Tallahassee mayor takes reins of Democratic Party


Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 9:32 p.m.
ORLANDO - The new leader of Florida's Democrats admits the cupboard is bare as he prepares to rally the party from years of floundering through one November election night loss after another. No money, no message, no candidates.
"It's 4th (down)-and-99 (yards). We should be candid about it," Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox said Saturday, shortly after the party's state executive committee unanimously chose him as chairman. "We're really in disarray following November 5. We're at the bottom of a very deep hole.
"But I've got a shovel and there's a lot of people down here with me with shovels, and we're going to dig our way out."
Maddox, 34, had no competition in the vote to replace Bob Poe, who announced Dec. 12 that he was stepping down. Democratic activists from across the state converged on a hotel at Orlando International Airport to make their decision.
Maddox appears to be energizing the party two months after divided Democrats looked for someone to blame for their poor showing at the polls. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush trounced Bill McBride, the GOP swept the statewide Cabinet races, and Democrats lost ground in the Legislature and in the state's congressional delegation.
"Scott's a quick worker," said Shannon Collins, executive vice president for the Florida Young Democrats. "I've got all confidence that within three to four months, there's going to be a complete change in the Democratic Party."
Maddox has served as Tallahassee mayor for nearly 10 years. He surprised many by earning 35 percent of the vote in a four-way primary for attorney general last fall, just two points behind former state Sen. Buddy Dyer, who won the nomination but lost to Republican Charlie Crist.
Maddox will complete the remainder of Poe's term, which expires in December 2004. He will remain mayor until an election in February.
"I believe very strongly in Democratic ideals," said Maddox, who will earn $100,000 annually. "I believe very strongly that someone should look out for working people in the state of Florida, and that we ought to preserve our environment, and we should have affordable health care.
"The Democratic Party has traditionally filled that role, but right now we don't have a voice at the table, and real people will suffer. And I want to try to make a difference there."
Maddox said his top three priorities were developing a coherent message, candidate recruitment at all levels and establishing a get-out-the-vote structure.
But even before Maddox's selection, his peers were trying to steer him in various directions.
During the nominating process, Joe Martin, Palm Beach County's representative on the executive committee, insisted that universal health care should be a top priority.
And state Sen. Ron Klein said the party leadership needs to reconnect with its rank-and-file members across the state.
"Local Democrats have not had statewide Democrats visit with them and talk with them to find out what the issues are. That hasn't happened in a long time," said Klein, of Delray Beach. "We've sort of let big portions of the state go without having active Democratic organizations."
The party said Maddox would spend part of February traveling across the state in an effort to reach out to Democrats at the grass-roots level. It would be a tour reminiscent of his "Mayor on the Move" motor-home journey in 2001, when he visited officials in 405 cities across the state as president of the Florida League of Cities.
The meeting also was a chance for Poe to bid farewell to those he worked with since taking over as chairman in March 2000.
"You will do a great disservice to hand the success and the failures of this party on the new chair," Poe said. "Remember that you gave him a gavel and not a magic wand."

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