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Quality Democratic contenders look to the 2002 governor's race

By PHILIP GAILEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


Until recently, I had been of the mind that Florida Democrats would not be able to field the kind of gubernatorial candidate it will take to evict Jeb Bush from the governor's mansion in next year's elections. I still think the odds are in Bush's favor, but I'm impressed by the quality of some of the Democrats considering the race.

I've recently had the chance to spend some time in conversation with two potential Democratic contenders -- U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa and Bill McBride, the managing partner of Tampa-based Holland & Knight, Florida's largest law firm. There are other names in the mix, including former U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson, who is winding up his tour as the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war for five years. I've never met Peterson, so I have no impression of him one way or the other.

As for Davis and McBride, both are short on charisma but they have other strengths that more than compensate. Davis, 43, is a centrist Democrat, a member in good standing of the Democratic Leadership Council. Davis has the better political resume and, as you might expect, a firmer grasp of the details of issues. Before going to Congress, he served in the Florida Legislature, where he was the Democratic majority leader.

McBride, 55, has never served in political office, but there is something about him that says that doesn't matter, that this former Marine Corps officer and Vietnam veteran has the right stuff to be a counter-force to the Republican-controlled Legislature in Tallahassee, to use the bully pulpit of the governor's office to point Florida toward the future and to reconnect his party with its defining principles. I see Davis as being in the Bob Graham mold, progressive but politically cautious, while McBride reminds me more of Reubin Askew -- progressive and more willing to take risks and expend political capital on unpopular issues.

To spend an hour talking with McBride, as I did last week, is to come away with the impression that he is the real thing, a genuine Democrat whose political philosophy is rooted not in rigid ideology but in values that are sadly in short supply in modern political life -- conviction, compassion and a zest for honest political debate. I pity the campaign consultant who comes in and tries to package and program this guy.

"Democrats need to decide what they stand for and go out and be proud of it," said McBride, who plans to decide by Labor Day whether to enter the race. He believes too many Democratic candidates, at the state and national levels, have made the mistake of trying to blur the differences between Democrats and Republicans. Not him. He is not one bit defensive about being a Democrat. McBride seems to know what he stands for and what his priorities would be as governor. At the top of his list is investing in our public schools, which he believes holds the key to Florida's future, and protecting Florida's fragile environment.

He knows that if he is the Democratic nominee, Republicans will try to define him as a raving, bleeding-heart liberal. If that's the game Republicans want to play, McBride said he is ready. "I'm a liberal Marine," said McBride, a tall oak of a man who looks like he would be a match for Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in an arm-wrestling contest. Among the medals he was awarded for his service in Vietnam was the Bronze Star for valor. By the way, he doesn't seemed to have been scarred by Vietnam. He is proud to have served his country in that unpopular war.

Maybe he is a big-hearted liberal, at least by Florida standards, but he's hardly a left-winger. He cares about people and his state. Under his leadership, Holland & Knight adopted a "living-wage" salary policy. No employee earns less than $24,000-a-year. Although they could afford the best private schools, he and his wife, Alex Sink, a former banking executive, send their two children to public schools. He is a generous contributor to the American Civil Liberties Union. He supports abortion rights and opposes discrimination against gays and lesbians. He has called for a moratorium on state executions because he recognizes that the system needs to be overhauled to guard against the awful risk that an innocent person might be put to death. He believes labor unions represent the interests of working people, and knows that poverty is a huge disadvantage for those caught up in the criminal justice system.

Before he can take on Jeb Bush, a thought he seems to relish, McBride would have to win his party's nomination. The Republican Legislature may have just improved his odds by enacting an elections reform law last week that scraps runoffs in next year's elections. That means in a crowded primary field, the candidate with the largest plurality wins. The Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies -- blacks, labor unions and abortion-rights activists -- are more energized than they have been in years, primarily because of their anger over how George W. Bush won Florida's 25 electoral votes last year. They tend to be more liberal than most of the Democratic candidates they support, and I can see them getting excited over someone like McBride.

Unfortunately, Democratic activists can carry a candidate only so far. They can make the difference in a primary election, but often at the price of handicapping their nominee in the general election. Which raises this question: If he decides to run for governor and wins his party's nomination, could Bill McBride broaden his appeal to enough voters to unseat Jeb Bush? I don't know, but it would be fascinating to see him try.

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