Will vote long ago damage Davis?

His rival Smith and a mailer attack his 1990 vote against reparations for two wrongly imprisoned black men.

Published August 26, 2006

Jim Davis said he was just doing his job when voting against compensation for two wrongfully convicted black men. Davis, a lawyer, said there was not enough evidence to support reparations.

But today, 16 years later, could that single vote cast when he was a state legislator help keep Davis, now a U.S. representative, from becoming governor?

The issue made an explosive return during a televised debate Wednesday between Davis and his rival in the Democratic primary for governor, state Sen. Rod Smith. And now the vote is the subject of an attack mailer aimed at African-American voters.

The mailer, paid for by U.S. Sugar Corp. and sent out by a third-party group to more than 100,000 homes, has the potential to hurt Davis, Democratic strategists and even some of his supporters say.

"It will impact black voters, especially in Miami-Dade County," said Daisy Black, statewide head of the Black Democratic Caucus and a Davis supporter, who decried the mailer.

"If you cast the seeds of doubt about somebody, people may not vote for them," said Democratic consultant Derek Newton. "It's a brutally simplistic maneuver."

The saga of Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee is one with real pull among blacks in Florida, a vital core of the Democratic Party. The men were convicted of the 1963 murders of two white service station attendants in Port St. Joe, a rural North Florida town. They were pardoned by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975.

Black legislators tried for years to get compensation for the men and the issue landed before the House Claims Committee in 1990. It failed by a 6-4 vote, one not divided along party or geographical lines. Peter Rudy Wallace, D-St. Petersburg, was among the majority.

"The issue and the vote were agonizingly difficult," said Wallace, who is no longer in the Legislature. "The fact that the bill had failed 11 years in a row tells you something about that. Some years it was so difficult it was not even considered."

State Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, also came to Davis' defense. "He's a methodical thinker," said Miller, who is black. "I can tell you there's not a racist thing about him. For him to make that decision, there was probably something not in place."

But others saw it differently. "Members of the black caucus have always wanted Jim Davis to tell us why he voted that way," said state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, who has endorsed Smith and is also black. He called Davis' explanation of insufficient evidence a copout.

Pitts and Lee were compensated in 1998. Each received $500,000.

This is not the first race Davis has had to face questions about the 1990 vote. In his first run for Congress in 1996, opponent Sandy Freedman ran ads blasting Davis for siding "against justice." Davis won the race.

But he was a known quantity in the Tampa Bay area. Now, in his first statewide race, he is working against low name recognition. A negative ad could do more damage.

"In the African-American community, the turnout is those 50 years and older," said Newton, who is not affiliated with Smith or Davis. "And those people remember the story of Pitts and Lee."

Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh, who managed Bill McBride's upset of Janet Reno in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, said voters who have no other knowledge of Davis - he is generally regarded as a staunch supporter of civil rights - could be swayed by the mailer.

"It creates an impression in voters' minds that Jim Davis is not with them and that is an unfortunate. In fact he is. Rod Smith has a fine record, too. But it's time for Rod Smith to stand up and say, enough of this. He needs to go mano a mano with Davis, not send out special-interest henchmen to do his dirty work."

The mailer was sent by the Coalition for Justice and Equality, which formed July 29 and three days later got $100,000 from U.S. Sugar Corp. of Clewiston. The sugar giant has pumped more than $1-million more into other groups working on Smith's behalf, the Davis campaign says.

After a series of beatings from U.S. Sugar, Davis responded with a TV ad on Friday that blasts his opponent for taking their money and for supporting a bill allowing the greatest telephone rate increase in state history.

Smith did distance himself from the attack mail piece on Friday, issuing a statement saying it went too far by implying that Davis' overall record on racial matters is one of shame. But he defended use of Pitts and Lee, calling it a bad vote and legitimate topic for criticism.

One of the mailers reached the Miami home of Freddie Pitts on Thursday. Pitts, 62, who drives a shuttle bus from South Florida airports to Key West, said he does not buy Davis' explanation, either. "All the evidence he needed was there; I don't' know what he wanted." But Pitts said he did not think Davis acted out of racial prejudice, rather political expediency.

And Pitts isn't convinced the forces behind the mailer care about equality. "They're just concerned about themselves and whatever they hope to maintain."