Smith for the Democrats

Both Rod Smith and Jim Davis have solid records of service. But Smith has the dynamic leadership style needed to bring both parties together.

By Times editorial
Published August 13, 2006

Democrats have an opportunity this year to restore some measure of political balance to Tallahassee, and they need to be smart about how they approach it. Their challenge in the Sept. 5 primary is to select the candidate best positioned to reclaim the Governor's Mansion and deal with a Republican-controlled Legislature while advancing a political philosophy that could be embraced by moderate Floridians regardless of party affiliation. It is a close call, but in our judgment state Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua is the candidate who can best make the case for change in November and then steer this state back toward the middle.

Both Smith and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa have solid records of public service. They each can articulately list the shortcomings of the Jeb Bush era: Too many tax breaks, an education system that relies too heavily on standardized testing, an obsession with privatizing government services and a failure to effectively deal with the property insurance crisis.

At the same time, it is hard to find significant policy differences between the two Democrats. Davis and Smith support preserving abortion rights, reviewing sales tax exemptions and creating an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts. Both have plans to raise teacher salaries and transform the FCAT into a diagnostic tool to help students rather than punish schools. Both oppose altering the class size amendment, changing the state Constitution to allow tuition vouchers and altering the Save Our Homes amendment in ways that could exacerbate inequities or decimate local government budgets.

While both candidates have proposals for dealing with the property insurance crisis, Smith's is more comprehensive and ambitious. While Davis' overall environmental record is a bit cleaner than Smith's, the state senator pledges to fulfill the state's commitment to clean up the Everglades and enforce growth management laws. We will hold him to his word - and expect him not to be co-opted by support from Big Sugar in the same way Bill McBride, the Democratic nominee four years ago, was controlled by the teachers unions.

The choice between Smith and Davis boils down to electability and the ability to govern. In style, temperament and experience, Smith is best suited to make the case that the Democrats' values match mainstream Florida and to bring real change in Tallahassee. The son of a farming family of modest means who graduated from the University of Florida law school, he was a labor lawyer in private practice until he defeated an incumbent Gainesville-area Republican state attorney in 1992. His successful prosecution of Danny Rolling for the Gainesville student murders should insulate him from the soft-on-crime attacks usually launched by Republicans. But Smith also can cite among his accomplishments as a prosecutor creating innovative special units to go after environmental crimes and crimes against women.

In 2000, Smith won a north Florida state Senate seat formerly held by a Republican. He has carved out his own middle ground, often supporting the rights of gun owners and agricultural interests while also pushing legislation to help single parents collect child support, close ineffective boot camps for juveniles, provide more money to help abused children and expand the availability of health care and prescription drugs.

Most importantly, Smith has repeatedly demonstrated he is a charismatic leader who can bring together Democrats and Republicans to take courageous stands under enormous pressure. He helped lead a coalition of senators who refused to let Bush and the Legislature defy the courts and interfere with Terri Schiavo's constitutional right to have her end of life wishes carried out. This past legislative session, Smith held another bipartisan group together that prevented the Republican leadership from trying to restore tuition vouchers that the Florida Supreme Court had found unconstitutional. He did the same thing to make sure voters weren't confronted with a convoluted proposal to gut the class size amendment. In an era when both major political parties are often defined by their most extreme partisans, Florida needs a governor who can reach across party lines and lead by consensus.

Davis has a solid record as an ethical, thoughtful state legislator and congressman who understands the challenges facing Florida. Smith combines the same grasp of those challenges with a more dynamic leadership style and a clearer, fresher record of building mainstream coalitions that can successfully carry the day on tough issues. That is what it will take for a Democrat to win in November and successfully govern in Tallahassee.

The Times recommends Rod Smith for the Democratic nomination for governor.