tampabay.com

What happened to the circular firing squad?

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published April 29, 2007


Election after election, we've become so accustomed to describing Florida Democrats as hapless, it's tough to break the habit. But after Democrats picked up another state House seat in the Orlando area last week, we may need to set aside the hapless adjective for a bit.

On the surface, it's no huge surprise that Democrat Darren Soto beat Republican Tony Suarez for the state House District 49 seat. Democrat Jim Davis won that district, after all, and only about a quarter of the voters are registered Republicans. George W. Bush isn't exactly helping Republicans win elections.

But it's also a majority Hispanic district that had been represented by a Republican, John Quinones, and which Republican fought hard to keep. Jeb Bush consistently won it, and Democratic polling showed Gov. Charlie Crist, who campaigned with Suarez, was hugely popular, and even President Bush was more popular than he is most everywhere else in the state.

What's more, Democrats usually lose special elections in large part because Florida Republicans have been so much better at banking early votes through absentee ballots and mobilizing voters. So the Democrats' 52-48 percent win was hardly a foregone conclusion.

The party that had mastered the art of circular firing squads actually worked together this time. State Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman sent her entire field staff into the area. Another Democratic group, the Florida Mainstream Democrats, did radio spots, and the Soto campaign and state House political team dramatically stepped up its absentee ballot and voter turnout effort.

"The Republicans have spent 10 to 15 years and millions of dollars educating their voters to vote by mail, " said Steve Schale, political director for the House Democrats. "I knew that if we went into election day no worse than the Republicans on absentee ballots, we'd have a good chance of winning."

Schale, 32, is the newest star of Florida Democratic politics.

With Soto's win, he's helped flip eight Republican House seats to the Democrats over the past year. Where the party used to turn over its campaign to out-of-state consultants, state House Minority Leader Dan Gelber tapped Schale to lead the campaign effort and gave him wide leeway. It's paid off.

"We are getting smarter at elections and not tripping over ourselves so that credible candidates with better ideas can win, " Gelber said of the win. "And then there's the Steve factor. My best decision."

Schale says the key is focusing on campaign fundamentals and that relying on local political talent makes a difference.

"We're not going to bring this party back by importing people from out of state. We're going to crawl our way back with people who care about this state and its future, " Schale said. "For the first time in my 10 years with the party, there's a spirit and people sense the chance of winning."

TAXING DEBATE: House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate minority leader Steve Geller faced off on a Miami radio show last week, underscoring how intractable the talks over property tax have become.

"You're not taking a scalpel to local government; you're taking a meat cleaver, " Geller said, adding that people want responsible cuts that protect essential services of local government.

Rubio: "This stuff about 'oh, we're going to cut fire and police, ' that's like me going to my wife and saying 'Look they cut my pay' and she says 'Okay, the first thing we're going to get rid of is baby formula, diapers and we're not going to buy groceries this month.' Come on, no one buys that."

Geller said he's certain there will be a special session. Rubio said he thinks something can be done but warned against a "Tallahassee special" - something called meaningful reform that's really not.

POLL POSITION: An April 17-24 Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters shows Rudy Giuliani beating Hillary Rodham Clinton 49 percent to 41 percent, and the former New York mayor beating Barack Obama 49 percent to 38 percent. John McCain was tied with both Clinton and Obama.

In a Democratic primary matchup, the poll showed Clinton at 36 percent, followed by 15 percent for Al Gore, 13 percent for Obama and 11 percent for John Edwards. Among Republicans, Giuliani has support from 38 percent, with 15 percent for McCain, and 7 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Adam C. Smith and Alex Leary contributed to this week's Buzz. For more breaking political news check out blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.