Stormy Political Season on the Horizon
The week that just was marked the official beginning of hurricane season, but by week's end, the storms in the political arena were stronger than anything brewing so far in the Atlantic.
Gov. Charlie Crist, a key player in the Florida political storms as a 2010 U.S. Senate candidate, urged Floridians to prepare for the hurricane season predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be near-normal this year, with a 70 percent chance of nine to 14 storms.
Four to seven of those storms could turn into hurricanes, and up to three could be category three, four or five, NOAA said, while Crist said Floridians should be “like a Boy Scout or Girl Scout” and prepare for the upcoming season.
But while the governor-turned-Senate-hopeful was talking hurricanes, many others in official Tallahassee were talking politics. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink addressed her party over the weekend in Miami Beach for the first time as a full-fledged contender to replace Crist in the Governor's Mansion, and during the week, observers sized up her debut.
Sink took center stage last Saturday evening at the Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner, speaking to more than 1,000 activists,, and it was immediately clear that they had not just come to see the beach. By the time Sink's JJ Dinner speech was finished, the opening themes she hopes will catapult her to victory were readily apparent.
Namely, she would be a "new and different kind of governor," a wink and a nod to her bid to become Florida's first female governor. And she would be a "working mom" with kids who are products of the public school system, a not-so-oblique gender reference. Sink also touted being raised in rural North Carolina, saying that her farm upbringing taught her values such as fiscal responsibility.
She also took a page from last year's Obama campaign - change. "The status quo has got to go," Sink said, presaging what likely will be a prominent theme in a race that follows 12 years of Republicans living in the Governor's Mansion.
Sink wasn't the only one talking politics this week. After an election year that produced the first African-American president, a former state representative said that a South Florida congressional seat that will be vacant in the next cycle could see yet another barrier broken.
With U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek vacating his seat in a district with a large bloc of Haitian-American voters to run for the U.S. Senate, the race to replace him has drawn several candidates, including a few who are Haitian-American themselves, including state Rep. Yolly Roberson and former Rep. Phillip Brutus.
A third Haitian-American, Rep. Ronald Brise, has been mentioned as a potential candidate as well. The trio would be joined in the race by a crowded field that also includes Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami. The race is also expected to be joined by two members of the Miami Gardens City Council - Mayor Shirley Gibson and Commissioner Andre Williams.
Elsewhere in the political arena, state Sen. Dave Aronberg confirmed that he will run for attorney general next year, entering his first statewide race. He's likely to be joined in the race by state Sen. Dan Gelber, who used his JJ dinner speech to end his campaign for U.S. Senate, saying he would "explore other opportunities in the Cabinet" and wanted to promote party unity. But with Gelber, Aronberg and former state Sen. Rod Smith all eyeing the Democratic nomination for AG , unity may have to wait for another election year.
There won't be much party unity on the other side of the aisle in another Cabinet race either after Volusia County state Rep. Pat Patterson said this week that he is "definitely" running for the Cabinet post of chief financial officer. The announcement set the stage for a potential Republican primary contest with Senate President Jeff Atwater.
Patterson played down the difference between his resume and Atwater’s. "Outside the four blocks surrounding the Capitol, most people in Florida have no idea who the Senate president or House speaker is," he said.
There was no word from Patterson, however, on how many blocks away from the Capitol his name recognition extends.
While candidates were busy sorting out which offices they wanted to run for, there was also discussion this week about the people who would have to vote for them. It became clear that the problems Republicans had in drawing minority voters last year could resurface in Florida in 2010, if voter registration trends touted by state Democrats were any indication.
As Democrats trumpeted their continuing registration advantage, numbers that jumped out most were the party's continuing strong advantage among new minority voters. According to the party, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 75 percent to 25 percent among new African-American voters and 46 percent to 15 percent among Hispanics, a startling gap in a state where the GOP has long enjoyed a strong relationship with the Cuban community.
Also potentially worrisome for Republicans, 37 percent of the 33,415 new Hispanic voters registered as independent.
Overall, the figures put out by the party showed Democrats at the end of last year and in the first part of this year maintained their registration advantage, with almost 40 percent of the 218,074 new voters who signed up between October and May 7 going to the Democratic Party. The next largest bloc, 34.9 percent, registered as independents and 25.5 percent signed up as Republicans, said Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff.
But a former RPOF chairman who is himself Cuban-American, Al Cardenas, said that Republicans could take heart in the fact that a large chunk of the new Hispanics were registering as independents instead of Democrats, as they were doing last year. It would surely be better for the GOP if they were registering as Republicans though.
TOP BILLING FOR GOV'S SIGNATURE (SOMETIMES)
Gov. Crist may be the biggest name in political discussions these days, but he already knows what office he's running for, so while everyone else was talking politics, the self-proclaimed people's governor was autographing legislation. But even the governor's act of governance was fraught with politics, as Crist signed some bills after business hours (and evening newscasts), and toured the state signing others multiple times for maximum effect.
Among the bills to win the governor's John Hancock this week was one that has become a test of the state's ability to effectively manage growth. The bill (SB 360) is intended to update the growth management laws and to limit sprawl by steering growth toward the cities. Supporters say the current law is choking growth where it's needed while letting it flourish where it's not.
But critics, a coalition of environmental and local government groups, say the measure, which reduces local oversight over development decisions, will further congest Florida's cities without alleviating the sprawl happening on the urban fringe.
Crist also quietly signed legislation Monday that throws a life line to unemployed Floridians, making up to 20 weeks of extra benefits available, but increases taxes on business – though business supported the measure. Still, it is the second tax increase that Crist has signed into law this year, with the first being a cigarette tax hike of $1 per pack.
The bill (SB 810) that Crist signed - without any fanfare - on Monday increases the amount of unemployment taxes paid by businesses in an effort to help shore up the unemployment trust fund. That may be news that Mr. Crist Goes to Washington would likely want to keep away from Republican primary voters likely to be more conservative than the overall electorate.
Crist also signed a bill that will allow the 11 state universities to increase tuition above what the Legislature allows up to a point and a bill that may make it easier for families of children who need health insurance to get into the state's subsidized KidCare program.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Charlie Crist began the week by commemorating the official beginning of hurricane season at a Tallahassee Home Depot, but by week's end, the most turbulent storms brewing were in the political arena, not the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Her situation was a little bit different because she was president of Bank of America. Her commutes probably involved a jet to Charlotte more than 10 miles in Tampa traffic," former Republican Party of Florida executive director David Johnson on CFO and gubernatorial hopeful Alex Sink description of herself as a working mom during her first full-scale campaign appearance.