By any measure, 2006 is absolutely pivotal for the Democratic Party, both in Florida and nationwide. If they can't win this November, with the Republicans swimming in corruption, Democrats can only blame themselves.
At their December convention, Florida Dems pledged to poach four or five congressional seats, or about a third of what the national party needs to retake the House of Representatives. Local races are also on the agenda, as the city of Orlando and Orange County both have elections this year. It should be fun to watch.
So herein, our preview of the coming election year. This time around we've done it in bumper-sticker format, because attention spans are short, you are what you drive and your car is really just a rolling billboard to impose your issues on the poor bastard stuck behind you in traffic.
The perfectly coiffed, perma-tanned Charlie Crist has spent his four years as attorney general doing what he does best: pandering. There isn't a populist cause he hasn't championed and press-released to death. Crist and Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, share one trait: They were once pro-choice moderates, and they're now running from that label like vampires from sunlight. Crist talks about the "culture of life" and Gallagher wants to reverse Roe v. Wade.
Crist took the flip-flopping a step further. Early in 2005, he called the proposed anti-gay marriage amendment unnecessary; a few months later, at the prodding of Christian Coalition activists, he signed a petition to get it on the ballot, then posed for pictures. You can't blame him, though. For years Crist has been dogged by rumors that he's gay; he is, after all, single, middle-aged and impeccably groomed. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Gallagher will try to win by outflanking Crist on the right, and gay rumors about Crist can't hurt Gallagher in that endeavor.
State Rep. Jim Davis (Tampa) is the Democrats' front-runner. He has a reputation for being more a policy wonk than a guy you'd want to have a beer with.
State Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, is a former Gainesville prosecutor running on the platform that, well, he can win. He went to the state Senate from a solidly red district. An endorsement from a South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist featured on his website praises him as a "Demlican," though, as Smith's Dem supporters point out, he supports abortion rights and fought Gov. Bush's intervention into the Terri Schiavo mess.
State Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and that's by design. He pledged to get out of this race if former attorney general Bob Butterworth wanted his old job back, and said he would bail on his backup plan running for chief financial officer if Alex Sink, the wife of failed 2002 gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride, ran. Sink did, Butterworth didn't.
The Republicans have a bruising primary ahead. Former Orlando Rep. Bill McCollum is the front-runner, with superior name recognition, tons of cash and his back against the wall: A loss here would be his third in six years and effectively end his political career.
McCollum's most viable threat comes from state Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who entered long before McCollum and was the first to break the $1 million mark. Negron combated McCollum's name recognition by banking the endorsement of more than a quarter of the Legislature. State Rep. Everett Rice, R-Treasure Island, a former Pinellas County sheriff, and state Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, are also in the hunt but behind in the money race.
CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
Here again, the Republicans are in a catfight while the Dems have cleared the field for one candidate.
Alex Sink is married to Bill McBride, but she's also a high-powered banking executive who, until she stepped down in 2000, ran Bank of America's Florida division. For years, Democrats have tried to push her into the public square, if for no other reason than she's a much better campaigner than her husband.
The Republican favorite is state Senate president Tom Lee, R-Valrico, who, as one Tampa Tribune columnist put it, "is to rhetorical discretion what Randy Moss is to elegant understatement" and is "a politician with all the warmth and charm of the Angel of Death." A homebuilder by trade, Lee is an abrasive lawmaker who disdains lobbyists not necessarily a bad thing.
State Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, is nipping at his heels. Johnson fired the first salvo during the legislature's December special session, asking Lee to help him close a campaign-finance loophole that allows political committees that directly coordinate with candidates to raise unlimited funds. It just so happens that Lee has one of those committees. Johnson is also staunchly anti-gambling and has criticized Lee for taking gambling money. Under the pressure, Lee has also jumped on that bandwagon.
State Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Longboat Key, is an incompetent partisan hack and an embarrassment to Florida, which she demonstrated not only in the 2000 presidential election debacle, but also in her two-term congressional career. First she accused newspapers of Photoshopping extra makeup onto her face; then she endorsed holy water as a remedy for citrus canker. Harris has also banked $42,000 in contributions from MZM Inc., the defense-contracting firm tied to the bribery conviction of former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif. Even the White House wants her out of this race. Still, her role in getting George W. Bush the presidency carries some clout with the GOP's rank and file.
Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson has all the charisma of a wet sock. He's mind-numbingly dull and only verges on anything close to excitement when discussing NASA (did you know he was an astronaut?). Still, he's an able lawmaker who hasn't cheesed off too many people during his first term. While he'd be vulnerable if the GOP put up a strong competitor, he's kicking Harris' ass in every poll released so far, sometimes by more than 20 points.
U.S. CONGRESS, DISTRICT 8
His first campaign was all about family values, but there's less of that talk since his divorce and subsequent remarriage to a campaign operative.
In 2004, an unknown opponent, Stephen Murray, ran surprisingly well, taking more than 40 percent of the vote. That has drawn a couple more viable Democrats into the fray this year. It's unclear how, if at all, the Republican congressional scandals will taint Keller this year, but it's worth noting that, thanks to gerrymandering, no Florida incumbent lost a congressional race in 2004, so statistics are on Keller's side.
Charlie Stuart will probably be Keller's November opponent. He's raised about $250,000 and has a well-connected family. (One brother runs the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce; another is seeking an Orlando city council seat; yet another is a former state senator.)
Still, he faces at least nominal competition from term-limited Orange County commissioner Homer Hartage. While some question Hartage's ethics he bought lakefront property at far below market value from the Central Florida YMCA while he was voting to give that organization tens of millions of dollars in grants and loans Stuart might have difficulty explaining his ultra-nuanced abortion position to the party's activist base.
There are two state House races worth mentioning. In District 38, term-limited Orange County commissioner Bob Sindler is seeking the term-limited Rep. Fred Brummer's seat, which Sindler held for 10 years prior to his 1998 election to his county position. (Interestingly, Brummer, R-Apopka, now wants Sindler's county job.) Sindler isn't the area's most popular Democrat. He ticked off party leaders in 1996, when as a state representative he voted to install a GOP House speaker. They responded by temporarily booting him out of the caucus, but that cross-party cred might come in handy in this GOP-leaning district. The environmentalists dislike him too, because along with Brummer he tried to derail a Wekiva River protection plan.
He has one other problem: In 2004, he was arrested for domestic battery; the charges were dropped, but his mug shot might make for a nice campaign flyer.
He faces two lesser-known Republicans ironically including one who Sindler appointed to the county planning and zoning commission, a typical setup gig for candidates-in-waiting. That guy, insurance agent Bryan Nelson, has raised more than $61,000 to Sindler's $22,700, though it's worth noting that the latter still has considerably better name recognition. The other Republican, Jeffrey Johnston, has raised just $1,770 and appears to be a nonfactor.
Until last week, District 36's Sheri McInvale was another Democrat who underwhelmed her party. So much so that, in 2004, the local Dems wrote her primary opponent a check for $15,000 a week before the election.
In the Legislature, McInvale might as well have been a Republican anyway; she sided with the fundies in the Terri Schiavo debacle and has been more than willing to accommodate the GOP's far right.
Democratic primary challenger Scott Randolph, an environmental lawyer, outraised her in the last quarter of 2005, taking in $22,514 to McInvale's $20,428. Despite his late entry, Randolph who is campaigning as a "real Democrat" has more cash on hand than the incumbent. So it was hardly a surprise when McInvale announced on Jan. 10 that she was switching parties.
In Tallahassee, McInvale hasn't been an advocate for much of anything, except allowing dogs to eat with their human owners at Orlando restaurants (and she couldn't even get that through). As a Democrat, McInvale faced a tough primary battle. As a Republican with few accomplishments in a Democratic-leaning district, there's a good chance voters will send her packing this November.
Then there's Jonathan Cook, another Republican and a Disney ride mechanic who placed dead last out of seven candidates in a 2004 campaign for county commissioner.
The county has three commission seats up for grabs this year; of those, only one has an incumbent.
When Linda Stewart took office in District 4 in 2002, she represented the new guard. The former head of CountyWatch, a bipartisan group that tracks county government, spent her campaign bicycling through neighborhoods and knocking on doors, leading to a surprise upset of incumbent Clarence Hoenstine.
This year she's drawn some marquee opposition. Two challengers have so far filed or signaled their intention to run: Jennifer Thompson, named a top business professional by the Orlando Business Journal; and Juan Pablo Quinones, state Rep. John Quinones' brother. As of December, Stewart is well ahead in the money race, having raised more than $74,000. Thompson has raised $35,040. Quinones was a distant third, with just $6,430.
In the District 2 race, Fred Brummer seems to bask in his reputation as a curmudgeonly bastard. As a legislator, he revels in killing projects pushed by Orange County leaders. He killed $100 million in state taxes for a renovated arena, and a $1 million annual sales-tax rebate for the Orlando-Orange County Convention Center. "I'm not going to tell you what I think of him," Crotty told the Sentinel in April 2005. That's pol-speak for "asshole."
The Sentinel also rated him one of the area's least effective lawmakers, even though he chairs a powerful committee in Tallahassee. Again, that's in part because he loves nothing more than torpedoing projects he deems unnecessary. In fact, Brummer takes such pleasure in it that he passes out the business cards of another lawmaker, an undertaker, to legislators whose bills he intends to kill.
Not surprisingly, given his clout, he's raised a lot of coin: more than $78,000, as of the latest figures posted on the supervisor of elections' website.
His nearest opponent is George Collins of Apopka, whose handwritten finance forms say he'd also raised $6,150 as of December. The other listed candidate is Monty Knox, a fellow Republican who serves on a high-profile commission studying the consolidation of some city and county services. Knox has also served on the planning and zoning commission and the county's agriculture advisory board and worked for the Orange County Farm Bureau, which might give him a leg up in the rural district. Knox's fund-raising has been meager so far. He's only raised $1,500 as of the last reports.
The county's most populated race is in District 6, a minority-heavy district that, for the last eight years, has been represented by Homer Hartage.
Six people have so far enlisted to run. State Rep. Bruce Antone, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer's chief of staff when Dyer was a state senator, looks like the early favorite, but Juan Lynum the son of Orlando city commissioner Daisy Lynum may be a worthy adversary. Antone should have the advantage. He's a smart, energetic black leader; if nothing else, his relationship with Dyer should help smooth over things between the city and county whereas this is Lynum's first foray into politics.
In keeping with his mother's reputation, Juan Lynum magnanimously embraced his competition: "Bruce, you should know that you are taking a tremendous gamble with your career," Lynum warned in an e-mail a week after Antone's announcement. "The second phase of my career begins after the election regardless of the outcome, whereas, yours will likely come to an abrupt and embarrassing end." The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Lynum's ego may need a little reality check: Antone has twice been elected to state office; without his mother's name, Lynum would be a nonentity.
CITY OF ORLANDO
There are three races on the March 14 ballot. In one, Commissioner Phil Diamond is running unopposed. Until recently, it looked like Daisy Lynum would be too; but then longtime Parramore activist Betty Gelzer enlisted. This means that every time Lynum has run for the District 5 seat in 1998, 2002 and now 2006 a Gelzer has opposed her. In the first two rounds, Betty Gelzer's daughter, Lawanna, was the challenger. She took 25 percent of the vote in a three-way race, and Lynum coasted to victory. Two years later, Lawanna Gelzer moved to District 6, ran and lost again.
So what are Betty Gelzer's chances? Tough to say; based on her daughter's past performance, not good. Plus, she got into this race late in the game, which puts her at a distinct financial disadvantage. By the end of 2005, Lynum had raised more than $30,000. Lynum also has plenty of name recognition and likes to portray herself as an advocate for Parramore's downtrodden.
On the other hand, no city commissioner has generated as much antipathy as Lynum. It's not uncommon for her to be mean-spirited, condescending and downright arrogant in city council meetings. She's called opponents all sorts of names and plays the race card with alarming frequency, even when it's clearly unwarranted.
The third race, District 3, is the one to watch. In her six years on the dais, Vicki Vargo has developed a reputation for being a fiscal hawk; she's not afraid to question wild spending ambitions or elaborate tax breaks. She's also allied herself with the religious right and antagonized the gay community, which puts her at odds with her increasingly metropolitan district. Perhaps most politically damaging, however, was Vargo's push for a bike trail around Lake Ivanhoe that most of her constituents didn't want. They put up a noisy protest before Dyer stepped in and killed the trail.
She's drawn four opponents, two of whom attorney John Ruffier and tennis pro Jeff Horn are gay. There's also Bob Carr Jr., the son and namesake of the former mayor.
Her biggest challenge may come from Robert Stuart, the head of the Christian Service Center (and yet another member of the Stuart brotherhood). As of the last finance reporting period, Stuart had taken in $47,000 to Vargo's $54,065. The rest of the candidates were far behind in the money race, but what happens between now and the March 14 election is anyone's firstname.lastname@example.org