The Florida Democratic Party is gloating after the Nov. 6 election, as well it should. After two decades of losses, facing a veto-proof GOP majority in the Legislature, a tea party governor who spent $73 million of his own money in a TV sweepstakes to win, the Dems got their mojo back.
Well, sort of.
Florida Democrats can point to gaining four seats in Congress, handing President Barack Obama a second term and finally breaking the supermajority hold that the Republican Party has in Tallahassee by picking up a handful of legislative seats. Voters also gave a resounding ‘No’ to the Republican Party of Florida’s attempt to kick out three state Supreme Court justices for rulings the party disagrees with (talk about one-party state), and nixed constitutional amendments that sought to inject government into women’s reproductive rights and open the door to public funding of religious schools.
Even in Miami-Dade County, where Hispanic Democrats don’t do well in competitive seats for the Legislature, a newbie, Jose Javier Rodriguez, beat a veteran GOP lawmaker, Alex Diaz de la Portilla. The Harvard-educated lawyer did it the old-fashioned way, exhaustively knocking on voters’ doors.
But for all those victories, the reality in Miami-Dade remains a tough toil for Democratic candidates in legislative races, particularly Cuban-American ones. I can go back to the Bay of Pigs invasion and Kennedy yanking air power to fight the communists, but we all know the story of why the Cuban-American vote has gone to Republicans since exiles became U.S. citizens during Ronald Reagan’s rise to the presidency. Yet Cuban-American Republicans, when you dig a little, are not as conservative as they may lead people to believe: polls show they are strong supporters of social services, of Medicare, of Social Security and educational opportunity, thanks to federal loans and grants.
I wrote this column 20 years ago, in Orlando, back when Lawton Chiles was governor, asking the same question: Why can’t Democrats groom attractive Hispanic candidates while Republicans have a slew of bright, energetic ones ready for the fight?
Former state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami, when he was Democratic leader, recruited former Miami Beach Commissioner Luis Garcia, to run in the Legislature and the savvy pol won just a few years ago. But when Garcia opted to go after U.S. Rep. David Rivera’s seat this year he was quashed by the party apparatus, such as it is. Joe Garcia, no relation and the former head of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, won that congressional seat, but we won’t know until the next election whether voters were voting for him or simply against the ethically-challenged Rivera and his checkered history of financial shenanigans.
Gelber, like other Democrats, says his party just hasn’t had the top-down control that the Republicans have had since Jeb Bush was elected governor and Miami lawyer Al Cardenas became GOP chief statewide. That’s true. Cardenas was (and remains) a kingmaker with his fundraising and his political savvy. Conservative messages were delivered in warm and fuzzy style when he was moving Florida to the GOP — not the tough, our-way-or-the-highway performance of the tea party that so permeates the legislature today.
It was that messaging that inspired many independents like me to take a leap of faith with the GOP. Republicans’ most attractive message remains a promise of opportunity for all, if you work hard. That message was drowned out the past two years by rhetoric that blames the unemployed for their predicament, blames the children of undocumented immigrants for wanting the American dream, blames college students for not wanting to pay high bank interest rates to get their college loans, blames women for . . . You get the picture.