Rod Smith's 'momentum'


Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 11:00 p.m.
"Once the center of life and politics in the state, the xenophobic North is now more or less at the mercy of the cosmopolitan urban South."
- "North to Central Florida: The three media markets of the old Democratic heartland," Maureen C. Tartaglione and Richard K. Scher, 2004.
Ralph Turlington was the last politician from Alachua County to win statewide office, having served as commissioner of education from 1974 to 1986.
Of course, Turlington got a leg up on the job. He was appointed to it by then-Gov. Reubin Askew after incumbent Floyd Christian took up residence in the slammer for high crimes and misdemeanors.
After that, armed with the power and fund-raising prowess of the incumbency, re-election was a snap for Ralph. He never returned to Gainesville.
Plus, in Turlington's day, the Democrats pretty much ran Florida, and political power flowed from north to south rather than vice versa. Back then, it wasn't considered such a big deal when an Askew came out of Pensacola, or a Lawton Chiles emerged from Lakeland to beat better-known, better-funded urban politicians.
Tomorrow, state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, plans to announce his candidacy for governor in 2006. He'll only be able to spend about a month asking for money and campaigning until the advent of the legislative session puts a crimp in both his free time and his fund-raising abilities.
To say Smith will be starting his long run in a different political climate than Turlington knew is an understatement. Not only has political power shifted decisively to the urban South (they don't let pine trees vote anymore), but the Democratic Party has been forced to play the role of "loyal opposition" to the Republicans for the best part of a decade.
There hasn't been a Democrat in the governor's mansion since Jeb Bush beat Buddy MacKay six years ago. The cabinet is solidly Republican, as is the leadership of the Legislature. And Florida played a key role in both of George W. Bush's presidential elections.
So what makes Rod Smith think he can win not only his own party's nomination, but against the Republicans, in 2006?
"There's no magic place in Florida to run from," Smith insists. "And I'm the Democrat who has a chance to win against the Republicans in 2006."
That may not be as farfetched as it sounds at first blush.
Over the course of four years in the Senate, Smith has positioned himself as a nonideological pragmatist who has been able to work closely with the Republican leadership without alienating leaders of his own party. Although in the "wrong" party, he has been the Senate's point man for both medical malpractice reform and judicial funding.
And anyone who has been checking his travel schedule over the last couple of years may notice that Smith has spent quite a lot of time popping in and out of South and Central Florida.
As a former state prosecutor who put one of Florida's most notorious serial killers on death row, Smith has credibility with the "tough on crime" folks. And it probably didn't hurt him politically last year when he worked with the National Rifle Association on gun-rights legislation. And as a one-time farm boy from Oklahoma, Smith has kept his hand in agricultural issues.
Law enforcement, gun owners, farmers - all key constituencies in a conservative state.
Plus, Smith's a passionate orator, and he's still got, you know, all of his hair. Which never hurts in politics.
Still, can anybody get to Tallahassee via the city of Alachua these days?
"He's going to have to get his votes from Central and South Florida because the North Central Florida area only has about 10 percent of the state's voters," says Richard Scher, political science professor at the University of Florida. "It's hard to see how he can parlay this into a statewide campaign. On the other hand, it's not impossible if he can become well-known enough, if he has the right connections, if no obvious South Florida candidates get into the race and if he can raise enough money."
Those are a lot of ifs.
Still, it's all about name recognition, "and the one thing you can buy in politics is name recognition," Scher said.
And when you come right down to it, the absence of an incumbent on the gubernatorial ticket in 2006 - Jeb Bush can't run again because of term limits - pretty much puts all of the contenders in the same position.
No matter where they live, all of the candidates are going to have to introduce themselves to the voters over the next two years.
In deciding to run for governor, Smith has rejected the advice of senior party leaders who have been urging him to get into the attorney general's race. Smith's record as a state prosecutor would have helped him in that regard, and running for attorney general would have spared him the necessity of running against better-known Democrats, such as Tampa-area U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, or perhaps Betty Castor, who narrowly lost her bid for U.S. Senate last year.
"I've been state attorney, and state attorney is a better job than attorney general," Smith said. "I have no interest in attorney general."
Plus, Smith sees no particular political advantage to running for a low-profile cabinet position instead of a high-profile governor's race.
It is the nature of politics, he points out, that the fate of cabinet nominees tends to be tied to the fortunes of whoever is running at the top of the ticket.
If Smith's election prospects are going to depend on whoever the Democrats nominate for governor anyway, then he figures it might as well be him.
Of course, what Democrats are hoping for is that, after eight years of Jeb Bush and six years of George W. Bush, Floridians will be ready for a political sea change in 2006.
And although Smith may be starting out at the "wrong" end of the state, none of the potential contenders at this point can claim a particular advantage in terms of name recognition or job approval ratings.
"The difference between Jim Davis and me at this point is that I know nobody knows me and he thinks everybody knows him," Smith jokes.
Last year, in an analysis piece about North Florida's political influence that they wrote for the Florida Institute of Government, Scher and UF doctoral candidate Maureen Tartaglione observed, "The sheer force of Smith's personality gave the 14th District representation it might not otherwise expect, and that momentum may carry beyond regional borders."
Yes, but can "the sheer force of Smith's personality" carry him all the way to the governor's mansion?
Well, have I mentioned that he still has all his hair?

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