Democrats continue to struggle financially


Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2005 at 11:38 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - For much of the past month, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman has viewed her television as a crystal ball for her party's future.
On the news channels, she sees opportunity in Republican woes: President George W. Bush's much-panned response to Hurricane Katrina, the indictment of GOP leader Rep. Tom DeLay, multiplying gas prices and the fall of political appointees like FEMA director Michael Brown.
Symbolizing the Republican missteps was former first lady Barbara Bush's comments about mostly poor New Orleans refugees being housed in Houston's Astrodome.
''And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them," she said.
''I was, and everyone I have talked to was extremely offended by the president's mother," Thurman said. ''Especially when we're looking at the number of people living under this poverty. And what have they done to solve that?"
But for all of the GOP's recent political pratfalls, Democrats may find it hard to capitalize in Florida as the state's party continues to struggle financially. The most recent disclosures with the Florida Elections Commission show the Republican Party of Florida had more than $4.7 million in cash on hand as of June, the date of their last filed report.
Compare that to the $523 the Florida Democratic Party had as of Aug. 31. And the Democrats listed more than $294,000 in outstanding debt. That includes more than $100,000 still owed to a firm that audited the party after the Internal Revenue Service placed a lien in June on the party's building due to unpaid taxes.
The Florida Elections Commission disclosures reflect only the pool of money that the parties can legally use for federal candidates for the U.S. Senate and House and for "get out the vote" efforts such as direct mail and telephone contacts. This pool, known as ''federal money,'' consists of donations from individuals and federal political action committees.
In the next few weeks, both parties will file reports with the Florida Division of Elections that will reveal the status of ''state money'' donated mostly from in-state groups that can be used to directly help state candidates. Thurman said that report will show a ''respectable'' influx of cash for the party.
David Johnson, the former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, said the fiscal chasm between the two parties may be narrowed as the national parties contribute to the state's operations for 2006 elections for governor, U.S. Senate and three state cabinet positions. But he said his opponents are starting in a deep hole.
''The Democrats are not going to stay at $500,'' he said. ''The Republican Party will have national assistance. The Democrats will have national assistance. But what the parties can raise themselves often makes the difference in how they're able to conduct their elections.''
Another former Republican Party of Florida executive director, Geoffrey Becker, said the Democrats will need more money even if the political pendulum continues to swing their way. ''The (pro-Republican) environment could change, and that has a capacity to push people to the polls,'' he said. ''But for the most part, (voters) need to be encouraged and the way you convince them is through paid advocacy'' that can only be paid for with federal money.
Thurman, a former U.S. congresswoman, took over the party's top job after Scott Maddox left in May to run for governor. Her first unwelcome task was to pay off the IRS debt and conduct a $100,000-plus audit to assure contributors the party's house was in order. The fiscal picture has only worsened. The federal report in June showed the party had about $11,500 in cash as of May 31 with $34,000 in debt. In addition to the audit charges, Thurman said the state party is still receiving bills from last year's elections.
Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, is in charge of the Democratic races for the state Senate next year. He said that despite the current red ink, the party is rebounding under Thurman.
''Things suck for the very, very short run. We have a very, very bright prospect for the future,'' he said.
Geller blames the party's dismal financial state on Maddox's divided attention due to his dalliance with a gubernatorial run while leading the party.
''Having Karen (Thurman) there is a tremendous help and candidly, having Scott there is one of the reasons we're in the difficulties we're in," Geller said.
Geller said that under Maddox's watch, House and Senate Democrats maintained control of their own campaign funds rather than turning them over to the party. With Thurman as chairwoman, the Florida Democratic Party is now overseeing all of the state races, and Geller said he is raising more money for the state Senate races than ever before.
Maddox was not available for comment Friday.
Beyond the financial advantage for the GOP's state party, the two candidates for governor have proven to be titanic fund-raisers. Attorney General Charlie Crist raised about $3.7 million in just a few weeks this year and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher also raised more than $3 million.
So far, Democratic front-runner U.S. Rep. Jim Davis has raised a little more than $930,000; state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, has raised about $800,000 and Maddox has received about $300,000 in a shorter period.
It's hard to raise money when the party has so little oomph in state politics. Democrats are outnumbered 2-to-1 in the Florida Legislature and hold only one statewide seat - U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Relegated to financial second-fiddle, Thurman hopes the GOP continues to stumble well into next year's campaign melee.
''Yes, (the state's Republican Party) has $4.7 million on hand and they have the governor's mansion and they have all of the statewide Cabinet posts,'' Thurman said. ''However, as we say in any campaign, it's not always about money. I think there is an awakening. Folks that might consider themselves independents are looking at Democrats again.''

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