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Willie Logan plays his hand well

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 1999

Do not underestimate Willie Logan.

The Opa-locka Democrat's political career appeared to be over when he was ousted as his party's choice for state House speaker early last year.

He survived.

His influence appeared to have peaked when he crossed party lines to endorse Republican Jeb Bush for governor.

He flourished.

This week, Logan is expected to signal his interest in the U.S. Senate race just as the potential pool of candidates is drying up.

Watch him.

Among the Democrats, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Lauderhill said last week he won't run. U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton is expected to say the same this week, leaving Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson as the only major candidate.

Among the Republicans, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs and Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher could be the only big-name contenders. State Senate President Toni Jennings of Orlando met with strategists in Washington last week, but don't bet on her to jump in. All of the Republican members of Congress who floated their names when Sen. Connie Mack announced his retirement are conspicuously silent.

That leaves Logan on the diving board.

He might not turn out to be Florida's Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the pro wrestler who came out of nowhere to win the Minnesota governorship. But he could be the same kind of wild card in a Senate race that could use some excitement.

Logan is frustrated by the media's constant mention of the color of his skin. He already is tired of the speculation about how many black Democrats would vote for him as an independent candidate.

"Why does every article have to say I am black?" he asked. "It pigeonholes and limits and makes suggestions that are untrue.

"They would never say that Bill Nelson would only get white votes," he added. "What about a substantial number of independent voters who would vote for me?"

Those are legitimate questions.

But in this case, race is relevant. Logan was ousted from his leadership position by white Democrats. He became a statewide symbol for African-Americans' dissatisfaction with the Florida Democratic Party.

Strong support from black voters is going to be critical for Nelson or any other Democrat running for statewide office. And Logan's interest in the race is one of the factors that prompted Deutsch and other Democrats to take a pass.

Against this backdrop, race cannot be ignored, and influential black Democrats don't want it to be. The state's three African-American members of Congress have even called a meeting open to all black Democrats for Saturday in Orlando, where they will discuss issues critical to black residents and ways to unify the party.

One state lawmaker who won't be there: Rep. Rudy Bradley of St. Petersburg, whose switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party on Saturday underscores the Democrats' problems.

Last July, I wrote that Logan had created the perception that he was open to the highest bidder. He appeared to be painting himself into a corner, isolating himself from Democrats and selling himself to Republicans who would drop him as soon as he endorsed Bush.

"Logan is for Logan," Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, said at the time.

That is still true. But Logan played his hand far better than I expected. He turned out to be more influential during the legislative session than he would have been as the minority leader.

Logan told the Republicans in charge he did not want a chairmanship, and they gave him more staff anyway. Democrats from throughout the state came to him for help getting projects into the budget. He appears to have gotten more than $15-million in pet projects himself.

By being independent, Logan said, he was able to better influence policy debates. He takes credit for earmarking more money to urban areas in the land-buying program that will succeed the popular Preservation 2000. He claims he persuaded Republicans to moderate a plan that would have given Bush more immediate appointments on judicial nominating commissions, a Christian Coalition-backed bill that did not pass.

"They could have done whatever they wanted," Logan said of Republicans. "At least they tempered it some. That is a pretty valuable role to play when you are not in the majority."

In the Miami Herald's annual legislative rankings, Logan was the only Democrat among the top 10 House members.

Yet despite his cozy relationships with Republicans, Logan attended the Democratic caucus in the final days of the session. He spoke in support of Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach as the House Democrats' leader for the 2000 elections.

Now Logan plans to attend Saturday's meeting at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami. Meek's mixed feelings about her longtime friend can't help but come through.

"We all like Willie and respect him, but I am going to do my best not to discuss the Willie Logan situation," she said earlier this month.

Then she acknowledged that if Logan ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent, "without deliberately doing so it would drain off some of the black vote and help the Republican."

That's what a lot of Republicans are hoping, and they are ready to ante up.

"I have told him if he decides to go," said former Florida Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade, "he can get his thousand dollars at my doorstep."

Logan said he intends to remain a Democrat but would not say exactly how he would get on the Senate ballot. He claims he would have higher poll numbers and more money than Lawton Chiles did when he ran for the Senate in 1970.

By now, Logan's moment in the spotlight should have been long over. Instead, it could be just beginning.

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