Florida Democrats discuss future at a private meeting

Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 10:38 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Most of the top Democrats who want to run for statewide office next year met this week at U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd's Jefferson County farm, where they talked about the 2006 races and promised to maintain party unity as they head into a critical election year.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox, who attended the Monday night meeting, said he wanted to stress the theme of unity as the Democrats maneuver to run for governor and three Cabinet seats and to defend U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's seat. He said that message was important following last year's U.S. Senate race when some Democrats believe Betty Castor's general election effort was hurt by the attacks she faced in her party's primary.
"I want to make sure that if we have spirited primaries that they don't result in a circular firing squad or personal attacks," Maddox said. "There is a desire among all the parties to have a bloodless primary and I could not agree more."
The rustic setting belied the high-stakes nature of the meeting, which was attended by Nelson and U.S. Reps. Boyd of Monticello, Jim Davis of Tampa and Kendrick Meek of Miami. Others at the gathering included state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua; Lawton "Bud" Chiles, son of the former governor; state Sens. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, and Steven Geller, D-Hallandale; and House Democratic leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale. Castor, a former state education commissioner who may run for governor, listened in by speakerphone.
The private meeting, which followed a similar gathering at Boyd's farm in December, is seen as part of an overall effort by the party to revive itself heading into the crucial 2006 elections. With only one statewide office in its grasp - Nelson's seat - the Democrats face a critical juncture.
If 2006 proves to be a political disaster, it may reach another historic low. It could be the first time, since the Reconstruction Era, that the Democrats are left without a U.S. Senate seat, a Cabinet office or the governor's mansion.
Democrats who attended the meeting described the discussions as blunt but fruitful.
"I thought it was a candid exchange," said Sen. Smith, a former state attorney who is considered a likely candidate for governor.
Smith and others said there was no effort by party members or officials to steer candidates into or away from races.
"I don't think that there is any history to suggest, in the Democratic Party, that we tell people you don't run or you do run. That's just not the way we've done business," he said. "I'm sure people would like it to be more orderly sometimes than it is. But you know out of primaries come choices that represent that party's best hope for success in a general election."
Klein, who is considering a run for a Cabinet seat or local office, agreed.
"All we really want to know is who's out there," Klein said. "The conversation that's being had by everyone is if we're going to have a primary, make sure that we understand the prize is winning the general election."
Heading into the meeting, Nelson described his role as that of a senior statesman advising other potential statewide candidates. He stressed that he wasn't playing the role of a party kingmaker.
"Even if I wanted to, I couldn't control them," he said. "It's like herding cats."
Participants in the meeting said they expected the picture to become clearer in the next few weeks as candidates formally announce for the major races.
Chiles, the son of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, has already jumped into the governor's race. He is expected to be joined in the next few weeks by Smith and U.S. Rep. Davis, who also is a former state representative. Castor, the former president of the University of South Florida, is described as "seriously interested" in the governor's race, but she is not expected to make a decision until May or later.
Other potential candidates are jockeying for three Cabinet seats, including the attorney general's post and chief financial officer, which are expected to be vacant when Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher run as Republican candidates for governor.
Democrats also are expected to field a candidate against Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who will seek re-election.
Klein, state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, who was unable to attend the meeting because of a delayed flight, and Maddox are viewed as potential Cabinet candidates.
Maddox, who also is a possible gubernatorial candidate, downplayed his own political ambitions, saying his focus remains on making sure "the Democratic Party is in its best position to win" and to make sure the party has solid contenders in each major race.
Nelson, who has run for statewide office four times, said he expects the Democratic field to settle in the next few months.
"It's kind of like water running downhill," he said. "It will find its own natural course."
Joe Follick of The Sun Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.

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