There is an old saying around Florida that if you don’t like the weather just wait a couple of hours and suddenly it will change. Likewise, there are Florida political suddenlies as well.
One day nearly 30 years, I rolled out of bed, a satisfied member of the Florida House of Representatives cruising to re-election in my safe seat. Suddenly, the phone rang, and it was the press. I was informed that my state senator, the unbeatable Betty Castor, was leaving the Senate to run in a statewide race for commissioner of education. Was I in or out, the reporter asked, and after 30 seconds of pondering, I said, “I’m in.”
As I pillowed my head that night, I was then a candidate in a hotly contested race in a district not favorable to my party, and both major parties were scrambling to find candidates to run for my House seat, all because things suddenly changed.
In 1998, the Jeb Bush-Sandra Mortham team was heading into the race for an open governor’s seat when there were revelations about Mortham’s financial mismanagement of the Department of State and alleged ethical lapses. Mortham was dropped from the ticket, and Jeb took his time looking for a replacement.
Meanwhile, with less than a week to go before qualifying, Jeb was still looking for a running mate. Popular Education Commissioner Frank Brogan was cruising to re-election, when he was tapped for the Bush-Brogan team. Tom Gallagher resurrects his political career and steps in to the commissioner of education’s office. Suddenly things changed.
Suddenly Sen. Connie Mack calls it quits and Bill Nelson jumps from a secure cabinet position to go to Washington. Gallagher makes a cabinet lateral from commissioner to treasurer, and non-educator “Chain Gang Charlie” Crist, still licking his political wounds from a 2-1 U.S. Senate loss two years before, resurrects his political career by getting elected as commissioner of education.
Two years later, secure Attorney General Bob Butterworth announces he is hanging it up, and Commissioner Crist, never one to miss a political opportunity or dodge a TV camera, makes a lateral and becomes attorney general, despite having flunked the Florida Bar Exam twice, but managing to pass it on the third try.
Before Charlie takes the oath of office, he begins campaigning for governor, often missing in action in Tallahassee during his term as the state’s top legal officer. Though eligible for election to another term, he goes on to the governor’s mansion.
Part way through his first term, newly elected U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez decides Washington is not for him and announces he is not running for re-election. Crist decides Washington is a better political track for him, so he announces a run for the Senate. This opens the governor’s race for people who weren’t thinking about running, such as Rick Scott, Alex Sink and Bill McCollum, the latter two giving up safe cabinet re-elections and creating a domino effect of people running for their seats and creating ripples down through the House, Senate and in local races.
Meanwhile, Martinez resigns and Charlie gets a much-cherished Senate appointment, but the problem is that it is for the seat he is running for, so he appoints a seat-warming placeholder ... his close confidant who agrees not to run for re-election.
Charlie was running hard when he realized he couldn’t win the primary, so he ran as an independent and lost. With no Senate opportunities ahead of him, Charlie decides that Tallahassee is not such a bad place to live after all, so now he is running for governor, as a Democrat. Suddenly things change.
Scott has been looking for a replacement for the lieutenant governor he dismissed 10 months ago. It seems that no one wants the job, and the vacancy is proving to be an embarrassment for the governor, even sparking litigation to force him to fulfill his constitutional duties.
Scott has been courting Tom Lee for some time, but Lee is reluctant to give up his bright future in the Florida Senate. Lee won’t say “yes,” and Scott can’t seem to hear “no.”
Then pops up an alternative. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, cruising for a safe re-election, throws his hat in the ring for a university presidency, one everyone, including Atwater, expects him to get. Now that puts a smile on Lee’s face. After all, he ran and lost to Sink and would make an excellent candidate for Scott to appoint.
The political buzz is the opportunity for Democrats to pick up a cabinet seat and the need for Republicans to protect it. Potential candidates are scurrying at the state level and at the local one as well. Right now, the race for the Senate presidency is down to a one-vote margin, and if Lee is gone, it is a possible game changer for Sen. Jack Latvala.
Local Hillsborough politico’s are salivating over a possible open state Senate seat. But suddenly, Atwater fails to make the university cut, and the CFO door closes. So Lee is back to being a senator, Latvala is relieved, and Scott is still looking for an LG.
Then suddenly, the governor announces a two-person LG list, and Commissioner Sandy Murman is on it, along with a new name that has never been vetted publicly, former state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. And Lopez-Cantera gets the nod.
Yes, politics is like the weather in the frequent changes that suddenly come about, and it’s a lot more fun to watch. In fact, it’s the best spectator sport in town.
John Grant served 21 years in the Florida House and Senate. He practices law in Tampa.