Florida’s Democrats wandering in the wilderness



Famed humorist Will Rogers once said, “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat.”

That was eight decades ago, but he could have been talking about today’s Florida Democratic Party. If it’s organized in any meaningful way, it escapes me. Also escapes a growing number of Florida voters.

The Florida Democratic Party is like the dessert Churchill once famously sent back, “Pray, take away this pudding,” Churchill said, “it has no theme.” Exactly like the FDP, no theme. No Churchillian figures, either. Quick, name the leader of the FDP. Its big leaders in the Legislature? Right, I didn’t think so.

You could also compare the FDP to Los Angeles, many suburbs in search of a city. Similarly, Florida Democrats have many local branches — a few of which (Broward) function well — but no center. At least L.A. has freeways that tie it together. What ties Florida Democrats together? I’d say almost nothing nowadays except their revulsion for Rick Scott.

But can the D’s beat Scott 13 months from now? All the polls say he’s vulnerable. His approval ratings have barely hit 40 percent and plateaued there. One recent poll showed Scott in a dead heat with Democrat Nan Rich, a well-qualified former state senator from Weston who’s been running for months but barely stirred a ripple across the smooth surface of Florida politics. Rich is smart, knowledgeable, experienced and unelectable. A liberal Jewish woman from South Florida whose campaign leitmotif consists of basically scolding Rick Scott? Not going to work above the Broward County line. Nor below it.

Who else do the Democrats have? Tah-tah! Here’s Charlie! In the next few weeks recycled Republican Charlie Crist will formally announce his candidacy, although the speech he gave last weekend to the Florida Education Association meeting pretty much said he’s running. Much to the delight of the Florida Republican Party, which has staged a remarkable renaisssance since the bad old days of Chairman Jim Greer (put in charge by none other than Charlie Crist).

The RPOF is already having a field day with Charlie, lampooning him in daily emails to the media. They started with an amusing series called “Today in Crist-ory,” which recounted Charlie’s ever-changing positions on matters of public policy and private concern. You’ll remember that he was a pro-life, pro-gun Reagan Republican for the longest time. Until he wasn’t. Was firmly for traditional male-and-female marriage and family values until he pronounced same-sex marriage OK, too. Pick a position Charlie has taken and you’re likely to find he’s also had the opposite one.

But he is a charmer and that’s not to be discounted. I was amused to see the Florida GOP quote me in one of their anti-Crist missives the other day. In an oped column published on this page seven years ago I wrote: “He (Crist) also knows how to connect with people, how to envelop them in his hang-dog warmth. Watch a voter during his 30 seconds or so with Crist and you can see the conversion happen. For that brief moment Crist, like all good politicians, makes the voter believe he’s the most important person in the world. It’s enough to make some voters forget that most of Crist’s programs are as thin as he is.”

I stand by that assessment. Not much on policy, but few politicians connect with people like Charlie Crist. Still, his baggage is so heavy that it’s going to be hard for him and the Florida Democratic Party to drag it through a year-long campaign. It will be brutal.

The last poll I saw had Crist beating Scott by about 12 points, not that such polls mean much at this stage. But Florida Democrats are too cocky about beating Scott. The governor is expected to have $100 million in his campaign treasury, a steadily improving Florida economy and the power of incumbency. He’s already scared off any Republican opponent of note and his cabinet is full of them. For now, Adam Putnam, Pam Bondi and Jeff Atwater will bide their time.

Who on the Democratic side is waiting in the wings should Charlie crash and burn early? Alas, almost no one. This is the weakest D bench I’ve ever seen in Florida. Their best hopes are all in the U.S. House of Representatives and quite content to stay there. Bill Nelson was wooed to run for governor, but never seriously considered it. Why give up a good gig in the U.S. Senate for a nasty campaign whose top prize is a trip back to Tallahassee? No thanks.

There were some very capable Democrats in the Legislature in recent years who might have moved up to statewide office, but they missed the boat, moved on or got beaten. I’m thinking of people like Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, who lost the attorney general’s race to Bondi, and Jack Seiler, who’s doing an excellent job as mayor of Fort Lauderdale.

Florida Democrats are scheduled to hold a state conference late this month in Orlando. I suggest they come up with a new mission statement. We know they’re against Rick Scott. What are they for? They need to tell Florida voters or be consigned to third place behind the state’s fastest growing party — NPA. No party affiliation.

Read more Michael Putney stories from the Miami Herald

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