A savvy strategist who's getting Democrats elected

By Adam C. Smith. Times Political Editor
Published March 9, 2008

Amid the budding presidential primary fiasco, it's easy to overlook this trend: For the first time in at least a decade, Florida Democrats no longer look like an endangered species. The latest sign of a Democratic pulse came with a special election late last month in which Tony Sasso became the first Democrat since 1996 to win a Space Coast legislative seat.

It's the ninth Republican state House seat Democrats have picked off in two years, unheard of in modern Florida. The count stands at 41 Democrats, 77 Republicans, with two open seats expected to remain Democratic.

I chatted with Steve Schale, the low-key political director working for House Democratic leader Dan Gelber and the state House Democrats. Schale, 33, has emerged as one of the savviest and most effective political strategists Florida Democrats have seen in ages.

SMITH: You won another Republican-leaning House seat, District 32 around Cape Canaveral. That's the ninth Republican seat you've helped pick off. How do you explain it? What's your secret?

SCHALE: People like me get too much credit in this business. You know at the end of the day, it was a race that boiled down to the two candidates, and I think, without question, we had the stronger of the two candidates.

SMITH: But when you're looking at nine seats you guys have picked off, clearly Democrats are doing something right that they haven't done in a while.

SCHALE: Part of it is the realization that we were finally in the minority. I think for a long time my caucus and my party has approached every election cycle like this is going to be the one that took it back to the way that it was. ... We needed to quite frankly copy the model the Republicans had, which was: Get back to fundamentals, recruit good candidates, focus your resources, knowing you're never going to be able to outspend them but focus on the places you can win. ... I'm not a believer that politics is complicated. Nor am I a believer that people are overly partisan or ideological. And I think if you have good, sound candidates and you run a good, sound campaign, and talk on the issues in the community, and you get a little help from your political environment, then you can be successful.

SMITH: Candidate recruitment is key.

SCHALE: Absolutely. ... At the end of the day, this is about the candidates for public office, the types of campaigns they run, the experiences they bring, in the way that they interact with the people that are going to be choosing them.

SMITH: How much of it, though, is the Democrats doing things better and more effectively and how much of it is President Bush's problems?

SCHALE: I think it is three things, only two that we can control. We can control having good candidates and we can control running good races. What we can't control is the environment that we operate in. And our job is to ensure that we find your candidates, that we run solid races and hopefully, at the end of the day, we're able to be successful. ... We won in places where our top of the ticket, (2006 gubernatorial candidate) Jim Davis, did 43, 44, 45 percent of the vote. So surely it's the national atmosphere that helps, but it's not like there's this massive blue wave that's rolling through Florida. Again, I think Charlie Crist's victory, and quite frankly John McCain doing well in Florida, are signals that Floridians are working to move beyond sort of this rank partisanship.

SMITH: Does Charlie Crist's bipartisan popularity make your job harder?

SCHALE: ... (Former Gov.) Bob Graham was a guy who had enormous bipartisan appeal and governed the state at a time we were losing seats in the Legislature. ... People who were with Jeb Bush would go to war for Jeb for anything in the world. He definitely had coattails. I think Crist has done a fantastic job of almost being, I mean, very Graham-esque, and sort of rising above partisan politics. So what does that mean in terms of coattails? We'll find out in November.

SMITH: From the standpoint of electing Democratic legislators, would you rather see Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama at the top of the ticket?

SCHALE: (Pause) I'd like to keep my job. ... Fundamentally, this is a cycle, given the economic climate, given what's going on in Iraq and given sort of every variable that's out there, that regardless of who our nominee is, if Democrats aren't going to vote in November, they're never going to vote. ... At the end of the day, I think we can be successful with either one of them.

SMITH: Do you think it's impossible within the next 10, 15 years for the Democrats to take back the state House?

SCHALE: No, I don't. I'm not going to say we're going take it back in 2012, but the Republicans in reapportionment in 2002 had an interesting choice. They could draw a map and guarantee an extremely safe majority of probably about 70 members or they could draw a map and ... assuming nothing changed in the political landscape, they would probably always have 80, 82, 83 members. But if anything changed that created a 2, 3, 4-point shift in the overall mood it would move 20, 30, 40 seats in play. And I think that's what you've seen happen.

SMITH: So what do you expect for the next round of redistricting (starting in 2011)?

SCHALE: It's going to be absolutely nuts. (Democrats have to) ensure that we've got a loud, unified voice. ... We're not going to get a map that's as good for us as this one is for them. All I want is a map that gives us a chance to win. ... If we have a fairer map ... I think going into the next decade you could see Democrats in control of the House again.

SMITH: The Democratic practice for a long time was every election cycle to hire some consultant from Washington or some other state to come down and run Florida's legislative races. Dan Gelber made the decision to tap local talent - you. Does that make a difference?

SCHALE: I don't think that there's anybody who can say, you know, they fully understand the dynamics of the state. It changes almost week to week, month to month, as populations evolve, as the economy constantly changes, as the Hispanic population demographically in South Florida evolves. It makes a lot of difference, if you know where Pahokee is and you know where Two Egg is, or, more importantly, you understand that Pasco County is different from urban Tampa. If we as a party in Florida ever hope to be a permanent governing majority or a permanently competitive state we're going to have to do it by having people in Florida who are not only smart but are committed because this is where they live, this is where their families are, and they're in this job not because it's the next state as a job but because they want better schools for their kids, they want health care for people in the neighborhood, and they want an economy where ... when they leave politics, they could find a good job to provide for their family.

SMITH: State Democratic Chairwoman Karen Thurman has made a big priority out of Democrats trying to do as well on chasing absentee ballots as Republicans. Is that working, and why is that important?

SCHALE: I think we're ... moving in the direction of 40 to 50 percent of the electorate voting before Election Day, which says a couple things. ... You have to assume that Election Day begins literally three weeks out. So it makes campaigns a lot more expensive, but it also makes playing in the absentees that much more important. The challenge we've had is that the Republicans have done such a good job over the last, you know, really 10 or 15 years of massaging and building a solid vote-by-mail program, and we're having to really kind of build from scratch. We're starting to have some success. ... Personally I wouldn't mind eventually moving to an entirely vote-by-mail system. It would make my job a lot more complicated, but I think it would encourage more participation.

SMITH: With limited resources, do you write off any district where Republicans have won by 10-plus points in the last couple cycles?

SCHALE: No, I don't think so. Obviously there are districts that we can't win, there are districts that they can't win. I'm not sure that the numbers of those are as high as conventional wisdom says they have to be. ... Again, I fundamentally believe that most people just aren't that partisan. They may have partisan loyalties, but 10, 15, 20 percent of Republicans and Democrats easily will vote for somebody of another party if given a reason to. So I think our job to be successful is to ensure that we have the widest possible field of candidates in districts that potentially could be competitive.

SMITH: Some people that are questioning whether the Democrats are really going to target Florida like they have in the past for the presidential race. Do you think that would be a mistake if they didn't?

SCHALE: I think it would be foolish to. If you work the trend lines in the state, not only politically but demographically, this is a state that is just coming more into play every day, and I think that it would be foolish not to play here. I think any time you're leaving 27 electoral votes on the table, it would not be a wise move. More than anything, (Democrats) may be able to get to the magic (electoral vote) number without Florida but the Republicans can't. So in terms of playing here, I think it's important. More than that, it is entirely possible that the election for U.S. Senate in 2010 could be the election for a 60-member majority. ... Florida could be one of the states that's key. And obviously all the infrastructure that you put into the campaign in '08 is only going to help us in the goal of electing a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 2010.

SMITH: Speaking of that, you've been working very well with Dan Gelber, who is now running for state Senate, but is widely seen as a likely candidate for U.S. Senate. You expect to be working for him on a U.S. Senate campaign?

SCHALE: You know, Dan Gelber is one of the top five on my speed dial. ... There's very little I wouldn't do to help Dan Gelber.

SMITH: So what's your goal for House races this year?

SCHALE: If I was that good at guessing, I'd be in Vegas playing poker. ... I think that three, four, five, six seats is very much within the range of doable - maybe more, maybe less, we'll see. ... I try to keep my expectations in check. But I think 2010's a fascinating cycle. We've got 12 Republicans, as of right now, 12 retiring, term-limited Republican seats that are all open and they're all competitive. So I think the next two cycles provide us with a really interesting opportunity.