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Diplomat planning a run for governor

Ex-Florida congressman Pete Peterson intends to resign as ambassador to Vietnam and challenge Gov. Jeb Bush.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


Ex-Florida congressman Pete Peterson intends to resign as ambassador to Vietnam and challenge Gov. Jeb Bush.

Pete Peterson, the ambassador to Vietnam and a former member of Congress from North Florida, will resign his ambassadorship in July and return to Florida to prepare to run for governor.

Peterson told U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, state Democratic Party leaders and other allies about his plans in a series of telephone calls from Vietnam that continued on Tuesday. Before those calls, the former prisoner of war informed Secretary of State Colin Powell last week that he intended to resign and return to Florida.

The resignation is expected to take effect July 15.

Peterson's decision is the most concrete step any Democrat has taken so far toward entering the governor's race. He is one of about 10 Democrats who have signaled an interest in challenging Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who is expected to announce next month that he will seek re-election.

"It's now clear the first victory has been made for the Democrats," said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Democratic fundraiser. "A Jeb victory is not inevitable."

The Peterson news comes just days after former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno surprised the Democratic establishment by revealing she is considering running for governor. Democrats who spoke to Peterson said his timing was influenced not by Reno but by his frustration that a trade agreement with Vietnam has become bogged down in Washington.

Nominated by President Bill Clinton, Peterson in 1997 became the first ambassador to the unified Vietnam. He had agreed to stay on the job for President Bush to see the trade agreement through Congress. But it now appears the pact is in danger by being inserted into a broader trade proposal being prepared by the Bush administration.

That, in turn, has created anxiety in Vietnam.

"I'm being bombarded by concerns," Peterson told the Washington Post earlier this month.

Peterson does not have a strong geographic base in Florida. He is not a household name after spending much of the past decade in Washington and Vietnam. But many Democrats think voters would be sold on his moderate political views and compelling personal story.

Peterson, 65, flew 66 bombing missions over Vietnam before being shot down and spending more than six years as a prisoner of war. After returning home, he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Tampa in 1976, co-owned a computer store and settled in Marianna.

In 1990, then-Florida Democratic Chairman Charles Whitehead helped recruit Peterson to run for Congress against incumbent Bill Grant, a former Democrat who had switched his party registration to Republican. Peterson won and served six years in Congress, compiling a middle-of-the-road voting record.

In 1995, Peterson's wife, Carlotta, died of breast cancer. Peterson became ambassador to Vietnam two years later, and in 1998 he married Vietnam native Vi Le Peterson.

Peterson has spoken regularly to Graham and Nelson in recent months about running for governor.

Two Democratic fundraisers from Miami-Dade County, Philip Levine and Chris Korge, recently flew to Vietnam to talk to him about the race.

"He kept saying to me he had to convince himself first," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said Tuesday. "He's convinced himself."

How much influence Peterson's decision will have on other Democrats considering running for governor is unclear. Several said earlier this week they would not be swayed by Reno's sudden interest or what others decide as they make up their minds.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa said he is reviewing bills passed by the state Legislature and closely following which ones Bush signs into law. He also recently compared notes with Bill McBride, another potential candidate and the managing partner of the Tampa-based Holland & Knight law firm.

"This is ultimately an intensely personal decision," Davis said.

"It is such a commitment. I worked hard to get where I am, and I enjoy what I do and I think I am getting better at it. But I'm willing to take a risk."

Among the other Democrats interested in running for governor: former member of Congress Jim Bacchus of Orlando, state House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth said earlier this month he has "pretty much" decided against running, but he was represented on a conference call last week with potential candidates.

Douglas 'Pete' Peterson

AGE: 65

BORN: Omaha, Neb. HOME: Marianna

COLLEGE: University of Tampa, University of Central Michiga

MILITARY: U.S. Air Force, 1954-80

POLITICAL CAREER: U.S. Congress, 1991-1997; first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam since the war, 1997-present.

PERSONAL: In 1998 he married his second wife, Vi Le, a Saigon native.

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