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    A lament: What is happening to Florida Democrats?

    By PHILIP GAILEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000


    It's discouraging to be a registered Democrat in Florida these days, although the alternatives are not any better. It's hard to identify with a party headed by a man who, to put it mildly, has the political instincts of an aardvark.

    I am referring, of course, to Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. Poe recently returned from the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles on a political high. Setting foot on Tallahassee soil again, he sniffed the air and got a whiff of what he charged was anti-Semitism coming from the office of Gov. Jeb Bush. The source of the foul air was an innocent mistake by a young woman who has served in the press office of both Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat.

    Leslie Steele sat down at her computer to send reporters the governor's updated schedule. Instead, she mistakenly forwarded a Bible verse she had received from her mother. It was from the second epistle of John: "This is how you can recognize the spirit of God: Every spirit acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh of God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist."

    When she realized her mistake, Steele quickly apologized and tried to explain. She said her parents, who live out of state, worry about her and send her a Bible verse each day by e-mail to bolster her faith. This kind of religious message, which non-Christians may find troubling, probably does not belong on the computer of a staffer in the governor's press office, but it hardly justifies Poe's demagogic eruption.

    "Unfortunately, while we were having a good time in Los Angeles, something more serious happened," Poe told reporters. "Anti-Semitic e-mail was sent out by a member of the governor's staff." The state Democratic Party chairman accused Bush of encouraging "hatred and bigotry" by his common-sense response.

    As my colleague, Martin Dyckman, wrote last week, Poe's "calculated political opportunism" should be more offensive to Jews than Steele's honest mistake, because it desensitizes the public to real anti-Semitism.

    About the kindest thing to be said about Poe's reaction to Steele's mistake is that it reeks of hypocrisy. As far as I know, he has not expressed his discomfort with his own party's God Squad -- Al Gore, a born-again Southern Baptist, and Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew. Since being selected as Gore's vice presidential running mate, Lieberman can't utter a sentence without dropping God's name, and Gore has said when he faces a major decision, he asks himself, "What would Jesus do?"

    Does that make Gore a religious bigot by Poe's standard?

    The Poe fiasco is just another indication of how far the Florida Democratic Party has fallen in the years since it produced governors like LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles. Republicans now occupy the governor's office and hold majorities in both the state House and Senate, and the only bright spot on the horizon is that Bill Nelson is leading Republican Bill McCollum for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the GOP's Connie Mack.

    The problem is the lack of Democratic leadership in this state, not the hearts of rank-and-file Democrats who really do care about education, the environment and civil rights. But with party leaders and activists expending so much time and energy on abortion rights, gun control, school vouchers and affirmative action -- all important issues -- Democrats often come across as captives of single-issue interest groups. That may be an unfair perception, but it is there. The issues that energize core Democratic constituencies are not winning many statewide elections for the party. What good is a progressive Democratic agenda if the party is unable to win a governing majority?

    Democrats shouldn't abandon their principles, but they should pick their battles with greater care. In their defense of abortion rights, for example, Democratic activists and lawmakers have aligned themselves with the groups that have gone to court to try to force the state to withdraw the "Choose Life" license plate that anti-abortion groups got through the Legislature. Now I happen to think the state has no business issuing license plates that make a political statement. That's what bumper stickers are for. But I'm not convinced the "Choose Life" plate violates church and state separation, as the court challenge contends. The fact is that people of all faiths -- and even some atheists -- can and do oppose abortion. Even some Democrats do. It seems to me there are more important battles to fight on the abortion rights front. No one is going to be denied an abortion because of the "Choose Life" license plate. And I would bet that most people won't be basing their votes on it.

    Democratic leaders also have been unwilling to acknowledge the complexities of issues such as affirmative action and the failings of the public schools. They, too, often are afraid to step outside the confines imposed by the party's key constituencies and try new ideas. It's not enough just to oppose school vouchers; Democrats need to demonstrate that they have a better way to rescue poor children trapped in failing public schools. Vouchers should not be a litmus test. If Al Gore and Joe Lieberman can disagree on the issue, other Democrats should be able to do so without fear of retribution from teacher unions. Lieberman and Bill Bradley, who challenged Gore from the left in the Democratic primaries, have supported experimental voucher programs targeted to inner-city children. Vouchers may be the wrong way to go, but Lieberman and Bradley thought a limited voucher experiment was at least worth trying, since no one was offering a better idea.

    Bill Clinton reclaimed the White House for Democrats eight years ago by daring to question his party's status quo mentality and orthodoxy. He dragged his party toward the political center on such traditional Republican issues as welfare reform and crime, and along the way, he offended the Democratic left. And now Al Gore has given his ticket a shot of Adrenalin by choosing a running mate who has challenged affirmative action, favored school vouchers and supported tort reform. There is a lesson here for Florida Democrats.

    Florida needs a strong opposition party in Tallahassee as a counter-force to the excesses of Republican rule, but Democrats will never be that force as long as they can't distinguish between a Bible verse and anti-Semitism.

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