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Panhandle organizer sours on Davis, defects to Crist

Published October 13, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - It was color-coded map that turned Todd McWaters into a defector.

McWaters was a new addition to Jim Davis' Democratic campaign for governor when he drove from Pensacola to Tampa for an all-day training session on Sept. 30. In the course of the training he was shown a map on which bright orange and purple splotches along Interstate 4 and South Florida marked "important" counties, while the Panhandle was done in white.

McWaters, 41, was Davis' Northwest Florida organizer. He resigned on Monday to work for a group backing Republican Charlie Crist, because he is "tired of being treated as an afterthought just because I happen to live in the Panhandle," he said in an e-mail to Democratic colleagues and volunteers who had worked alongside him for Davis' primary opponent, Rod Smith.

McWaters had been Smith's organizer in the Panhandle and was among the first of the Smith staffers hired on to the Davis campaign.

The Davis campaign dismissed McWaters' e-mail and said McWaters wasn't meeting expectations in Northwest Florida. They said he said he resigned because a relative had a health problem.

But McWaters told the Times he grew frustrated with lack of support from Davis' campaign. He said he could not get yard signs or bumper stickers to distribute to Democrats. He said the campaign refused to allow him, a businessman and local activist, to give speeches on Davis' behalf, as he had done during the Smith campaign.

"Basically, they had me sit at home for four or five hours a day calling independent voters, and I just said enough," McWaters said.

Davis' campaign spokesman Josh Earnest said McWaters told the campaign his dad was sick and that "tending to those needs had detracted from his performance."

Earnest defended the campaign's efforts in North Florida, citing stops Davis made in Pensacola, Destin and Panama City right after the primary and again in late September.

"We're committed to a statewide grass roots strategy, and it's the same strategy that led to significant victories in North Florida in the primary," Earnest said.

McWaters isn't some fresh-out-of college campaign worker. The former restaurateur earned a national reputation for his grass roots effort in organizing Southeast Alabama and North Florida for John Kerry in late 2003, months before Kerry's national campaign knew anything about Panhandle Democrats.

Others in the party say they support Davis' strategy. Ron Melton, who chairs the Escambia County Democratic executive committee, denies the Davis campaign is ignoring his area and said the campaign is using its scarce resources as best it can.

"I'm not going to say we wouldn't like to see Mr. Davis more often, but the Democrats never raise the money Republicans can raise, and we'd be like spoiled brats to say he's not spending enough of his time here," Melton said. "They're putting time and effort and money where they are going to pool their votes."

But that's a strategy that some say has harmed Democrats like Al Gore, Kerry and Betty Castor.

"It's pretty much the same as some other campaigns, write off North Florida, because the numbers aren't there," McWaters said. "But a lot of Democrats see that and will vote Republican out of spite."

Times staff researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 13, 2006, 05:36:59]

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