New voters find 'D' good fit

Democrats say they are energized as the party posts gains in local registrations.

By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 28, 2008

For Maria Cohn, it was a logical next step as an active Democrat. But for New Tampa, it was unprecedented.

Cohn began knocking on her neighbors' doors last spring, trying to start a New Tampa Democratic Club, in a part of town where only a third of the registered voters are Democrats.

In Largo, Jim O'Gara joined the Democratic Party a year ago after staying independent for 10 years. Then he began recruiting neighbors to his party with jambalaya dinners at his house.

"People will get energized over jambalaya," O'Gara said.

Nowadays, Democrats are energized all over Tampa Bay, their leaders say. Voter registrations tend to verify that. People who registered as Democrats last year outnumbered their Republican counterparts in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

In Pinellas, that continues a long-term trend. But in Hillsborough and Pasco, it interrupted a progression of Republican gains.

This comes after a decade in which voter registration has been a picture of parity. Republicans lead narrowly in Pinellas, but Democrats are closing the gap. Democrats lead in Hillsborough, but Republicans keep closing the gap. Republicans lead in Hernando, but can't widen their gap. They lead narrowly in Pasco, and have widened their gap steadily - until last year.

"I think the Pasco Democrats are much more visible," said Alison Morano, who chairs the county's Democratic group. "I've had a lot more calls, and a lot more people getting on board."

"Now, the winds of change are at our backs," said Toni Molinaro, who chairs Pinellas Democrats.

Changing tide


"It took George Bush and the current Republican Party to get me reactivated," said St. Petersburg's Mike Fox, a Republican who soured on politics in the 1980s and '90s but has stormed back as an activist Democrat.

Party leaders agree that Bush and the Iraq war are primary motivators for Democrats, although the weakened economy is emerging as another.

Michael Steinberg, elected Hillsborough's Democratic Party chairman on Tuesday, wishes the new Democrats were attracted to the party's policies. But he fears the numbers reflect voters' predictable fatigue with a longstanding president.

"It's a natural reaction to what they consider a negative presidency," Steinberg said.

He said that Congress' approval ratings are low too.

"That leads me to believe that people aren't happy with either party," Steinberg said.

Bill Bunting, chairman of Pasco County's Republicans, agrees that voter frustration with the war is helping Democrats. But his colleagues in neighboring counties aren't so sure.

Tony DiMatteo, leader of Pinellas County's Republicans, said the traditional tide of Midwesterners migrating to Pinellas seems to have changed as Florida's cost of living has risen. The new arrivals today are more likely to be Democrat-leaning city folks than Republican suburbanites, DiMatteo said.

David Storck, the Hillsborough Republican chairman, said he has heard that voters registering at driver's license offices have been told they must register as Democrats, though the law always leaves the choice to the voter.

"It could very easily be that," Storck said. "I don't think it's an ideology switch at all."

The clearest trend in the area's voter registration is the rise of voters who shun both major parties. In Hillsborough last year, those voters outnumbered the newcomers to either party. In Pinellas, they outnumbered the new Republicans.

DiMatteo believes that's a symptom of increasing independence people enjoy in how they live their lives. Steinberg, the Hillsborough Democrat, said he hears young voters criticize the major parties for squabbling instead of solving problems.

But in recent weeks, some independent voters are regretting their status. Elections supervisors in both Pasco and Hernando counties said they've heard from third-party and non-party voters who didn't realize they would be shut out of Tuesday's presidential primaries.

"I don't think they fully understood the ramifications in a closed primary state," said Brian Corley, the Pasco elections supervisor.

GOP 'crushed us'

Recent history shows voter registration doesn't predict elections. Republicans dominate county and state politics, even in Hillsborough, where Democrats have long outnumbered them.

Storck, Hillsborough's Republican chairman, attributes that to spreading the party's message.

"There are a lot of Democrats who vote Republican," he said.

His Democratic counterpart says Republicans have done a better job of nudging the half-hearted to vote. "If you look at the absentee ballots, the Republicans crushed us," Steinberg said.

This year, he vowed, Democrats will push out their absentee vote, mobilize early voters and sway the independents to their cause.

In Pinellas, O'Gara has worked the phone, recruiting people who can work outside polling places, soliciting signatures for Democratic candidates who want to qualify by petition for fall races.

In New Tampa, Cohn's Democratic club has built its e-mail list to 109. Members have arranged a phone mobilization urging Democrats to vote Tuesday.

"We all enjoy finding like-minded neighbors," Cohn said.

One thing they have not found is a New Tampa Republican Club. Active until 2004, the group has since dissolved.

"It kind of fell by the wayside," said Storck.

Bill Coats can be reached at coats@sptimes.com or 813 269-5309.

New voters

Voters who registered in 2007

Democrats Republicans Other Total

Hernando 2,210 1,841 1,816 5,867

Hillsborough 12,112 8,382 12,320 32,814

Pasco 8,024 7,691 6,620 22,335

Pinellas 10,365 8,436 9,503 28,954

Four counties 32,711 26,350 30,259 89,970

Florida 256,621 187,909 186,993 666,489

Sources: County supervisors of elections, Florida Division of Elections