Lost in the anguish over missing poll workers and voting machine malfunctions is the astonishing political story of small-town hero Bill McBride. He was 40 points down in the polls after former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno entered the Democratic primary last year, and he was 30 points down as recently as June. Few political experts gave him a chance, and some openly dismissed him.
That McBride is now the apparent Democratic nominee for governor is something akin to a political miracle.
Clearly, his campaign strategy played a role. He started early, lined up key endorsements, including the Florida Education Association, and worked his business and civic connections to begin amassing a campaign bank account. He put together a detailed education plan and kept talking about it. Television commercials, particularly the early ones broadcast by the FEA, got him name recognition and acquainted voters with his life story. He saved his own money for TV spots that were timed to the final weeks, for greatest impact. The attack commercials authorized by Gov. Jeb Bush didn't hurt either, giving McBride more stature among Democrats.
The McBride surge, though, owes as well to his own remarkable life story. He grew up in Leesburg the son of a TV repairman, was named Mr. Leesburg High, went to the University of Florida on a football scholarship, hurt his knee, gave away his scholarship to another player, and worked his way through college. He left law school to enter the Marines to fight for his country in Vietnam, was awarded the Bronze Star, returned to graduate from law school and join the prestigious firm of Holland & Knight, rising to the top there, taking over as managing partner in 1992. At Holland & Knight, McBride expanded the firm and strengthened its conscience, bolstering its pro bono work and fighting for a living wage for all office workers, at the expense of higher pay for himself and his partners.
Even before the primary had ended, Gov. Bush was using TV commercials in an attempt to define McBride as a "reckless" corporate attorney. McBride is in fact an attorney, but one who ran a firm with integrity, who took care of the people who worked for him, and who used his stature to play a meaningful role in the community, as Chamber of Commerce president and United Way chairman and founder of Opening Doors for Children.
As the campaign heads to Nov. 5, McBride has much work to do. The Election Day controversy is still not over, and the voting irregularities in Miami-Dade are worrisome to more people than just Janet Reno. The controversy, however it plays out, has sapped some of the energy from Democrats, and he will need to find a way to recapture it. Once the vote count is final, his first task will be to pick a running mate, which could bring new excitement as well. He also needs to expand on his education ideas, to demonstrate how Bush, as he suggests, has "been trying to be cheaper, not better."
Throughout the primary, voters were able to see McBride as a civil and principled man. As he declared victory Thursday night, he spoke respectfully of his two Democratic opponents and noted the importance of restoring comity to the debate in Tallahassee: "What we need is a governor that's going to build consensus, and that's going to bring everyone back together again."
He won 58 of the state's 67 counties, and his wife Alex Sink, herself a distinguished business leader, makes the point about their childhood roots. "We grew up with small-town values," she says, "which to me is taking care of your neighbors and looking out for others."
Those values are too often missing in government, and McBride would do well to continue speaking to them.
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