Seeking black vote, Davis gets a scolding

A black lawmaker from South Florida tells the Democratic candidate he must change course.

Published September 7, 2006

TAMPA - Charlie Crist and Jim Davis bumped into one another Wednesday on the very first day of the general election campaign.

At separate events on opposing sides of Tampa Bay, Crist and Davis made a play for African-American voters. For Republican Crist, it was a bold effort to reach out to a traditional Democratic constituency and for Davis, an effort to show his commitment to a critical voting bloc in his party.

Crist got off to the smoother start.

Davis invited reporters to listen in on a conference call with a prominent black lawmaker from South Florida. But the stagecraft did more to illustrate the challenge ahead than Davis could have imagined.

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, skipped the congratulatory banter and instead plowed into a blunt, sometimes critical, assessment of Davis' standing with African-American voters and the ground he needs to cover.

"Y'all can't take black folks for granted," Hastings said, the urgency in his voice filling a barren room at Davis' headquarters in Tampa.

And Hastings wasn't done. He had something else to tell Davis: Charlie Crist had beat him to this punch. Crist called Hastings as polls closed Tuesday night - roughly 16 hours before Davis picked up the phone.

Hastings said he was "astounded" to get the call, adding Crist remembered meeting him about eight years ago.

"One thing that he said, and this is the trap I don't want us to fall into, was 'Nobody is going to work harder about civil rights,' " Hastings recalled. "Jim, you have to be a different white man. And it's just that simple. Black folks have the same damn problems that white folks have."

Hastings urged Davis to immediately write a letter to Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, the wrongfully convicted black men whom Davis voted against compensating in 1990. Eight years later, the Legislature passed the claims bill for Pitts and Lee. One of the co-sponsors: then state Sen. Charlie Crist.

"I voted for those men," Crist said Wednesday during his own post-election news conference in St. Petersburg.

At Crist's side was Verle Davis, the principal at St. Petersburg High School when Crist graduated three decades ago. Verle Davis was there to reinforce one of Crist's new campaign points that he, unlike Jim Davis, attended Florida's public schools. (Davis attended Jesuit High School in Tampa; his teenage sons go to public school.)

Not only that, but Verle Davis is black. Crist stressed his support for civil rights as he began to draw a contrast between himself and Davis.

As attorney general, Crist fought for authority to investigate civil rights cases. Last month, he closed the file on a 1951 case in which two black men were killed in a house bombing by Ku Klux Klan members. Crist's investigation didn't uncover anything new.

Asked which candidate has the stronger record on civil rights, Crist said: "People will decide that."

Showing how he may counter Crist's position, Davis scoffed at the nickname Crist acquired as a state lawmaker for being tough on prison inmates, "Chain Gang Charlie."

In the Democratic primary, Davis took a beating over his 1990 Pitts and Lee vote which became the subject of mailings and TV ads. His opponent, Rod Smith, called on him to apologize. Instead, Davis said he would review the case and determine if he made a mistake. He repeated that pledge Wednesday.

"We have to put this to rest and do so rather hurriedly," Hastings said.

Still, Davis said the issue was being used to distort his overall record on issues facing blacks. He often reminds voters that his grandfather, Cody Fowler, was a leader in civil rights issues in the 1950s.

But, as Hastings noted, Davis will have to do more to shore up support among African-Americans, a vital bloc of the Democratic Party. One way, he suggested, was to consider a black man or woman for his running mate. Davis has until next Thursday to pick a lieutenant governor.

Hastings said he was "terribly disappointed" in Davis' campaign efforts in vote-rich Broward County. Davis himself mentioned how few signs he had. "We have five yard signs that traveled around with me," he joked. "It was like, don't lose the yard sign." Davis won Broward by a few thousand votes. He lost in Miami-Dade and Duval, two counties with sizable black populations, by similar margins.

Overall, Davis said he will stick with his campaign strategy, which has been to emphasize small group meetings over large rallies. Davis said it is critical to have a personal connection with voters. He said he would reach out to Smith for advice and assistance. "He obviously has strengths I don't have," Davis said, referring to Smith's folksy manner and likability.

Crist embodies those same qualities, if not more so, and is a practiced, smooth speaker. He is also a fundraising machine, gathering $14-million in the primary compared to Davis' $4.4-million. Some estimate Crist will have raised as much as $30-million in the general election.

No one in Davis' camp thinks they can match Crist; the goal, campaign chairman Mitchell Berger said, is to raise at least half of what Crist does and rely on traditional Democratic grass roots support.

The Crist money machine was already in full swing Wednesday. Crist's finance chairman Brett Sembler was sitting in the lobby of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort cajoling Crist's Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers to write big checks to the Republican Party. Such "soft money" donations will finance a blizzard of Crist TV commercials between now and Nov. 7.