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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Florida faces a primary problem
If either side was bluffing as state and national Democrats fought over the Jan. 29 election date, no one ever called them on it.
By ADAM C. SMITH and WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writers
Published October 7, 2007
Jim Roosevelt and Alexis Herman of the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee listen as Karen Thurman makes a case for Florida's early primary at a meeting on Aug. 25.
Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach is the Democratic leader of the Florida House.
Sen. Steve Geller of Hallandale Beach is the Democratic leader of the Florida Senate.
To understand how Florida Democrats tumbled into purgatory over their presidential primary, it helps to go back to April 2003, to the Washington office of Michigan's senior senator.
Expletives were flying. The head of the Democratic National Committee was having it out with Sen. Carl Levin because Michigan wanted to crash the rarefied club of early presidential primary states.
Move your primary too early, Terry McAuliffe warned, and Michigan will lose half its delegates to the 2004 Democratic convention.
"The closest they'll get to Boston will be watching it on television," McAuliffe vowed. "I will not let you break this entire nominating process for one state. The rules are the rules."
Michigan Democrats backed down. McAuliffe's hard-line stance prevented a free-for-all among competing states that year, and it set the tone for future mutinies.
Earlier this year, Sunshine State Democrats faced the same warning after the Legislature moved the state's primary date to Jan. 29, a week earlier than national Democratic rules permit. But instead of DNC chairman Howard Dean leading a back-room showdown, open warfare erupted.
Now Florida Democrats stand to be the only voters in America whose votes won't count toward picking a presidential nominee. Their leaders are suing the national party. And the Democratic presidential contenders, terrified of antagonizing voters in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, have promised to ignore America's biggest swing state, while Republicans busily campaign here.
There's plenty of blame to go around:
- It was clear as early as March 2006 that Florida's presidential primary was destined to move early, but Democratic leaders in Florida and Washington were oblivious to the coming train wreck.
- When state Democratic leaders finally understood the potential repercussions, hubris prevailed. They believed Florida was too crucial to the national party to suffer any consequences for breaking the rules.
- DNC leaders were clueless about political realities in Florida. They failed to grasp how powerless the minority Democrats are in Tallahassee; the importance of a property tax plan added to the Jan. 29 ballot; and the outrage it would cause to tell rank-and-file Democrats, their memories seared by butterfly ballots and purged voter rolls, that their votes won't count.
Not only did Florida Democrats wrongly assume the national party was bluffing, they didn't see that the strongest hand belonged to those favored by the status quo - the party bosses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Steve Geller, the Democratic leader of the state Senate, is still scratching his head. "I don't think any of us thought that the DNC would be stupid enough to punish the biggest swing state in the country to make South Carolina happy."
* * *
Nobody realized it, but the storm began gathering in late March 2006. New Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, visited Washington-based Florida reporters and touted a plan to boost Florida's influence in picking presidential nominees by moving the primary earlier than March.
"With all due respect to New Hampshire and Iowa, nowhere are you going to be on a national stage like Florida," Rubio said at the time. "You're going to get questions about Israel, Latin America, immigration. It's the old South, it's Latin, it's Midwestern, it's rural and urban."
Rubio already had Democrats on board.
"Florida Democrats are all for it," Mark Bubriski, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, said at the time.
* * *
Grumbling about the outsized influence of rural, lily-white states like New Hampshire and Iowa certainly isn't new, and states have tried to cut in line before. After McAuliffe's showdown with Michigan, he established a DNC commission to recommend improvements that would add some diversity to the early process.
As Rubio was selling his early primary, the DNC commission was inviting state parties to apply to hold one of the early caucuses or primaries. Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina alone were given permission to choose their nominee before Feb. 5. Florida Democrats didn't apply.
The commission also concluded that relying on states to cooperate wasn't going to work.
"It's hard for us to control the states and keep individual state legislatures from going off and doing things, so we needed some sticks," said Carol Fowler, a member of the DNC rules committee and chairwoman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "The sticks seemed to be the only thing keeping every state from moving to the front."
The sticks were heavy: States that move their primary before Feb. 5 automatically lose at least 50 percent of their delegates, and candidates who campaign in those states could forfeit any delegates won there.
People often forget that primary votes are not direct elections, but are used to allocate delegates to the national convention. Ultimately, winning the nomination requires winning enough delegates. Florida, with 210 of them, has the fourth most in the nation.
* * *
The penalties Florida faced for scheduling an early primary were by no means secret.
"If they move it into January, their delegates won't count in the Democratic convention, so I wouldn't advise that," Howard Dean had warned in the St. Petersburg Times in December 2006.
The Republicans also stood to lose half their delegates by setting a primary earlier than Feb. 5, but party leaders shrugged it off. Likewise, state Democrats all along predicted a presidential nominee would emerge early and seat Florida's delegation.
With Florida's Legislature in session and the Jan. 29 primary bill moving along, Dean, the DNC chairman, phoned state House Minority Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and urged him to try pushing Florida's primary to Feb. 5, to avoid the penalties.
Gelber called state Rep. David Rivera, a top Republican pushing the early primary. It had to be January, Rivera said. Otherwise, Florida would be lost in the scrum of states voting Feb. 5.
Gelber agreed. And why urge Democrats to oppose a popular idea when they had no chance of stopping it anyway?
State Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman sent lawmakers a couple of letters opposing the January primary, but she said Dean never seemed to understand how little Democrats could do in Republican-controlled Tallahassee.
"I had one or two conversations with him, but it was always around the idea of, 'Change this, do something about this,'" she recounted.
The early primary date was eventually folded into a sweeping elections reform bill that contained a top Democratic priority: paper trails for electronic voting machines. No way Democrats would oppose that.
In April, as the elections bill neared final passage, Democrats made a token stab at satisfying the DNC. Geller, the Senate minority leader, filed an amendment to push the primary back to Feb. 5, "which we will duly show to them later, that we tried," he said on the floor.
It failed by voice vote. So did the one in the House. Florida's primary would be Jan. 29.
* * *
For the DNC, the solution was simple: Florida Democrats would declare the Jan. 29 primary meaningless and instead hold an alternative election of delegates later on, like a series of caucuses across the state. But in the state of recounts and Katherine Harris, the idea of saying the Jan. 29 votes wouldn't count was ludicrous to Democrats, especially in a state with no history of caucuses.
"It's not like there's been negotiations and failures. You start out with both sides not being able to move into the middle," said Eric Johnson, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton. "The DNC ... could not back away from the threat they made. And the Florida party could not physically change the day of the election. So they would have been left with, 'Okay, the Republicans get to pick a nominee, and we're blinking.'"
It was a tough atmosphere to seek common ground. National Democrats were petrified that giving one inch to Florida would invite more states to move early and collapse the entire nominating calendar into chaos.
Meanwhile, state party leaders mulled their options. Rather than picking a proposal and aggressively selling it, they painstakingly analyzed everything.
Just as state party leaders became attracted to a $5-million vote-by-mail delegate selection plan, the Legislature put a major property tax initiative on the Jan. 29 ballot. Democrats were intent on defeating it, and state labor leaders made it clear their unions would not spend a dime on any election except the one on Jan. 29.
Sen. Bill Nelson, the senior statewide elected Democrat, met first with Dean on June 6 in Washington to discuss the controversy. Several U.S. House Democrats from Florida met with Dean a few days later. At the time, all sides reported they felt some compromise could be reached.
But Florida party leaders decided they could not raise enough money - or count on the national party - to fund an acceptable alternative election that would maximize participation.
Jim Roosevelt, co-chairman of the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, said he spent hours on the phone with members of Congress and other Florida Democrats, including Thurman. But none of the options suggested by the national party were acceptable to Florida Democrats.
"There was a point where realism was called for and it didn't prevail," said Roosevelt. "You've got to accept reality that the rules will stay in place, and that you've got to come up with a plan that works."
On June 10, dozens of members of the state Democratic executive committee voted overwhelmingly to stick with the Jan. 29 primary. They knew mercy from the DNC was unlikely.
On Aug. 25, the DNC's rules committee voted to strip away all of Florida's delegates. Florida's clout cowed no one.
"The last thing we want is Democrats not all coming together to elect our Democratic president, so this is not a pleasant thing," said Sharon Stroschein, a committee member from South Dakota. "But someone has to crack the whip."
But nobody cracked it harder than the Democratic leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
A week after the DNC vote to yank Florida's delegates, the party chairmen of those states, led by Fowler in South Carolina, convinced the leading Democratic candidates for president to boycott any state primary violating the DNC calendar. Which meant Florida. Not only were the candidates forbidden to visit, except for private fundraisers, they couldn't hire staff, open offices, or recruit volunteers - the heart of a good ground game.
"This is the classic definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Pembroke Pines. "We are legitimately the biggest swing state in the country. Yes, there are maps showing you can win the presidency without Florida, but why would you want to start that way?"
In September, the DNC made a final offer: The national party, with just over $4-million in its campaign account and $2-million in debts, would transfer $880,000 to Florida Democrats to defray the cost of a $2.3-million vote-by-mail delegate selection plan. Florida Democrats would have to raise $1.4-million themselves to fund an election aiming for 10 percent participation.
Unacceptable, declared the Florida Democratic Party. Jan. 29 would be the election, let the chips falls where they may.
Now Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson are traipsing about Florida. Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are not.
* * *
South Carolina's Fowler, like other veteran Democratic politicos across the country, acknowledges the controversy could help Republicans win Florida's 27 electoral votes in the general election.
But rules are rules.
"I'm sorry to be the one to say," she said, "Florida is not the center of the universe."
Information from "What a Party!" by Terry McAuliffe was used in this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 893-8241. Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 462-0577.