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Florida Democrats see mayor as savior

Charismatic Scott Maddox, 34, favored for state chairman, is raising eyebrows and shaping a message.

By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- Don't get mad, get Maddox.

That jingle failed to help Scott Maddox win enough votes to capture the Democratic nomination for attorney general in September. But it reflects the growing sentiment among party activists poised to select the Tallahassee mayor as the next chairman of the bruised and battered Florida Democratic Party.

Maddox is widely viewed as the best choice to rebuild a once-dominant state party, which suffered crushing defeats in November and lags far behind the Florida Republican Party in fundraising and organization.

"What I see, I like so far," said state Sen. Ron Klein of Boca Raton, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Maddox's flirtation with the governor's race drew little attention. He lost most major endorsements to Buddy Dyer of Orlando in the Democratic primary for attorney general.

Now he has emerged as the party's savior.

Democrats like Maddox's drive, telegenic smile and ability to craft and deliver a message. Maddox, 34, was the youngest candidate elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 1993.

But Maddox has been dogged by ethics complaints that haven't stuck. And even his mentor urged him not to seek the state Democratic Party's chairmanship.

"I have thought being a party head attracts so much fire from within and without that it could hurt him as a candidate," said Mallory Horne, the only person in modern times to serve as Senate president and House speaker.

Democrats won't name a leader for the $100,000 job to replace Bob Poe until Saturday. But Maddox is shaping the message Democrats will offer voters in 2004. That's when Florida once again will play a pivotal role in electing a president, and the party chief can show up on network talk shows on Sunday mornings.

"We're for affordable health care. (Republicans) are for profitable health care," said Maddox, speaking in made-for-television sound bites. "They're for Wall Street; we're for your street."

Without batting an eye, Maddox can recite the names of a dozen Democrats he thinks the party should groom for higher office. Among them: Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, Broward state senators Skip Campbell and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Tampa council member and mayoral candidate Bob Buckhorn.

And Maddox is not shy about attacking Republicans. Democrats loved his introduction of the party's nominee for governor, Tampa's Bill McBride, that he delivered on the Capitol steps in September: "He ran a successful business and didn't have to rely on his father's connections in order to make a living."

But the charismatic mayor also has left a trail of ethics questions that have raised eyebrows but otherwise fizzled:

-- State officials investigated but found no evidence that he allegedly fixed traffic tickets for lawmakers. A former city employee complained to the state that he was fired for not punishing two workers who allegedly observed the mayor in a compromising position with a woman who worked for the city. The two workers signed affidavits denying they saw anything inappropriate. Maddox dismissed both complaints as the work of a political gadfly who files frivolous complaints against many local officials.

-- Maddox moved city elections to the spring instead of November, critics said, so he could run for mayor again if he lost the attorney general's race. Maddox said he voted to move the elections only to compromise with county commissioners and prefers that they be held in the fall.

-- He blocked a political rival's attempt to annex property into the city, forcing the mayoral candidate to buy a house within city limits. Maddox said his decision not to run again for mayor proves he wasn't personally motivated. He said the city should not have to provide services for a property annexed for political reasons.

Horne said he told Maddox not to accept the party chairmanship because it could damage his chances for running for governor in 2006 or beyond. The stakes are higher for Maddox who, unlike Poe, aspires to elected office.

That's exactly what worries some Democrats, who fear Maddox could use the party and its soft money to help elect himself.

"I have some pretty serious reservations about his motivations," said Wasserman-Schultz, D-Weston.

While Florida League of Cities president, Maddox met with leaders of all of the state's 405 cities after pulling up in his Mayor on the Move motorhome. Supporters say that shows Maddox can reach out and build grassroots support, which the party desperately needs. Others have wondered if he was building name recognition for a statewide race. Maddox promises only to fill Poe's term, which ends in 2004.

His ambition reads in his resume: youngest Tallahassee city commissioner ever elected and the mayor who brought a new airline to the regional airport (airport visitors are welcomed by his voice over the loud speaker). Maddox formed the Mayor's Initiative on Race Relations, bringing residents from different parts of the city together to talk. And he's credited with revitalizing and expanding organizations he's led. Tallahassee's Capital City Jaycees was named the top growth chapter in the country during Maddox's 1987 presidency.

"He's a long-range planner," Horne said.

Maddox began planning his political career while a student at Florida State University, where he also attended law school and met his wife, Sha. They have two sons: Jack, 7, and Denver, 5.

Former Senate President Gwen Margolis of North Miami Beach, now back in the Senate, said Maddox spent hours every week in her office, soaking in the atmosphere. He tagged along with Horne, who at that time was Margolis' general counsel.

"And he hung around the office to learn what he could," Margolis said.

Maddox also learned politics at the knee of his father, who led the Florida Police Benevolent Association for a quarter century before being ousted in 1994. The PBA then sued Charles Maddox, claiming that a $20,000 check he wrote to Scott Maddox's political consulting firm was unauthorized. Scott Maddox wasn't named in the suit, and he said the money was an advance payment on his polling contract with the PBA. Maddox has sold the consulting firm, and the suit was settled.

The police union's bitterness with the Maddox family didn't skip a generation. David Murrell, executive director of the union, said Maddox opposed a bill sought by the union that standardized police and firefighters' municipal pensions.

"It's a mystery to us why they (Democrats) would want someone who is so anti-employee," Murrell said.

"My guess is should he become chairman, that we'll look hard at our contributions to the Democratic Party," Murrell said.

The group gave about $100,000 to the Democratic Party this year, considerably less than what it gave to Republicans.

Murrell's characterization of Maddox as anti-employee was dismissed by Doug Martin, spokesman for the main state employees' union.

"They're Republicans," Martin said of the PBA.

"Scott Maddox was always there when we needed him. He's been very supportive of state workers," Martin said.

Democrats who support Maddox say they hope he uses the contacts he made during his Mayor on the Move tour. They say the next party leader will have to build bridges between elected officials and the local grassroots people who help elect them. One major complaint is that the party's structure and rules make it hard to bring in good leadership.

Another complaint is that the party does little to help candidates. Democrats didn't field a candidate for the powerful new chief financial officer position on the Cabinet. And Democrats failed to generate a large turnout on Election Day.

Maddox, who said he wants the Democratic Party to stand for more than opposing Republicans, will have to work on the party's message. Voters approved Democrat-backed ideas, such as the constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes, but rejected many Democratic candidates who pushed for those measures.

And Maddox will have to raise money. Despite his late entry into the attorney general race, Maddox raised about $900,000, including matching state money.

Maddox doesn't have a problem persuading people to give money. As a 16-year-old looking to start an auto detailing business, Maddox asked his father to loan him $1,000. Charles Maddox agreed to the loan, but with interest. Maddox decided he couldn't afford his father's terms and began knocking on doors of banks in town. Each time a loan officer refused him, Maddox asked to speak with a supervisor. Eventually, Maddox found himself in the office of Les McLean, now city president of Peoples First Community Bank in Tallahassee.

McLean agreed to lend him the money without a co-signer.

"He had a plan, and I just felt it made sense to work with him," McLean said. "He was very focused and disciplined."

In exchange for the loan, Maddox promised always to bank with McLean. He's kept that promise, transferring his account from bank to bank each time McLean changed jobs.

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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