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With new leader, Florida Democrats show signs of spunk

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 1999


The last time we checked in at the Florida Democratic Party, it looked pretty grim.

The state chairman had been ousted.

Again.

While Republicans were raising money hand over fist, the Democrats were flat broke.

Again.

In the Legislature, many Democrats were demoralized and still couldn't adjust to sitting in the back rows with Republicans in charge.

In the U.S. Senate race, it appeared Democrats would be tripping over themselves to run. Even worse, Rep. Willie Logan, the Opa-locka Democrat who became a martyr after his white colleagues ousted him as the party's incoming House leader last year, announced he might run for the Senate as an independent candidate.

This is the mess Charles Whitehead found in April, when he was drafted to come back to head the state party he led during the '80s.

There is an argument that maybe Democrats should have looked forward rather than backward in selecting a new state chairman. Whitehead is a 68-year-old retired car dealer from Panama City. He is a reminder of the days when Democrats still ruled Florida and wins by Republicans such as Bob Martinez in the '86 governor's race and Connie Mack in the '88 Senate race were considered flukes.

This is the same state party that continued to rely on old lions such as Lawton Chiles, Buddy MacKay and Bob Graham in the '90s while Republicans were grooming new stars such as Gov. Jeb Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. A younger, bi-lingual state chairman from the state's mid-section would have sent a message that Florida Democrats were ready to give up ghosts of the past for new faces.

It also could have been the wrong move.

The Democrats needed instant credibility. They needed a veteran who could work full-time to stop the bleeding. With the 2000 elections looming, there was no time for a long rebuilding project with a flashy rookie learning as he or she went along.

Whitehead fills the bill. Politics is a game where longtime relationships and old favors count. He has plenty of both, and he is cashing in on them.

For example, President Clinton is coming to Miami for a fundraiser next month. Clinton has made frequent trips to Florida to raise money, and he will be hitting other states this summer as well.

The news is that Whitehead convinced the president that the Florida Democratic Party needed every dime from this fundraiser. Normally, state parties receive less than 10 percent of the cash when Clinton swoops in. The rest goes directly to the national party or a variety of other national committees.

This time, Florida Democrats should get $1-million. That's huge for a state party that was several hundred thousand dollars in the hole when Whitehead took over.

Whitehead pulled it off by writing a personal letter to Clinton, reflecting on their friendship since the early '80s and explaining the state party's desperate situation. He got the letter directly to Clinton, and the response was swift.

By then, Whitehead also had arranged for former Texas Gov. Ann Richards to speak Saturday night at the state party's Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner in Fort Lauderdale. That's pretty good timing, considering the Bush brothers toured the state Friday.

At first, Richards begged off and cited a conflict. But Whitehead called Tony Coelho, Vice President Al Gore's new campaign chairman. Coelho called Richards. Suddenly, Richards didn't have a conflict any more, and Florida Democrats were on track to raise another few hundred thousand dollars.

There is other evidence that Democrats are pulling together with Whitehead back in charge.

Sen. Bob Graham and South Florida Reps. Robert Wexler and Peter Deutsch showed up at a Washington fundraiser for Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson's Senate bid. That sends a signal that the party is uniting behind Nelson and hoping to avoid a divisive primary. Nelson is the only credible Democrat in the race.

All three African-American members of Congress were expected to attend Saturday night's fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale. That sends a message that perhaps the party finally is moving beyond the Logan debacle.

Whitehead has reached out to all factions, from Logan to Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, a longtime friend and conservative Democrat who endorsed Bush.

"Obviously, things are going much better," Deutsch said last week. "There is a focus, a direction."

Whitehead plans to raise $2.5-million this year and keep the chairmanship only through the 2000 elections. Maybe a Democrat won't win the U.S. Senate race. Maybe Texas Gov. George W. Bush, with his brother in the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee, will run over everyone in Florida. Maybe Democrats won't gain any ground in the state Legislature.

But if Whitehead continues to make progress, Democrats ought to at least put up a decent fight. That by itself would be an improvement.

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