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  • Today's coarse politics

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    A Times Editorial

    Today's coarse politics

    While the nastiness in this year's political campaigns can distort Tuesday's decisionmaking, the challenge for voters is to avoid getting swept up in it and to try not to reward it.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 3, 2002

    Before they became political combatants, Jeb Bush and Bill McBride were willing to describe each other as honorable people. Bush, speaking for an awards dinner in 1999, said McBride "is a person of high integrity and real honesty . . . one of the great Floridians of our time." McBride, traveling with the governor on a trade mission to Israel that same year, told a reporter Bush "cares about people" and "knows how to do the right thing."

    Voters watching this year's campaign for Florida governor can be excused for thinking otherwise. Among other things, Bush has branded McBride as a "reckless corporate attorney" who is "owned by special interests" and as someone "we can't trust." McBride has said "our schools have declined in nearly every category" and "Florida is still one of the most violent states in the country."

    This is the coarseness of modern politics that distorts the important decisions voters must make on Tuesday. In the 2002 campaign, in Florida and beyond, the nastiness has at times been as hard to ignore as it has been to stomach.

    In Georgia, U.S. Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss used a commercial picturing Osama bin Laden as the narrator attacked his opponent, U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, for lacking "courage" in a vote over disputed workplace rules for the homeland security agency. Cleland lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. In South Dakota, U.S. Rep. John Thune used commercial images of al-Qaida terrorists and Saddam Hussein in an attack on U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson over some votes he made against missile defense systems.

    In Florida, the governor's campaign has seemed almost tame compared to some races.

    Buddy Dyer and Charlie Crist, both seeking to become attorney general, can't say enough bad things about each other. Dyer uses quotes from newspaper editorials to conclude that Crist is "unqualified, unethical, incompetent." Crist made the preposterous claim that a Dyer state Senate vote in 1999 against a bill limiting the damages businesses pay in lawsuits means Dyer wants "criminals to sue innocent victims." Ginnie Brown-Waite, a state senator trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, has claims in one commercial that Thurman, by voting on routine federal budget resolutions supported by members of both parties, was "jeopardizing Social Security." A Hernando County sheriff's deputy caught Brown-Waite's husband, a retired state trooper, stealing Thurman yard signs.

    The campaign for and against the class size amendment (No. 9) has been so infused with hyperbole and misstatement that almost no one looks credible. Bush leaned so heavily on educators to fight the amendment that his Board of Education manufactured research, his education secretary likened the amendment to "Armageddon," and St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler took money from students to mail out fliers warning voters about "less money for needed law enforcement, child protection and elderly services, road repairs and construction, etc."

    The clatter of campaigns can be annoying and often misleading, but the point for voters is not to tune it out. The point is to avoid getting swept up in it and to try not to reward it.

    Not all campaigns are uninspired or discouraging. Mary Brown, a county child care administrator, has asked mainly that voters examine her decades of rich civic and educational experience as she tries to become the first African-American elected to the Pinellas School Board. Bill McBride brings a life history -- born into a blue-collar home, worked his way through law school, fought in Vietnam and ran the state's largest law firm -- that suggests he would bring a consensus-building approach that has been missing in the governor's office.

    The kind words that Bush and McBride once exchanged -- before they were candidates -- serve as a reminder of the unreal quality of today's politics. Modern campaigns tend to exhibit the angry extremes. What most voters seek is the more peaceful ground that lies in between.

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