Florida Politics

Pam Keith is Democratic underdog in Florida’s U.S. Senate race

Miami resident Pam Keith, a labor attorney and former naval officer, is seeking to be the Democratic nominee in Florida’s U.S. Senate race.
Miami resident Pam Keith, a labor attorney and former naval officer, is seeking to be the Democratic nominee in Florida’s U.S. Senate race. Photo courtesy of Pam Keith for U.S. Senate 2016

While Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson attack one another in an increasingly bitter battle to become Florida Democrats’ candidate for U.S. Senate, Pam Keith is quietly turning heads to present herself as an alternative contender.

The 47-year-old labor attorney and former naval officer has flown under the radar, criss-crossing the state for months to build support in her bid for Florida’s open seat.

She’s been in the race longer than any of the seven other major candidates, Republicans or Democrats. But without much money, few endorsements and barely any consideration in statewide polls, Keith remains unknown to most Floridians.

She knows the odds. But she also knows there’s 90 days left to persuade Democratic voters that they should choose her in what is a closely watched race that could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate next year.

I’m perfectly OK if (voters) know and choose my opponent, but it would be devastating to leave this thing and know the only reason I didn’t win is because no one was made aware that I was one of their choices.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Pam Keith

Keith, a Miami resident, also has a possible opening: A significant portion of voters are still undecided, and the flaws of Murphy and Grayson — two sitting U.S. congressmen — are getting more attention, potentially turning off the party’s more independent voters.

“I don’t think it’s a good dynamic for the Democratic Party to offer a slate of insider millionaire candidates in a season where people are clamoring for outsiders,” she said. “That’s not a great lineup for us. I’m the party’s hope; I’m the one who can bring that outsider flavor, and that fresh, that new, that not-country-club, politics-as-usual flavor that Democrats claim to be about.”

Murphy’s and Grayson’s campaigns declined to comment on Keith’s candidacy. The Democratic primary is Aug. 30.

Keith, in her first foray into politics, also stands in a potentially historic position. If elected, she’d be Florida’s first U.S. senator who is a black woman.

“She is a viable candidate. A lot of people don’t know her, but we’re getting to know her,” said Hazel Gillis, president of the Duval County Democratic Black Caucus. “This gives us an alternative and it’s needed. ... We can look at someone new and different.”

In contrast to seasoned politicians, Keith speaks off the cuff. She’s blunt with her opinions, thoughtful and specific with her policy proposals and will openly criticize Democrats and Republicans.

She speaks three languages — English, French and Portuguese — and she’s used her life experiences to build a platform that includes an emphasis on foreign policy and veterans affairs.

The daughter of a U.S. foreign service officer, Keith spent much of her childhood living abroad. She was born in Turkey and from there moved to Morocco, then Syria, California, Kentucky and Brazil — all before high school.

She later graduated from the University of California at Davis with undergraduate and graduate degrees in communications, she said. While she was attending law school at Boston College, she applied to the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

She served four years in the late ’90s. She said she was a defense attorney — stationed first in Norfolk and then in Bahrain. There, as officer-in-charge of the legal services office, she said she worked with all units stationed in the Persian Gulf as U.S. forces policed no-fly zones over Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“While I was there, I got to see the military operating as it operates: at sea, on the ground, and in the air,” she said. “I got to see the risks involved with that, I got to see the strain on our soldiers and Marines, and I got to also see the personal strain it has on our families.”

After leaving the Navy, Keith became a labor attorney. She got jobs at nationally known law firms, such as Jones Day, where she represented corporations with unionized employees. She came to Florida in 2011 after being recruited to work as in-house counsel for NextEra Energy, the parent company for FPL.

Before moving to Miami less than a year ago, she lived in North Palm Beach. She’s not married and has no children.

Keith has U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to thank for her entrance into politics. She said it was his now-infamous, water-sipping GOP response to the 2013 State of the Union address that sparked her interest in running for U.S. Senate.

“I’m watching Marco Rubio ... and I’m thinking, ‘How in the Sam Hill did this guy end up being our senator?’ ” she remembered. “In that moment, I had that sort of epiphany that I thought I could do that, and I could a better job of it.”

Fully prepared to challenge Rubio had he sought re-election instead of running for president, Keith left her job at NextEra in August 2014 and filed her Senate candidacy in mid-November 2014 — four months before Murphy would and eight months before Grayson.

In a race that boils down to — let’s be honest — two white men with access to a lot of money, you need someone who gives a different perspective, both in terms of gender and race.

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay

She’s been campaigning full time since. Over the past 18 months, she has traversed the state, speaking before all sorts of crowds: university political clubs, women’s groups, county Democratic organizations. And she’s made a strong impression, several Democrats told the Herald/Times.

Michael Hodapp, president of the University of Central Florida College Democrats, said Keith has his vote.

“She has the kind of progressive ideals Florida has been lacking for a while. And in a race of strong-willed candidates, she fits right in,” Hodapp said in an e-mail. “She is by far one of the most likable and down-to-earth candidates I have met.”

Hodapp said Democrats shouldn’t write Keith off in the August primary, but “admittedly, it would take a lot of things to go her way.”

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said Keith “fills a very important space in this particular election cycle.”

“In a race that boils down to — let’s be honest — two white men with access to a lot of money, you need someone who gives a different perspective, both in terms of gender and race,” said Bullard, who is black.

In a standout moment, Keith resonated with the party faithful in a speech during the Florida Democratic Party’s annual convention last October, outshining both Murphy and Grayson that night.

“I think that that event and several others similar to that have created a buzz throughout the Democratic community, where even if they’re not yet there thinking I can win, they’re still very curious about me and they’re pleasantly surprised,” Keith said. “It takes people a while to move off orthodox political analysis.”

But she’s still struggled to gain measurable ground against Grayson, a liberal progressive with a passionate base, and Murphy, the Democratic establishment’s favored pick.

Pam, on paper, is a remarkably intriguing candidate. ... But these become races about getting name ID.

Democratic strategist Steve Schale

She had raised less than $100,000 for her campaign, as of March 31, while also loaning her campaign almost $49,000 — compared to the $7.6 million Murphy has raised and the $2.3 million Grayson has received and the $350,000 he’s loaned his campaign.

Without money to spend later on TV and radio ads to get her message out, “I don’t see a viable path,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who was President Barack Obama’s 2008 state campaign director.

“Pam, on paper, is a remarkably intriguing candidate,” Schale said. “But these become races about getting name ID.”

One of the few statewide polls to include Keith had her polling somewhat competitively. A News 13/Bay News 9 survey in early March found Keith with 11 percent support against 27 percent for Murphy, 16 percent for Grayson, 31 percent undecided and 15 percent who picked “other.”

Fundraising and polling are often seen as key barometers of a candidate’s viability. But Keith said the emphasis on those factors creates “a barrier to entry” to political newcomers who aren’t independently wealthy or already well-known.

Keith said Democratic Party leaders “are doing themselves no favors by being rigid” in endorsing only Murphy over Grayson and not even considering her.

“The political sands have since shifted under the party, and being unwilling and unable to shift with it is a recipe for disaster,” she said. “I’m perfectly OK if [voters] know and choose my opponent, but it would be devastating to leave this thing and know the only reason I didn’t win is because no one was made aware that I was one of their choices.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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