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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017
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Florida Democrats: Rick Scott the poster boy for GOP extremism

At the state Democratic Party's convention this weekend in Orlando, one of the political figures most talked about, maybe more than any other, is a Republican -- Gov. Rick Scott. Democratic activists and insiders gathered here to kick off the 2012 campaign season believe Scott, whose job approval ratings have hovered among the lowest of any governor in the nation, will help them in the coming election – even though he won't be on the ballot until 2014. They're citing him repeatedly as an example of what they call the extremism of the new, tea party-influenced Republican Party. "I think he's an asset for Democrats," said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich of Weston, who says she is "seriously considering running against Scott in 2014. "He has taken on the mantle of a right-wing social agenda. He's vulnerable and he should be talked about."
What Scott has done in Florida is "exactly what Republicans want to do with the entire nation," Vice President Joe Biden told the Democratic gathering Friday – slashing education and health care programs while cutting taxes for the corporate elite. Under Scott, former Sen. Bob Graham said Saturday, "Would you believe, we turned back the clock 40 years in one session of the Legislature" on education, environmental protection, and growth management. But for the most part, Democrats don't want to talk yet about who will run against him in 2014. Several are positioning themselves for the race, including some attending this weekend's convention, but most are reluctant to discuss it openly. "I've had many, many people encourage me to run again," said Tampa's Alex Sink, unsuccessful 2010 candidate against Scott, shortly after she spoke Saturday morning at a gathering of members of the Florida Education Association teacher's union. But she said talking about a 2014 campaign now "would be a mistake – we have to keep our eyes on the ball for 2012." She said she won't make a decision about a 2014 run until after the 2012 election. Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, also a subject of speculation, isn't attending this weekend's event and has declined to to discuss possible future political plans. So does state party Chairman Rod Smith, who ran unsuccessfully in 2006 for governor and is yet another subject of speculation. "I'm giving absolutely no thought to 2014 – the issue of 2014 should be on no one's mind," said Smith in an interview Saturday. "We want to focus on the Republican party's right-wing extremism, which is symbolized by Rick Scott and his policies – demonizing police, firefighters and teachers, rejecting money for transportation, education and health care at a time when people need help." But, he said, "I want us to focus on being united and fighting back-to-back in 2012, and anything that distracts from that is a negative." Rich, an exception, said she'll decide about the race after January's legislative session, during which she'll be one of the leading spokespeople for the party's point of view, but probably before the 2012 election. She said there should be no inhibition on starting a 2014 campaign early. "I don't think so in this case because people don't want Rick Scott to be their governor." Iorio, Rich, Sink and Smith aren't likely to be the only prominent Democrats in the mix in the 2014 Democratic primary – "I think there will be five or six," Rich said. Democrats here say figures from the business world, the Hispanic community and others who aren't well-known parts of the political world are likely to test the waters, though they're reluctant to say who. "The field is wide open. We're going to elect a Democratic governor next time, but the person who will fill that seat is absolutely undetermined – it could be somebody who's not on anybody's radar right now," said Alan Clendenin of Tampa, a veteran party activist and one of Florida's delegates to the Democratic National Committee. The main focus of the speeches from the podium this weekend has been the re-election of President Barack Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson, about which Democrats say they feel confident. But they also hope the new districting amendments passed in 2010, aimed at lessening gerrymandering, will bring their party a degree of influence in state government, from its near-total irrelevance now. That irrelevance, the result of holding small minorities in state legislative and executive offices, has persisted for more than a decade, the result, Democrats say, of gerrymandered legislative districts set up for the purpose of electing Republicans. Electing a Democratic governor in 2014 would help, but making gains in the state Legislature and delegation to Congress in both coming elections is a tougher but equally important goal. Republicans now hold majorities of 2-1 or more in both houses of the Legislature, and a 19-6 majority among the state's 25 Congress members. The delegation will increase to 27 in the reapportionment. "Year in and year out, our gubernatorial race is competitive, our presidential race is competitive – the only reason we have such a lopsided Legislature is that we have such a gerrymandered district map," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who's also national Democratic Party chairman, in a gathering with reporters Saturday. No one is predicting Democratic majorities in the Legislature or congressional delegation, but Wasserman Schultz said she hopes for a larger minority in the congressional delegation after 2012 – something closer to the 15-10 split before the 2010 election.

wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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