwashed.
Identifying ourselves only as a representative of a concerned group of churchgoers (and what candidate can resist "concerned churchgoers"?), we fired off a list of generic questions to the e-mail address listed on each candidate' website. These were the softest of softballs, such as "What's your top priority?"; "What about gun control?"; "Do you want to reform Florida's drug laws?"; "What will you do to solve the state's insurance crisis?"; and "What will you do about prescription drugs?" We wanted to know who would get back to us first -- sort of a foot race, only by e-mail.Result:
Neither side responded. But McBride did send us an automated response noting that our "comment/suggestion has been forwarded to the appropriate campaign-staff member. He/she will be in contact with you soon."
We're still waiting. But at least the McBride campaign acknowledged our existence.
Winner: McBride (by default).
Test No. 3: Accessibility
Candidates in high-profile races these days might as well be virtual. Unless you're a member of the media, they don't have time for you. (And even if you are press, they don't have time for your bothersome questions if you take up more than a few seconds of their time.)
For this test we enlisted the help of co-worker Jessica Frick, Orlando Weekly's own calendar coordinator. Frick played the part of an independent, undecided voter who didn't trust the media and wanted to meet each candidate face-to-face to help her "gauge the depth of his soul" before making her decision. Could an average Jane get some face (or at least phone) time with these two busy candidates?Result:
Frick used her cell phone (so the calls wouldn't be traceable to Orlando Weekly) to call Bush's Tallahassee office Friday, Oct. 11. She asked to speak to Jeb.
"That's not going to happen," a friendly staffer named DJ told her. After a few minutes of pleading, Frick got DJ to concede that, "It's probably not going to happen."
Not one to give up easily, Frick called Orange County GOP headquarters and got a none-to-friendly staffer named David on the line. "We don't know what the governor's doing right now," David said. He suggested Frick call the person who handles Bush's schedule the next morning.
But the scheduler wasn't in that day. Instead, Frick's call was passed from volunteer to volunteer, until someone finally suggested e-mailing the governor (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Bush is known for answering his e-mails personally.
The reputation proved accurate. And then some.
About four hours after the e-mails went out, Bush responded, asking for Frick's phone number. A few minutes later, her phone rang:
"Jeb Bush here."
Thus began a 25-minute chat about crime, Enron, prescription drugs, college and work. (Full disclosure: Frick did not mention her affiliation with Orlando Weekly. Sin of omission? Perhaps. But this is politics, and we're willing to live with the consequences.)
Bush spoke calmly, clinking the ice in his drink and occasionally mixing in four-letter words like "bullshitting" (though he pardoned his French first). When explaining his "10-20-Life" sentencing plan, the governor explained that his TV ads are effective because they target those most likely to commit drug crimes: "Hey dawg, don't use a gun," the governor joked in his best thug-talk.
In closing he encouraged Frick to give McBride the same opportunity to explain his issues.
Our thoughts exactly.
When Frick put in her first call to McBride's Tampa office, a staffer named Glenda put her on hold, then hung up three minutes later. She called back and a much friendlier staffer named TJ transferred her to McBride's scheduler, a woman named Katie. Frick left a message but Katie never returned it.
A few days later Frick tried again, and finally got through to Katie, who said of a face-to-face meeting, "It isn't going to happen." Katie referred her to McBride's Orlando office, where a staffer told her to send an e-mail to the candidate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That generated a response from McBride lackey Rick Minor: "I'd very much like to help with any questions you may have regarding Bill's positions on the issues or anything else. Though I'm an employee of the campaign, I truly believe that Bill is the best choice for the state," he wrote in an e-mail.
While we appreciate the sentiment, the idea was to talk to the man himself.
Winner: Bush by a landslide. (Take notes McBride team. Your clock was officially cleaned. Even our feminist, proto-radical, hell-raising calendar coordinator kinda sorta likes Bush now. "Having the governor take time from his busy day to call me at home definitely makes me feel more comfortable voting for him," Frick says.)
Test No. 4: Gullibility
Are these two desperate enough to take any endorsement? To find out, we sent each a letter congratulating them for earning the backing of Floridians Under Constant Care (FUCC), a fictional, 700-member South Florida group that just happens to share a West Palm Beach address with an Orlando Weekly staffers' parents.
Then we sat back and waited for the press release from either side touting FUCC's endorsement. But it never came. Nor was FUCC's name added to either side's endorsement list. Bush's campaign sent a form letter thanking her for support. "We look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure we can finish the job we started together," says the letter, addressed to "The Honorable Edna Goldstein," FUCC's director.
McBride's team may have also sent a letter, but we'll never know for sure because the aforementioned staffer's Jeb-loving father (who wasn't actually aware of our scheme) has a habit of disposing of all correspondence from Democrats unopened.
Oh well, it seemed funny at the time.
Loser: Orlando Weekly.
Test No. 5: Exposure
Here we gauge how bad the candidates want it. Both obviously desire the governor's job enough to put their lives on hold and face a brutal campaign (15 months long, in McBride's case). But in close races such as this, the winner is often decided by the candidate who can keep their name in front of the public at any cost.
For the last two months, Bush's flaks have inundated Orlando Weekly's fax machines with releases, relaying everything about their man short of his personal-hygiene habits.
It's an effective strategy, but not because media outlets actually print this tripe. In fact, the releases are dull as dirt. But they never stop coming, and that gives the appearance of urgency and excitement, something the media will pick up on.
McBride's team dropped the ball and never added us to their mailing list. Granted, we're not the St. Petersburg Times, but 125,000 progressive readers a week shouldn't slip below a Democrat's radar. We asked once and got nothing. We asked twice, same result. Finally, when our e-mail was added to the press list just over a month ago, the McBride campaign tried like hell to make up for lost time. Everyday, eight to 10 e-mails come across the Internet. During the third gubernatorial debate, nine e-mails hit the in-box in the first 20 minutes.
So Bush easily wins the media-relations game. We're now the proud owners of a three-inch stack of press releases that grows every hour. Meanwhile, McBride's team didn't furnish us with an endorsements list until this Tuesday, though we've been asking for over a month. Bush has the same list on his website.
Speaking of websites, the two are pretty much mirror images of each other. McBride's is blue, Bush's is red. Both have the "contribute" button atop the right column and list favorable news stories down the middle. McBride gets points for linking to his 64-page education manifesto while Bush's issue statements are more of thumbnail sketches. On the other hand, we can't let the McBride site's "Latest Opinion Poll" slip by unnoticed. "What fact about Bill appeals to you the most?" it asks. Hmm Ã? is it that Bill's kids attend public school or that he's a Vietnam vet? Maybe it's that he's endorsed by the teachers union. How lame. We'll take back those aforementioned points.
On the stump, Bush is the more masterful speaker. His knowledge of governmental minutia, plus his deep, resonating baritone, tower over McBride's vagaries and nasally whine. Bush can come across as arrogant -- as opposed to McBride's carefully cultivated good-ol'- boy image -- but it's better to reek of confidence than smell of weakness.
We'll spell it out: McBride's campaign ain't Bush league, it's bush league.
Test No. 6: Questionnaires
OK, so Jeb Bush is a far better politician than Bill McBride. So if McBride does win, he'll have done so on the issues, not his drab personality. That's what this last test is all about.
Six weeks ago, Orlando Weekly crafted a 16-item questionnaire for both candidates, asking them in-depth questions on the economy, the death penalty, drug policy, gay adoption, etc. We also threw in a few oddball questions, asking each candidate to say something nice about the other, to name their favorite CD, etc. We even gave McBride an opening wide enough to drive a truck through by asking him to comment on Orlando Weekly's theory that a win for Bush marks the beginning of the apocalypse (Jeb wins; Dubya wins; Dubya initiates world war; John Ashcroft assumes full control of everything; Bill McCollum emerges as the Antichrist.)
This time we put the questions on OrlandoWeekly letterhead. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.
As of press time, we haven't received answers from either candidate, despite sending three copies to each office. (And Governor, we know you got your questionnaire -- you sent us a thank-you note.)
By chance, a few of the answers to our questions trickled in during the course of the campaign. Bush, for instance, has come out against gay adoption; McBride is for it. McBride attacked Bush's claim that Florida is the leading state in job creation post-Sept. 11 by pointing out that many of those positions are in the service industry. Because we haven't heard differently, we're assuming both candidates are against any movement toward drug legalization.
We also asked Bush the one question typically directed at McBride: If the class-size amendment passes, how will you pay for it? (Bush opposes the initiative and has campaigned against it; McBride supports it, though it's not officially part of his platform.)
We got our answer in the second debate: "`If it passes` all bets are off," Bush said. In other words, expect higher taxes and fewer services -- the same albatross Bush has tried to hang around McBride's neck.
In the third debate at the University of Central Florida, moderator Tim Russert asked another of our questions when he prodded each candidate to say something nice about the other. Bush admires McBride's military service; McBride admires Bush's mom.
Winner: Bill McBride, by a coin flip.
And so we (reluctantly) declare Jeb Bush the winner of our litmus test; McBride is simply no match for his opponent's savvy campaigning and near-celebrity status. Plus he's just not cool. Bill Clinton blew the sax on MTV and people are still talking about it. What has McBride done to help himself?
Of course, all our poking and prodding, and for that matter your voting, is futile anyway; prominent events like the Florida governor's race are predetermined by the stars.
Therefore, we consulted an expert, astrologer and tarot-card reader Dikki-Jo Mullen of Orlando.
Jupiter -- the planet of Republicans, big business and the status quo (like there's any difference) -- is strong now, says Mullen. Saturn -- the planet of Democrats, struggle and reform -- is in retrograde. Such alignments, Mullen says, generally predict larger races. In other words get used to the phrase "Senate-majority leader Trent Lott," distasteful as it is.
Bush will win, according to Mullen's astrological reading, because Kunst will eat away at McBride's Democratic support. McBride, a Taurus, faces an eclipse on Nov. 19, which means turmoil. But take heart: "At the last minute, it will be a closer race than everyone thinks," Mullen says. But Bush still wins.
Fine. When we don't like the results, we ask for a second opinion: What do the tarot cards say?
Mullen's first reading came back a draw (nothing like going out on a limb). The second reading indicated increasing animosity between candidates (duh). It also foresaw undecided voters turning away from McBride because of bad press ("Negative information people don't know," Mullen says), that will emerge between Friday and Monday. McBride, she asserts, will be stabbed in the back.
Bush's daughter's legal troubles will also be thrown into the mix, but the cards state the younger man will have an edge -- Bush is 49; McBride is 57. Within 10 weeks of the election, Mullen predicts a "tragic health event" for the loser.
Then Mullen pulled the "wish card," which typically grants the wish of the client. She asked us which candidate Orlando Weekly wants to see win the election. We gave our answer.
"I don't think you're going to get your wish," Mullen says.