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With switch, Bradley takes respectable risk

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 1999

Rudy Bradley has assured himself a place in Florida history.

Whether the St. Petersburg legislator will be a footnote or something more is still to be determined.

Bradley has become the first African-American legislator to change his party registration from Democrat to Republican. He is just the second African-American Republican legislator in Florida since Reconstruction. The first was a Miami legislator named John Plummer whose 1980 election was a fluke because he shared the same last name with a more prominent Democrat in the House.

On the surface, Bradley's conversion makes about as much political sense as calling for an income tax.

Bradley would like to run for the Senate, assuming the courts uphold term limits and incumbent Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa, is forced to give up his seat. That would have been an uphill battle for him even as a Democrat.

Rep. Les Miller, D-Tampa, and former St. Petersburg Rep. Doug Jamerson are among those interested in the Senate seat. Both have bigger names and larger political bases than Bradley. Most of the voters in the Senate district are in Hillsborough, while Bradley's House district is based in south Pinellas and includes just a handful of voters across the bay.

Stick an "R" behind Bradley's name and the odds become even longer. More than two of every three voters in the Senate district are Democrats.

A more intriguing question is whether Bradley can hang onto his House seat. Two of every three voters are Democrats in that district as well, but at least the district is more compact and largely situated in St. Petersburg in what should be Bradley's power base.

If he has a power base.

Bradley has been on the ballot once in five years. Jamerson held what is now Bradley's House seat for nearly a dozen years before being appointed state education commissioner in 1994. He endorsed Bradley, and Bradley won a special election to serve out the last nine months of Jamerson's term.

Since then, Bradley has enjoyed a free ride. He was unopposed in the 1994, 1996 and 1998 elections. So we can only guess at his political support, and that support will diminish as he loses solid Democrats and the teachers union.

Whether he runs for the Senate or a final time for his House seat, Bradley is certain to face competition in 2000.

Earnest Williams, a 52-year-old St. Petersburg insurance agent and Democrat, said he will run for the House seat regardless of what Bradley does. He ran in the crowded Democratic primary for the seat in the 1994 special election and for a City Council seat before that.

Williams said he would have run against Bradley last year but had business obligations.

"I don't know where his base is," he said of Bradley. "We think it is time for a change."

Even as they praised Bradley's courage for switching parties, Gov. Jeb Bush and other prominent Republicans acknowledged the move was politically risky.

"This is probably not the politically correct thing to do," Bush said at the news conference welcoming Bradley into the fold, "but it is the right thing to do in his mind."

Bradley did not have to switch parties to embrace Republican initiatives. He was doing that already.

In the recent legislative session, he was one of eight House Democrats who voted with Republicans to limit some types of damage awards in lawsuits. He was one of three black Democrats who voted for Bush's plan to toughen sentences for criminals who use guns. He did vote against the governor's education package that includes tuition vouchers, but there were plenty of votes without him.

"Did I think he was a Republican at heart?" asked Pinellas Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Whitman. "Yes."

So what does Bradley get out of the deal?

He gets to be intellectually honest and formally align himself with legislators who more closely share his views.

If he runs for the Senate, at least he assures himself of making it to the general election as a Republican when he probably couldn't win the primary as a Democrat. The GOP will make sure he is well financed.

He gets the perks of being in the Legislature's majority party, from parking spaces to offices and chairmanships. He improves the chances that one of Bush's first "Front Porch Florida" inner city initiatives will be in St. Petersburg.

Most of all, Bradley gets to be a trailblazer.

"I was born a Democrat, have always been a Democrat," he told a Times reporter less than two years ago, denying suggestions then that he was about to switch parties. "I've never had a person who's a Republican in my family."

Now there are at least three. Bradley said his wife and teenage daughter became Republicans before he did.

If other black legislators become Republicans, Bradley will be remembered as the one who made it acceptable. If Bradley wins an election in 2000, his victory will be cited across the state as further evidence that Democrats cannot take black voters for granted.

"If people will go out and vote for Rudy as a person and as someone who has been responsive to the district's needs," said House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, "I don't think it will be hard at all."

It will be hard.

But if it doesn't work out, Bradley will have other options. Bush always can find a job in state government for the first African-American legislator to endorse him and to switch parties.

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