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Let's have more substance and less rhetoric

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

Where's the beef?

The Democratic candidates for governor can't dodge that question much longer. It's easy to slam Gov. Jeb Bush and blame him for everything that ails Florida these days, but at some point Janet Reno, Bill McBride, Lois Frankel and Daryl Jones are going to have to start laying out their alternatives to the governor's policies.

Everything suggests that the Democratic nomination will go to either Reno, the runaway favorite among the party's primary voters, or McBride, who is emerging as the choice of organized labor. So far neither has offered voters anything more than relentless criticism of Bush's record, particularly on education. They have said little or nothing about what they would do differently. And on the issue of tax reform, which is the key to adequate funding of our public schools and universities, they have yet to even acknowledge that the state needs to increase its tax revenue. They have stood on the sidelines while Senate President John McKay and other Republicans lead the fight for tax reform over the opposition of Bush and House Speaker Tom Feeney.

Reno and McBride have been spending most of their time trying to energize key Democratic constituencies -- unions, minorities and women. That is a necessary part of campaigning, but the time is rapidly approaching when voters need to hear a serious debate on the issues critical to Florida's future.

Last week, Reno began her drive across Florida in her red pickup truck in an attempt to evoke warm memories of Lawton Chiles' walk across the state when he was a little-known state senator running for the U.S. Senate. Walkin' Lawton was trying to raise his name recognition, a problem that Reno doesn't have. She is a household name in Florida and beyond. Truckin' Janet, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, is trying to show that she has the stamina for campaigning and can appeal to voters in every section of the state.

At a stop in Tallahassee, Reno challenged one of the central arguments of the McBride campaign -- that he is the only candidate who can appeal to Panhandle conservatives, Central Florida independents and South Florida liberals. "I know Bill McBride says he has a better chance of winning in the Panhandle," Reno told a meeting of service-worker union members. "Well, I've been the length of the Panhandle, and I haven't heard anything about Bill McBride."

Reno's message is: I care about education, senior citizens and the environment. I tell it like it is and am not afraid to make tough decisions. Well, that's great. But what she doesn't say is where she would come up with the money to keep her promise to reduce class size and increase teacher pay.

McBride, meanwhile, is busy picking up union endorsements, raising campaign money, trying to increase his name recognition and bashing Bush, whom he calls "the worst governor of my lifetime." What he hasn't yet made clear is why voters should trust him to do better. The Tampa lawyer, who has suggested that Florida may have enough tax revenue to adequately fund education and social services without new taxes, had rather criticize Bush for replacing affirmative action than spell out his blueprint for education and explain how he would pay for it.

Sometimes, McBride gets so carried away with attacking Bush that it's hard to take him seriously. For example, last week he called Bush's One Florida plan, which replaced affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting, "the worst program for race relations since segregation."

That is a ridiculous statement that McBride should never utter again. One Florida is neither the disaster opponents predicted nor the great success Bush claims. Except for the University of Florida, the state's flagship university, minority admissions are about the same as they were under affirmative action. A far more important issue is how to turn around schools that are failing minority children. Any ideas, Democrats?

Voters are beginning to notice the lack of substance in the Democratic campaign. As Tonya Murray, a marine biology major at the University of West Florida, told Times political editor Adam Smith after listening to Reno's speech at her campus: "She talked a lot about what was wrong, but she didn't say what she is going to do about it."

With the election eight months away, Democrats have yet to engage in a serious political debate on any important issue, or put a serious proposal on the table. They keep telling us what Bush has done wrong, but they haven't told us much about what they would do right. This campaign needs red meat, not a red truck.

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