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'Feisty' Democrat brings fresh leadership to party

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- From Tennessee Street, drivers can see the blue sign in the window of Carlos' Cuban Cafe.

George W. Bush for president.

Bob Poe, the Seminole County business consultant who is the new chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, ate a Cuban sandwich there anyway as he sketched his vision of the future for the state's once dominant party.

"We have to show it's safe to be a Democrat," Poe said as he talked of recruiting candidates and packaging campaign issues.

He sounded like every baseball manager in spring training. He has no wins or losses on his record, and there's every chance this could be the year things turn around.

The chairman of the Democratic Party has about as much job security as a baseball manager. Poe is the fourth in less than two years. In fact, Charles Whitehead is the only truly successful party chairman in the past two decades.

Whitehead came out of retirement last year to rejuvenate the state party, which was in debt and rudderless. He called in favors, bringing in President Clinton for a fundraiser and raising about $2-million before unexpectedly giving up the job because of health reasons.

Poe comes from a county dominated by Republicans and is hardly a household name even among Democratic activists and legislators. He was not the first choice to succeed Whitehead. Some Democrats dreamed of a big name such as U.S. Sen. Bob Graham or Attorney General Bob Butterworth becoming the titular head of the party.

When that went nowhere, Poe quickly came to the forefront with backing from Whitehead and others. He was unopposed last weekend when he won the right to serve at least the rest of Whitehead's term, which expires after the November elections. Whitehead calls Poe "the person who really wanted to go after it -- and absolutely qualified."

"He's feisty, and he's going to speak out," said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, who is recruiting candidates for state House races.

Poe gives the party chairmanship a different look.

For starters, the car enthusiast is probably the only Democratic chairman who once owned a Rolls Royce (the car was once owned by John Travolta, and Poe planned to sell it back to him before it was totaled in a wreck). He also is a former Orlando Magic executive who now works with start-up companies and those in trouble, so he ought to be accustomed to rebuilding jobs.

But the change also sends another message.

Despite his successes, Whitehead was still regarded in some corners as a retired Panama City car dealer more associated with the past than the future.

Before that, Mitch Ceasar was viewed as too liberal and too busy heading the Broward Democratic Party and working his lobbying deals to devote full attention to the state party.

Before that, Terrie Brady was a teachers union leader in Jacksonville who rarely returned reporters' telephone calls to present the party's view.

Meanwhile, state Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade filled columns of newspaper articles with his colorful quotes on Florida politics. His successor, Al Cardenas, the first Hispanic head of the state GOP, delivers insightful spin in a softer tone.

Now along comes Poe, a counter to some of the more liberal Democrats in the Legislature. He comes from the I-4 corridor, which stretches from Tampa Bay through the Orlando area to Daytona Beach and is filled with swing voters who can decide close elections.

"Ideologically," Poe said, "I'm right in the middle."

Between meetings with legislators and a crash course at party headquarters, Poe offered a couple of observations that indicate he is not wearing rose-colored glasses.

"My question has been if we are right on all of the issues and they are still electing Republicans, what's wrong here?" he mused. "I'll tell you what's wrong. It's a failure to communicate."

With a background in marketing and radio, Poe is thinking of ways to correct that. He is familiar with political air wars, having helped produce commercials attacking the ill-fated tax on services in 1987.

Second, Poe acknowledged that the Democrats' bench strength is thin. Graham is over 60; Butterworth and Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson are over 50. Grooming young Democrats for runs at statewide offices will be a priority.

Poe sounds smart enough to admit what he doesn't know. For example, he acknowledged that he is not sure how Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to replace affirmative action in university admissions and state contacting will affect the elections beyond increasing turnout among black voters.

He does know that how Bush and Republican legislators are governing is as much a campaign issue as the policies they are pursuing.

"There is no peripheral vision," Poe said. "There is only tunnel vision, and they are barreling down the highway."

If nothing else, Poe offers a decent quote -- and attention to detail.

On the way out of the cafe, he convinced the owner to add a sign in the window for Al Gore.

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