Why we talked to 170 candidates

Published August 20, 2006

Early voting in the Sept. 5 primary election begins Monday and, like many of you, the Times editorial board spent much of the summer doing its homework on the candidates and the issues. Democrats and Republicans face a long primary ballot in making their choices for governor, chief financial officer, attorney general, Congress, the state Legislature, county commission, the judiciary and school board.

In the past four weeks, we have interviewed 170 candidates for state and local office in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. In addition, we asked the candidates to provide biographical information and respond to our issue questionnaire. In some local races, we also talked to people in the community who know the candidates' strengths and weaknesses.

We wanted to finish our work in time to publish the Times' candidate recommendations before the start of early voting. One hurricane aimed at Tampa Bay could have disrupted our schedule - not to mention everyone else's - but fortunately the weather and the candidates cooperated and we met our deadline. A few weeks after the primary election, the Times editorial board will do it all again before making candidate recommendations in the general election, a more partisan contest than primary elections.

Each election season I hear from readers who say they appreciate our efforts to help them sort out their thinking on candidates, especially in races for circuit and county court judgeships and school boards, where too often voters know little about the candidates. I also hear from a few readers who say a newspaper has no business telling people how to vote. Voters, they say, are capable of making up their own minds and editorial boards should just butt out.

Contrary to what some of these grumpy souls may think, the Times editorial board would never presume to tell people how to vote. Whatever our faults, we are not that conceited. Voters are free to consider or ignore our recommendations. However, we believe we provide a public service by doing our part to inform voters who do not have the time or the means to assess candidates and their positions on issues. We work hard at it and believe that whatever voters think of our choices, they benefit from having our opinion in the mix, even if they reject it.

You may notice that we do not "endorse" candidates - we "recommend" them. There is a difference, at least in our minds. To endorse suggests that we embrace a candidate and most or all of his or her positions on issues. If only there were more candidates in that category. To recommend means that we have chosen to support a candidate even though we may disagree with him on important issues but found him less objectionable than his opponents. In short, we sometimes go with the best of the worst.

In case you have wondered, our recommendations are not dictated from on high by me, the paper's editor of editorials, or by Paul Tash, its editor and chairman. Members of the editorial board are not always unanimous in the board's decisions, so we strive for consensus. In fact, some board members will admit to occasionally voting for candidates not recommended by the Times. And that's okay - we don't try to tell staffers how to vote either.

Without doubt our toughest call was the decision to go with Rod Smith over Jim Davis, a local congressman whom we respect and admire, in the Democratic campaign for governor. Smith and Davis differ more in style than substance. The bottom line was that we believe Smith would be a more effective campaigner in the general election and a more effective governor if elected.

The first candidate to come in for an interview was Charlie Crist, a local boy running for the Republican nomination for governor. The last candidate we interviewed was Bill Heller, a St. Petersburg Democrat running for state House seat District 52. We recommend both.

In between Crist and Heller, we listened to 168 other candidates expressing their views on issues great and small. The only thing all the candidates could agree on was this - the overriding issue in this election year is Florida's property insurance crisis. People are angry about it and are demanding answers from the candidates for governor and the state Legislature. The debate over the state's insurance crisis is sure to sharpen in the general election campaign, and candidates in both parties had better be prepared.

Meanwhile, I need a vacation.