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Florida Democrats Star in 'That 70's Show'

October 28, 2011 - 6:00pm

Disneys Contemporary Resort in Walt Disney World opened in 1971 -- making it a fitting place for the Florida Democratic Party to meet this past weekend.

The Democrats labeled their convention "A Legacy of Leadership: A Promise for Tomorrow. They should have called it That 70s Show, though the likes of Ashton Kushner and Mila Kunis were nowhere to be seen.

While the Florida Democrats did not feature a cast of teenagers having zany adventures in Wisconsin, they went back to the disco era to feature the likes of Reubin Askew, Carrie Meek and Bob Graham. And why not? State Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, is back in the upper chamber. She took over as president of the Florida Senate more than 20 years ago, and was first elected to the Florida House in 1974 back when ABBA ruled the charts with Waterloo and Carl Douglas mixed martial arts and disco with Kung Fu Fighting.

Democrats may have dominated Florida politics for the last century and a half, but the sun is setting on them in the Sunshine State.

In 2010, Democratic nominee Alex Sink came close to being the first member of her party to win a gubernatorial race since 1994. But Republican candidate Rick Scott was an unknown candidate who was bloodied after a brutal primary against Bill McCollum, who refused to endorse his GOP rival.

Sink may have come close, but the rest of the Democratic ticket went down in flames in 2010. Republicans buried the three Democrats in the state Cabinet races. Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek finished a distant third in the U.S. Senate race in 2010. Four Florida Democrats -- Allen Boyd, Alan Grayson, Ron Klein and Suzanne Kosmas -- were thrown out of Congress in 2010. Republicans continued to build their majority in the Florida Legislature and won enough seats to override vetoes in both the House and Senate. After the 2010 elections, Democrats held only 39 of the 120 seats in the Florida House and 12 in the Senate.

The Democrats certainly have their pockets of strength in Florida, and they have shown a knack for winning mayoral elections. Alvin Brown was elected mayor of Jacksonville earlier in the year -- the first Democrat to win since Ed Austin back in 1991. They have also had success in mayoral races with Pam Iorio and Bob Buckhorn and in Orlando with Buddy Dyer. But, at the state level, they have essentially vanished.

Dyer spoke to the Florida Democrats on Saturday and, while he praised them for helping Barack Obama carry the state in 2008, he warned that they need to do more at the state and local level if they want to remain relevant. The 2,000 Democrats who attended the convention in Orlando certainly were charged up to back Obama and Bill Nelson--and defeat Scott in 2014. Whether they are that fired up for congressional and legislative races in 2012 remains to be seen.

As Dyer and other speakers in Orlando stressed, Democrats need to bounce back in Florida in 2012. Obama will most likely need to win Florida if he wants to stay in the White House. Democrats will need Nelson to win in 2012 if they want to have any hope of keeping the Senate in their control. Both Obama and Nelson appear to be headed for tough fights in 2012 to keep the Sunshine State blue -- and, whatever one thinks of the current Republican field looking to take on Nelson, theres not a Katherine Harris among them.

It does not appear to be any easier in 2014 for Florida Democrats as there are few future leaders waiting in the wings. Instead, a number of politicians who have already been rejected by the voters are considered possible candidates to run against Scott in 2014. There is talk that Sink will run again. Rod Smith, who served as Sinks lieutenant governor candidate and currently chairs the state party, is also a potential candidate. Theres talk that Dan Gelber -- the Democratic nominee for attorney general who was buried by Republican candidate Pam Bondi in a landslide in 2010 -- may run again for statewide office in 2014. So could former state Sen. Dave Aronberg who lost in a primary to Gelber. No wonder Democrats are turning toward former Gov. Charlie Crist, who spent two decades on the Sunshine States political stage as a Republican before running for the Senate with no party affiliation in 2010.

All across Florida, Democrats repudiated at the polls in 2010 are looking to make political comebacks. Take, for example, former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, who is looking to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan in 2012. First elected to the Florida House in 2006, Fitzgerald represented parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties until 2010, when he lost his seat to Republican candidate Ray Pilon. Despite massively outspending Pilon -- the Democrat went through almost $293,000 while the Republican challenger spent almost $144,000 -- Fitzgerald went down to defeat. Not exactly an ideal political resume, and the Florida Democrats are pushing his candidacy.

The Democrats featured a panel discussion on mayors on Saturday morning. Certainly some urban areas as well as majority-minority districts will ensure that there will be pockets of Democratic support in Florida. But even if Obama and Nelson carry Florida in 2012 --no sure thing in either case --the Florida Democrats are a nonfactor at the state level with little in the way of a bench or up-and-coming stars.

No wonder Florida Democrats want to go back to the '70s -- which, in a speech praising Askew on Friday night, former DCF Secretary George Sheldon called a golden age. Florida Democratscelebrating their role in the age of polyester and 8-tracks serve as a stark reminder of how far theyve fallen -- something that does not appear likely to change anytime soon.

Reach Kevin Derby at or at (850) 727-0859.

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