Sunday, May 31, 2009

Meek/Burns/Gelber US Senate politics at JJ meeting

Dan Gelber is stepping back. Kevin Burns is not. Kendrick Meek is confident of the Democratic nomination to run against whomever the Republicans put up for the US Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez.

UPDATE: Just learning at midnight Monday about a new entry in the US Senate race: Corrine Brown, U.S. Rep. from Jacksonville (FL-3) says she's considering a race for this seat.
ALSO: The Gelber campaign used my video of Gelber (see below) in a message to people in the Gelber Facebook group. Cool to be linked. It's also on the Broward New Times blog, where you also can see a snip on Corrine Brown.

That’s a bunch of names, and even more will enter the picture. Aside from the jockeying personalities and ambitions, the thing that stands out is a drive by many Florida Democrats to avoid divisive primaries in the 2010 elections – midterms in the presidential cycle but the year to elect the governor and the three other state cabinet officers. No incumbents seek re-election for the first time in over 130 years. Democrats are ambitious to grab all four so-called statewide offices – they only hold one now – and elect a Democrat to the US Senate.

This would be a tremendous state coup for Democrats on the heels of taking Florida’s 27 electoral votes for Barack Obama last November. But it goes against the typical history of midterm losses by the president’s party, and may not be possible anyhow unless the national economy brightens and makes voters more happy with Democrats. The Republicans, after all, also are trying to avoid tough primaries, though Marco Rubio, the deeply conservative former State House speaker, shows no sign of leaving the Senate field to Gov. Charlie Crist, the empty suit.

What do I know about the Republicans, anyway?

Here’s the way this played out among Democrats in public Saturday at the day of training and campaigning that was part of the Florida Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day in the luxe venue of the newly renovated Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach.

Dan Gelber, 48, my state senator (District 35), said he had walked a few hundred yards to the meeting from his Miami Beach home. Finding coffee at the GLBT Caucus room, he told this blogger he was likely to step back from the US Senate race and was talking to people about running for state attorney general. He’s a former federal prosecutor, one highlight in a busy resume of politics and public service, but his ambition in this direction runs up against another rising Democrat, state Sen. Dave Aronberg (FL-27), 38, who’s perhaps even more in need of a bigger job than Gelber. Gelber is early in his first state Senate term, while Aronberg is in his second and last. Term limits, Ta DA!

Some say Florida Democrats don’t have a deep bench of candidates. Gelber and Aronberg are evidence for the other view: that talent is abundant. Unfortunately, attorney general is a natural office for each of them.

Now I’ve mixed the race for state attorney general in with the US Senate. Let’s go back to the senatorial possibilities.

The hapless Mel Martinez announced last year, after being cashiered as head of the Republican Party, that he wouldn’t run for re-election to US Senate. The Democratic scramble started back in December when Gelber said he was thinking of the Senate. A month later Meek, 42, in his fourth term in the US House (FL-17), made the first official step into the race, and Gelber officially announced for US Senate soon thereafter. In February Kevin Burns, mayor of North Miami, launched his bid. This made the Democratic race an entirely Miami-Dade County affair, though the three are a diverse set, Meek being African-American, Gelber Jewish, and Burns gay, in a 26-year relationship and having an adopted, charming daughter. Hey, we’re Democrats. So what if it’s Florida and some parts of the state are still in the Deep South. I can’t help but think … Anyway. Get over it.

All three showed up at the Netroots Coalition training session Saturday morning and spoke briefly, setting wheels in motion. Here are video links to clips of their talks. Text summaries soon thereafter.

Key words from Gelber:

  • “Every time we get involved with divisive primaries, we lose.”
  • In recent election cycles, “there’s really only been one (Democratic) candidate who’s won, Alex Sink. Guess what – she didn’t have a primary. … I’m in this US Senate race. But I will likely be taking sort of a step back in this race….”
  • “I do think this cycle is going to be (about) how disciplined we are going to be as Democrats. Whether we can put together a group that delivers change, really changes the face of our state.”

Kevin Burns was the only enthusiastic proponent of primaries. “I love primaries,” he told the Netroots crowd, while cautioning that a primary should be “responsible.” He contrasted a good primary with the Republicans’ usual tactic of special interests anointing someone to be the nominee.

That doesn’t make Burns a front-runner, however. Meek seems to have that position. But it’s a long time before the primary in August next year.

Gelber and others talked about a 2010 slate – the US Senate, plus the state leadership offices of governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture and consumer affairs. (The lieutenant governor is elected as a team with the governor.)

In the evening, at the banquet before over 1,000 people, Gelber made it more official, saying in his podium speech, “I’m going to step back from my US Senate bid and consider other seats in the (state) cabinet.”

This won the best ovation of the evening. There was prolonged applause and many rose to their feet. Neither Alex Sink, the gubernatorial nominee, nor keynoter Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia and head of the DNC, got prolonged applause. After Kendrick Meek spoke and didn’t acknowledge that Gelber had, in effect, withdrawn (What does “step back” mean, anyway?), Bob Graham, the wise old Florida Democrat, with vast experience as governor and prominent US senator, seemed to depart from his text to thank Gelber, and praised his “courageous, unifying and patriotic statement.”

Now came Alex Sink to the podium after Graham’s introduction. Unchallenged for the Democratic nomination for governor, she gave a speech rich in platitudes until she got to her growing up on a farm. The chatty audience finally hushed and seemed enthralled by her description of how she learned self-reliance and a “love of numbers” from helping her father with the farm accounts. She wrote the checks, and it seemed that soon she was head of the Bank of America in Florida, and now on the threshold of the governor’s office.

She’s facing Bill McCollum, whose distinguishing feature is having run for office a ton of times without seeming to become especially smart or effective. Now he’s the state attorney general, term-limited, so he’s up or out of office.

On Sunday morning Gelber sent an email to supporters announcing again that he’s “stepping back” from the US Senate race, and that he’d been talking with Bob Graham, Alex Sink and US Sen. Bill Nelson about a “slate of candidates” for 2010.

The text of his email:

As you may know I have decided to step back from my U.S. Senate bid. I wanted to let you know the reasons.

When Governor Crist announced he would be a candidate for US Senate, he created a domino effect that opened up every seat on the cabinet. At a time when our state is facing its greatest challenges, ironically, we have our greatest uncertainty and dislocation. But I believe this is also an opportunity – the chance to set a new course that avoids the mistakes of the past and tracks a better future for our families.

It makes little sense -- when we do face the prospect of real change in Florida -- for me to participate in a potentially divisive primary for U.S. Senate that will only serve to diminish our chances against a very formidable and well-known Republican nominee.

I also believe that we have a historic opportunity here in Florida to reshape the political landscape and more importantly, bring fundamental change to Tallahassee. I have had a number of conversations with Senators Graham and Nelson, and CFO Alex Sink, about how we can best unify our party and move forward with a slate of candidates that can communicate our vision for a better Florida, and I look forward to continuing these discussions. I would like to hear your thoughts as you have been a good supporter and friend, and I value your opinion. You can reach me at

Tim Kaine, in his keynote speech, promised to pay a lot of attention to Florida campaigns and said his DNC will “invest” in our 2010 Senate race. Kaine waxed philosophical in describing how hard it was to know when one’s political “moment” was in bloom and when it was past. “We’ll be measured by what we do in this moment ... You don’t know how long a moment will last … We’ve got to do as much as we can.”

A few more words on that slate for the state offices. Who might be in the other state cabinet slots? One delightful surprise was to learn that Annette Taddeo is considering a run to succeed Alex Sink as chief financial officer. Taddeo ran a strong campaign for US House District 18 (my district) but lost to the entrenched Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in 2008. Taddeo is a successful businesswoman in her own right and would be a credible occupant of the CFO portfolio.

She, too, appeared at the Netroots session and spoke after Gelber, Aronberg and Burns had left.

“This was not my idea,” she said of the CFO draft, but went on, “I am considering it. I am talking to people ... it’s a very difficult decision. I just went through a very grueling campaign.”

She said she’d never run again without party backing, as she did in the ’08 congressional campaign. This was something I saw from medium close-up, and while it was tough on her, it made me and many others admire her grit as much as her intelligence, talent and charm.

So, check it out, the website to draft Annette Taddeo for CFO.

And here’s a link to the Miami Herald’s story, which didn’t have any reporting from the Netroots meeting.

A link to an earlier post here on this topic.

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