THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 6, 2011 --
Days after a fourth straight inauguration of a Republican governor - and a new, all-GOP Cabinet to go with him - Florida Democrats are retreating to central Florida this weekend to plan a path back to power in Tallahassee.
In Orlando Saturday afternoon, the party will hold an election that is expected to turn its leadership over to former state Sen. Rod Smith – he is the only candidate. But Smith is not waiting until then to make like new Gov. Rick Scott and get to work.
“I’m not on the payroll yet, but I’m sitting in the office working,” Smith said Thursday, acknowledging his status as de-facto leader of a party in the wilderness.
Smith, a former Gainesville prosecutor, was on the losing end of the recent election as the Democrat’s candidate for lieutenant governor. Smith was also a candidate for governor in 2006 but bowed out in the primary.
But after Saturday, he will be chairman, replacing outgoing party chairwoman Karen Thurman.
His chief announced opposition, Tallahassee City Commissioner Andrew Gillum, did the math after Smith locked up enough support from the party’s base to be elected and ended his nascent bid.
Friday night, Democrats will honor Thurman’s tenure, which saw the party’s presidential nominee win the state for the first time since 1996, but also saw a whole slate of state candidates decimated. The next day, they will turn the reins over to Smith.
Smith told the News Service of Florida he already has his eyes turned toward what is likely to be the biggest battle his party faces with the Republican-led Legislature in the next two years: reapportionment. Smith said he will use the full weight of his new post to defend the so-called “FairDistricts” amendments - 5 and 6 on last year’s ballots – which are already headed for the courts.
Those measures were widely seen as the only glimmer of hope for Democrats in an election that saw them lose the closest governor’s race in state history, all three seats on the Florida Cabinet and enough seats in the Legislature to give the Republicans supermajorities in both chambers. They also lost several seats in the state’s congressional delegation.
“We have an absolute obligation to implement FairDistricts,” which he points out were approved by supermajorities of voters. “We’ll immediately defend 5 and 6 from lawsuits. I intend to put every energy into seeing (them implemented).”
Democrats are clearly counting on their new chair to do exactly that. Former state Sen. Dave Aronberg said this week that Smith was the man for the job in part because of his legal background.
“We’re very fortunate that he was willing to take on this challenge and I think he’s going to help the Democrats in redistricting,” Aronberg said after Scott’s inauguration. Smith, he said, is “an experienced lawyer (who) knows how to litigate with Amendments 5 and 6 to see that the seats are fairly drawn.”
However, Aronberg cautioned that winning the fight of reapportionment alone will not be enough to return Democrats to any semblance of power in Florida, where Republicans have ruled since the mid-1990’s.
“Beyond that, I think it’s better candidate recruitment and organization,” he said. “We did not have an effective get out the vote effort this last cycle and that’s got to change. We know where the problems are. Absentee voting and now early voting was a problem for us….You have to identify the problem before you can fix it and Rod Smith has correctly identified it and I think he’s the right guy to lead us back.”
With diminished numbers in the Legislature and not many viable statewide candidates in sight, Aronberg acknowledged Smith’s new job will be tough.
“When I looked on stage (at the inauguration), there was not a Democrat on the stage and that’s because the bench got wiped out in this last election,” he said.
For his part, Smith dismissed suggestions from critics that the new requirements preventing favoring incumbents or parties disenfranchise minority voters or that they may violate the Voting Rights Act. Those complaints have been led by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, a member of the party Smith is poised to lead, and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami.
“Democrats passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” he said. “We reauthorized it in the 1970s and in 2006. There’s no question of our support for the Voting Rights Act.”
He also said recent political history showed that putting majorities of minority voters in districts isn’t the only way they could be elected.
If that’s true, Smith said, “how did Barack Obama carry Florida (in 2008) and Allen West just win a seat (in a district) less than 5 percent black?”
Speaking of Obama, Smith said that he would also get to work right away on making sure Obama could carry Florida again in his re-election bid in 2012, which some political observers have questioned after the Republican tsunami in the most recent elections here.
Smith is not one of them.
“Florida will be enormously involved in the next (presidential) election,” Smith said, and not just because Republicans are planning to nominate their candidate in Tampa.
Smith said the 2010 election doesn’t say anything about 2012. In off years, presidents are being compared by voters to history – how they stack up against other presidents throughout the years.
“In actual elections, they’re running against somebody on the other side who has their own record,” Smith said.
Smith said Obama may be helped by Scott’s promised more conservative administration and the Legislature, which has already clearly moved further to the political right under House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Scott’s inaugural address this week contained “a certain narrowness” that was designed to “appeal to the base” of the Republican Party, Smith said.
“To the degree that the Republicans continue to move to right, they misread the Florida electorate, and I hope they continue do to that,” he said.