Democrats sniff victory in race

Their party has a banker running for state financial officer, and most, but not all, unite behind her.

Published August 14, 2006

It's been four years since someone with a "D" behind the name filled a Florida Cabinet seat.

Since then, Democrats suffered another White House defeat - largely on Florida soil.

Since then, Democrats watched the GOP redraw political districts to protect the party's 2-to-1 lead in the state House.

And several prominent local Democrats defected. Dark days, indeed.

But lo, the star Asellus Borealis ("Northern Donkey") shines bright and word of a possible political savior is spreading across the land.

Democrat Alex Sink is running for chief financial officer, or CFO. If she wins this Cabinet seat, she'll run a state department that's respectable in size but still smaller than the behemoth Bank of America she ran in Florida.

She lives in Hillsborough County, so wooing voters in the crucial Interstate 4 corridor means talking to her neighbors. She calls herself a fiscal conservative who wants the state to fix the homeowners insurance mess without co-opting the entire market.

She's articulate. She's photogenic. And most of all, she's a banker.

Sink doesn't walk on water, but party activists hope she'll inspire Democrats to remember one thing: If they want to eat on Election Day, they have to learn how to fish.

"Alex Sink is unequivocally the best shot the Democrats have at reclaiming a Cabinet seat and beginning to rebuild," said Bob Buckhorn, a Democratic strategist. "She's going to win on the strength of her resume."

But not all traditional Democratic groups think she's the deliver who can take Florida back to the antediluvian days of Democrats' domination. One segment of organized labor has already split on the CFO race.

Sink has picked up the endorsement of the teachers' union - which was very influential in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign of her husband, attorney Bill McBride - as well as the Florida chapter of the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union.

But the Florida chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME - the very union whose members work for the CFO - has endorsed Republican Tom Lee, the current state Senate president and frontrunner in the GOP primary. The endorsement isn't just for the Sept. 5 primary, in which Lee faces Republicans Randy Johnson and Milt Bauguess, but for the general election.

That's got some strategists scratching their heads over why any part of labor, the historic bread and butter of the Democratic Party, would endorse a Republican for CFO when there's a Democrat available.

"Politics is sort of like family dynamics," said Fort Lauderdale lawyer and party boss Mitchell Berger. Personalities, old hurts, other unquantifiables can rule.

"Why would anyone not think she's a great candidate? It's a good question," Berger said.

AFSMCE says it's just rewarding Lee for what the union says has been a great two years for its members under Lee's reign as Senate president.

"We don't really have a relationship with (Sink), and they never really reached out to us," said AFSCME spokesman Doug Martin.

Sink's campaign points out that she has the bulk of labor behind her, if not the entirety.

"I want everyone to support me, but this is politics. My goal is to get 50 percent plus one," Sink said. "If Lee doesn't get the primary, I'll be out there trying to get their (AFSCME's) endorsement," she said.

Some Democrats say the divide is a sign of both what's wrong with the party and what's right with it.

"We're a big tent. We don't walk in lock-step and think alike - that's the beauty of our party and it's our political challenge," said state Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat who spends these days raising money for and recruiting Democrat candidates.

But some Democratic analysts argue that, while awkward, labor's lack of unanimity for Sink doesn't matter. Some say Sink's best chance to be the Democrat who wins back a Cabinet seat may be to run as a successful businesswoman and not emphasize her party affiliation at all.

"Alex has to move beyond the traditional Democratic interest groups. She has to run a different kind of campaign," Buckhorn said.

And if she spends too much time with the traditional groups, Buckhorn said, she could harm herself. Instead of talking to local women's party groups, she should be reaching out to chambers of commerce and business groups.

"She has to make it less about politics and more about competence," Buckhorn said. "I think being a Democrat isn't the liability it was in 2004," but it's still not an asset.

Derek Newton disagrees. A Miami-based political strategist and consultant, Newton says that while the labor vote may not be what it used to be, there are still significant population pockets in Florida where voters still will pick the Democrat. That is, if they are motivated to get dressed and go vote.

Newton said South Florida Democrats are numerous enough to decide the race (a recent poll separated Sink and Lee by a single percentage point) if she can convince them she is their chance to win back not just a Cabinet seat but a little self-respect.

Sink says she'll campaign both as a banker and a Democrat.

"I can't win with just Democrats' votes. I'm spending a lot of time reaching out to my natural constituency in the business community." She said she will spend time in South Florida, where she lived her first five years in the state, and where she is still in touch with business interests.

Lee says the CFO job, especially with its Cabinet duties, is more complex than someone with a "corporate resume as a banker would like to think it is."

Strategists may not agree whether Sink should wear her donkey brooch, but they do think local candidates should. Local ones have an opportunity this election to benefit from voter discontent over gas prices, insurance premiums and Iraq. This discontent is most likely to be aimed at the in-charge Republicans.

"We have the opportunity to pick up (state House) seats for the first time since 1998," said Florida Democratic Party executive director Luis Navarro.

Another factor Democratic strategists are counting on is the absence of the George W. Bush re-election effort. Even Republicans admit the get-out-the-vote machinery in place in 2004 likely will never be duplicated. That's when more than 100,000 Republican volunteers helped President Bush widen his winning margin from 537 votes in 2000 to nearly 400,000 votes in 2004.

Democrats plan to take advantage. "We are going to need to have a presidential-type (mobilization) effort, which I think will happen," party boss Berger said.

But this election is not without its own challenges for the Democrats, who haven't dominated the state in more than a decade: Third-party voter registration, in which independent groups sign up voters, is tied up in federal court, so traditional left-leaning groups like unions have halted their registration drives.

And voters are going to have to show photo ID for the first time or be forced to vote a provisional ballot. That is expected to hurt Democrats more than Republicans, and Berger says he's lining up the same cadre of lawyers he did in 2004 to watch the polls and prepare for challenges.

Sink says she's confident Democrats will turn out in force.

"I give voters a lot of credit," Sink said. They see that "when one political party is in control, in control of the Legislature and the governor's office and the Cabinet, that sometimes doesn't lead to the best decisions."