Invisible Democratic primary for Florida governor’s race begins

U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham
U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham AP

The first little jabs of the next Democratic race for Florida governor came, subtly, in a Philadelphia hotel ballroom over the past four days.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine touted “people in public office who have actually had a job, that know how to get things done.” Take that, longtime politician and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

“I don’t need a TelePrompTer,” Buckhorn boasted to a Miami Herald reporter. Here’s looking at you, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee.

“I now represent the most Republican-leaning district held by any Democrat in the entire Congress of the United States,” Graham bragged. Listen up, Levine and Buckhorn.

Just like at last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, 2016 politics made way for 2018 at the Florida delegation breakfasts of the Democratic National Convention.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott is term-limited, and Florida Democrats insist that next time will be their time. Buckhorn, Graham and Levine — along with state Sen. Jeremy Ring of Parkland, who wasn’t in Philadelphia — are the biggest names considering a run.

For Democrats, though, the dearth of state political power extends beyond the Governor’s Mansion. Republicans also control the Cabinet — and majorities in the state House and Senate.

They’re sensitive to the problem — and maybe also a teensy bit defensive.

“We have the bench that a lot of people want to complain about,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said Wednesday, “and it is at the municipal level, where we have not been gerrymandered.”

Democrats say they’ve struggled to nurture their own because so many congressional and legislative seats favored Republicans before the last round of state redistricting. Things will change, they argue, now that courts have forced lawmakers to draw more balanced districts, where more Democrats can compete.

“It’s been a little bit of a desert for a few years,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who’s been called on in recent years to cultivate young Democratic talent. “The conservative side has done a better job, and it’s time for the progressive side to catch up.”

At the convention, two Democrats seeking congressional seats in the Orlando area, Val Demings and Stephanie Murphy, were prominently featured on the main stage with other women, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Also getting a speaking role was up-and-coming Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who was born in Miami-Dade.

But the most intriguing politics came from Graham, Levine and Buckhorn, each of whom tried to feel out a campaign among the party’s grassroots activists.

Levine, often sporting a Clinton hat, focused on giving media interviews. Graham worked the room along with her father, former Gov. Bob Graham of Miami Lakes, who has a new book coming out. Buckhorn gave a rousing speech that perhaps got some Democrats to briefly forget his reluctance two years ago to back then-candidate Charlie Crist. (Crist nevertheless sat in the room in Philadelphia on Wednesday to watch).

Graham and Buckhorn in particular focused their attacks on the same man: Scott. “We know what it’s like to elect a tea-party millionaire,” Buckhorn said. “Make no mistake: Rick Scott and Donald Trump are cut from the same wing of the Republican Party — not the conservative wing, but the con man wing,” Graham said.

In a little more than a year, expect the likely gubernatorial candidates to aim their political fire at each other.