Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure we note that Dave Plotkin, Scott Randolph's campaign manager, was once a freelance columnist for this newspaper. Plotkin also ran staff writer Billy Manes' mayoral campaign in 2005.Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure we note that Dave Plotkin, Scott Randolph's campaign manager, was once a freelance columnist for this newspaper. Plotkin also ran staff writer Billy Manes' mayoral campaign in 2005.
"You go canvassing, honey," Scott Randolph tells his wife of one year, Susannah. "We're gonna stay here and watch football."
No, he's not. Randolph's in his Mount Vernon Street living room, six weeks and three days from the Nov. 7 election and the conclusion of the most intriguing local race of this political season. He's trying to unseat Democrat-turned-Republican state Rep. Sheri McInvale in a race that has twisted and turned for the last year. So while the allure of the Jaguars-Colts game on his high-definition television in the comfort of air conditioning is real, more pressing is the reality that this sweltering Sunday afternoon will be spent walking streets and knocking on doors in Orlando's Lake Formosa neighborhood.No, he's not. Randolph's in his Mount Vernon Street living room, six weeks and three days from the Nov. 7 election and the conclusion of the most intriguing local race of this political season. He's trying to unseat Democrat-turned-Republican state Rep. Sheri McInvale in a race that has twisted and turned for the last year. So while the allure of the Jaguars-Colts game on his high-definition television in the comfort of air conditioning is real, more pressing is the reality that this sweltering Sunday afternoon will be spent walking streets and knocking on doors in Orlando's Lake Formosa neighborhood.
Randolph is an atypical candidate. He's a lawyer, but he's represented environmental groups such as Clean Water Action and the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation. He's said publicly that he makes $40,000 a year. To afford their downtown home, the Randolphs have taken on a roommate.
Randolph falls somewhere between polished and uncouth. He's young — he turns 33 on Oct. 17 — short and balding, goofy in an endearing way. He's been both a lawyer and a lobbyist for environmental groups the last few years in Tallahassee. He's a proud Democrat, though he switched from the Green Party a few years prior to this run. He's an avowed progressive and prominently displays his recognition from groups like the gay Rainbow Democrats.
His campaign for District 36 has been grass-roots, very much the definition of people-powered politics. His finance reports are packed with small donations, some as small as $5, from hundreds of individual donors. Since declaring his candidacy in October 2005, Randolph has run the campaign out of his house, only recently acquiring a real office on East Colonial Drive next to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's and gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis' offices. Randolph's house is still littered with campaign mailers, stacks of voter files and campaign buttons bearing his face, mouth agape in an awkward smile.
The Randolphs are cat people. They have at least four, including the smallest, a feisty six-week-old named Tea Cake the Kitten, aka Victory the Freedom Cat. The Randolphs found him in Eatonville the day Randolph won the Democratic primary. They think he's good luck.
Normally, this district's Democratic candidate wouldn't need luck. Randolph is running in an overwhelmingly blue district that sprawls across Orange County from downtown Orlando to Tangelo Park to Eatonville to Azalea Park. Forty-six percent of its voters are Democrats, compared to 29 percent who are Republicans. In most races that's considered an insurmountable gap, especially in a Dem-friendly year. But Randolph is hardly guaranteed victory.
In fact, the race has been anything but normal from the outset. Randolph anticipated battling McInvale in the Democratic primary. He lined up support from party activists and pitched himself as a "real Democrat" battling a self-proclaimed centrist who sided with Republicans too many times, including the contentious effort to keep Terri Schiavo on life support. But on Jan. 10, McInvale threw a wrench into Randolph's plans. Flanked by GOP heavies like Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, McInvale held a press conference in Tallahassee to announce she was switching parties. They would meet in November, and she'd have the powerful Republican machine behind her.
Thus, even though she's a Republican incumbent in a Democratic district, McInvale has superior name recognition and a fatter bank account. Randolph's football game will have to wait.Thus, even though she's a Republican incumbent in a Democratic district, McInvale has superior name recognition and a fatter bank account. Randolph's football game will have to wait.
Seeing the light
"My folks need to be represented," McInvale told Tiger Bay Club members during a Sept. 15. debate. "That's why I switched." That and the "bold vision" of the Republican leadership, which after the election will publish a book called 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future, its agenda for upcoming legislative sessions.
The state's Democratic leaders thought the 100 Innovative Ideas book was a GOP gimmick. McInvale says that attitude was "really shortchanging this district." That was, she says, "the straw that broke the camel's back."
The Orlando Sentinel's editorial board called her move "a troubling sign for the Democratic Party because her defection reflects a continuing erosion of philosophical diversity in the party." Conservatives argued that this was part of a larger trend. In November 2005, Derrick Wallace, head of the local NAACP, also switched parties.
"We're proud of you seeing the light," Jennings told McInvale at the Jan. 10 press conference.
McInvale said she wanted a better seat in the Capitol. Literally. "This is really all about the future of how we can better represent Central Florida," she said. "This is more about geography. I get to go from the back row to one of the front rows."
For McInvale, it was also a return to the GOP. She originally left the Republican Party in 1998. She first ran for office as a Democrat four years later.
Democrats shrugged off her departure. The move did little to alter the balance of power in the state House, where Republicans outnumber Democrats more than two to one. One seat didn't matter much.
Local union leader Debra Booth says she recruited McInvale for the open District 36 seat in 2002. For eight years, this district belonged to state Rep. Allen Trovillion, a right-winger who once told a group of gay high-school students they were going to hell. But after the state redrew its district maps in 2002, this seat turned blue. McInvale easily defeated Patrick Howell, a gay Republican whose moderate positions made him the GOP's best bet to keep the seat.
"She lived in the district, she'd been around," says Doug Head, who headed the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee at the time. "We recruited her. She was a terrible candidate. She wouldn't walk `neighborhoods`. She wouldn't work. Pat Howell ran a very aggressive Republican campaign. She wouldn't do anything."
McInvale won with 50 percent of the vote — Howell got 42 percent and Libertarian candidate John F. Kennedy received 8 percent — which Democrats took to mean the district was invincible. In 2004, the GOP didn't challenge McInvale. But a Democrat did. In the primary, activist Marni Berger came just 51 votes from defeating the incumbent. The DEC actually gave Berger $15,000 shortly before the election, which McInvale took as a betrayal. Democrats say the support Randolph drew from the rank and file two years later salted the wound.
As McInvale told Fox News in January, "Well, you know, again this is not about me leaving the Democratic Party. This is really about the party leaving me. … The Democratic Party is the one who said there is no room in this party for a centrist, for a moderate who has a pro-business voting record, and sometimes votes on pro-life issues such as parental notification for an abortion for a minor child."
When party officials asked her to run in 2002, she says, she told them it was a bad idea. "I'm not your girl," she told them. "I've never been a straight party-line person." She was unabashed about the fact that she was pro-business and — ideologically speaking — moderate to conservative.
"Those things have not changed," McInvale says. "I've been totally honest and upfront about the ideology I had. They knew when they recruited me.""Those things have not changed," McInvale says. "I've been totally honest and upfront about the ideology I had. They knew when they recruited me."
Losing the faith
Local Democrats lost faith in McInvale as soon as she set foot in Tallahassee. The red flags went up even before the 2002 election, when McInvale told the Orlando Sentinel's editorial board that she wanted the job to set up a future lobbying career, a reason the Sentinel used to endorse Howell.
"She went off to Tallahassee, and very early on — she hadn't been there more than three weeks — she was in a helicopter courtesy of the sugar guys," Head says. "And she was saying what a wonderful job sugar was doing restoring the Everglades."
A legislative colleague piles on: "I wish I could tell you she had a niche `as a legislator`," says state Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach. "When she was a Democrat, she was missing in action. Her work ethic was somewhat lacking. She's not well-versed in the issues."
In her four years as state rep, McInvale sponsored one measure that cleared the Legislature, a resolution praising the Society of St. Andrew, a Christian group that feeds the hungry. She co-sponsored 48 successful bills or resolutions, most of which were innocuous items such as praising the life of Rosa Parks or Pope John Paul II.
Critics label her ineffective. "I did not see her as the champion of any cause," Randolph says.
The Sentinel's editorial board saw it differently in 2004, when it endorsed her over Berger: "Some `Democrats in the Legislature` stand up, shout about the injustice and accomplish little. Others work quietly with GOP lawmakers to make a difference on behalf of their constituents. `McInvale` is the latter type of Democrat. After only one term in Tallahassee, Ms. McInvale emerged as an effective leader due in large part to her consensus-building talents."
McInvale voted with Republicans and Republican-leaning interest groups a lot. She voted against allowing municipalities to raise their minimum wage. She twice supported keeping Terri Schiavo alive. She backed a plan that would make it easier for the state to use health and safety regulations to close abortion clinics. She backed an amendment requiring minors to notify their parents before having an abortion. She supported a "family values" license plate that incensed gay-rights groups.
"She flat-out took her base for granted," says Steve Schale, political director for the Florida Democratic House Caucus. The state party didn't have a problem with her, he adds. The locals, however, felt she had betrayed their cause.
"No `candidate you endorse` is going to vote your way 100 percent of the time," says Booth, executive director of the local AFL-CIO. "But she has the worst voting record in Central Florida for labor."
McInvale has earned high marks from the Florida Transportation Builders' Association and the Associated Industries of Florida. The Florida Chamber of Commerce ranks her among its favorite lawmakers. It gave her a grade of 98 (out of 100) for the 2006 session, and a 96 in 2005. Both grades far exceed every Democrat in the House. McInvale earned them voting big business' way on health insurance issues, taxes and tort reform.
McInvale's had a mixed relationship with the religious right. Fundamentalists praised her support for Schiavo's parents, but have opposed a bill she co-sponsored this year that would allow gay foster parents to adopt children in their care after they've proven themselves good caretakers. That bill didn't make it out of committee.
On the class size amendment, which GOP leaders have fought to water down or scrap since its inception, McInvale says she doesn't "believe in re-dos." She told the Tiger Bay forum she wants to insert "flexibility" into the class-size amendment, because it might one day force College Park kids to be bused to Evans, Oak Ridge or Jones high schools (all of which have heavy minority populations and the county's lowest test scores).
Her most lauded success was a law that allows people to dine with their pets in some restaurants if the local municipality agrees. McInvale was the original sponsor of the bill in the House. Her version was replaced with a version sponsored by state Sens. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, and Charlie Clary, R-Destin. Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill into law in June.
A legitimate contender
Three months into his campaign, Randolph pulled a remarkable coup. Campaign finance reports released Jan. 10 showed that he'd raised $22,514 in the fourth quarter of 2005. McInvale had raised $20,468. He didn't beat her by much, but it was enough to prove he was a contender. More importantly, his donations came in small bits from many individuals; hers came in $500 donations from the usual sources, including companies like Chevron-Texaco and Wal-Mart, according to campaign finance records.
McInvale quit the Democratic Party that day. "It was a smart decision on her part," says Justin Day, executive director of the Florida Mainstream Democrats, a group that backs centrist Dems. "Republicans have a lot more money to keep her in office. She was gonna lose the primary."
Day doesn't attach a deeper meaning to McInvale's defection. Lots of conservative Democrats have already bolted from the party, including many Dixiecrats who, even if they haven't changed their registration, vote Republican. "It's one woman mad at the party," he says. "She knew this was going to be a tough primary." With the GOP's huge financial advantage, switching parties at least gave her a chance to win in November.
On the campaign trail, Randolph tells his supporters to be wary of mailings accusing him of God-knows-what in the final weeks prior to the election. "The Republican Party promised Sheri McInvale $1 million," he tells voters, asking them to be wary of forthcoming attack ads.
He told the Tiger Bay Club, "There is no amount of money that will make me switch to the Republican Party. I hold my principles and my values strong."
McInvale denies that Randolph's foray in the race pushed her out; she says she's been considering it for two years. She also scoffs at the notion that she went for the GOP's money. "You can't call me an opportunist. It's not about Sheri McInvale. It's about doing right by the people I represent."
(Recently, the Republicans offered to fund Democratic state Rep. Bruce Antone's tight Orange County commission race if he switched parties. Antone declined.)
Campaign-finance records show that, as of Sept. 13, the state and local Republican parties have directly contributed just over $40,000 to her campaign.
To date, McInvale has raised more than $178,000, according to state records. She has $64,270 cash on hand. Randolph has raised over $103,000 and has $29,186 left over.
"If we have really good fund-raising, we'll only get outspent 10-to-1," Randolph quips.
McInvale isn't buying the idea that her opponent is poor. "He certainly has money," she says. "He's trying to be the ACORN guy," referring to the nonprofit that represents poor neighborhoods, "the AFL-CIO guy. You know, he won a huge lawsuit. He paid cash for his house. How many people do you know in their 30s who paid cash for a house in downtown Orlando? I find it ironic."
Randolph has donated heavily to his own campaign, including $31,000 on June 27, $1,000 on March 30 and $600 on Dec. 31, according to campaign finance records. But he didn't pay cash for his house: "That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard," he says. "I'm up to my eyeballs in debt over that house."
To prove it, he sent Orlando Weekly a mortgage statement showing he owes more than $257,000 on the house. He also sent tax returns; in 2005 the Randolphs had a combined income of $81,784.
The part about him winning a large judgment is true. In 2003, he sued the company his mother worked for in Tennessee after an investment scheme deflated the company's 401(k) program. He won $1.25 million for the company's employees, and took home $175,000 in legal fees for three years' work.The part about him winning a large judgment is true. In 2003, he sued the company his mother worked for in Tennessee after an investment scheme deflated the company's 401(k) program. He won $1.25 million for the company's employees, and took home $175,000 in legal fees for three years' work.
"I expect `the GOP` to spend very deeply in the race," says Schale, of the Florida Democratic Party. "We plan on making a pretty substantial investment in the race as well."
Why? "Thirty-six is one of our best opportunities to pick up a seat across the state," he says.
Schale's internal polling, which he would not release, shows Randolph with a comfortable lead (Randolph says 15 percentage points) and strong support from the district's Democrats. McInvale, meanwhile, is doing well among Republicans, but she'd have to "run the table" with both Republicans and independents to have a prayer, Schale says.
He thinks that's a difficult proposition: "She has the highest job disapproval rating of any incumbent that we've polled in the state," he says. Again, he didn't provide specific numbers. If accurate, that would confirm what Randolph has said from day one: McInvale is too conservative for her district.
"We believe people want to elect somebody who knows this community," McInvale says, pointing out that she's a fifth-generation Central Floridian. "Voters are not stupid. We're focused on remaining positive, defining who Sheri McInvale is and how we can help this district."
Unlike Randolph, she has a voting record to criticize. This is Randolph's first bid for public office, and he has a thin background to analyze. He's been a lobbyist for two nonprofit environmental groups.
"I didn't sponsor any bills," he says of his lobbying years. Instead he spent the time "trying to keep the door shut" on what he says was bad legislation, including Republican efforts to make the constitutional amendment process more difficult and a bill that he says would reduce the Department of Environmental Protection's oversight abilities. Last year he was part of a negotiating team for SB 444, which overhauled the state's water-quality regulations, eventually passing the Senate with only one dissenting vote.
McInvale says Randolph is not known in Tallahassee. "I did not know who he was," she says. "Nor did any of the people … he supposedly lobbied. He has a real credibility problem as far as I'm concerned." She adds that Randolph has taken credit for a lot of legislation that was "way beyond his purview."
At the Tiger Bay Club forum, McInvale blasted Randolph for being a registered lobbyist while running for office. "It's troubling that he does not see the conflict of interest," McInvale said. "It really makes me upset."
On July 21, Randolph dissolved his relationship with Clean Water Action, according to state records. He's no longer a lobbyist. But painting him as a self-interested lobbyist would be easier if he'd represented, say, Big Sugar. The first group he lobbied for, LEAF, is a Tallahassee-based group that focuses on pollution from toxic contamination. (McInvale says almost dismissively, "LEAF is an organization that sues governments on environmental issues.") Clean Water Action deals with water pollution issues.
McInvale also notes that Randolph is a newcomer to the district. The Randolphs bought their house in January 2005, according to property records. Before that, he says, they rented a home that fell three blocks outside of the district's limits. In the primary, Randolph's opponent, Eben Self, pounded Randolph for not voting in Democratic primaries even though he claimed to be a "real Democrat."
That charge is also true. From 2002 to 2004, Randolph was registered in the Green Party, which meant he wasn't eligible to vote in Democratic primaries. He says he tried to change his registration ahead of the 2004 primary, but though he filled out a change of registration form from a third-party registration group, that group didn't turn his registration in until after the registration period closed. In 2002, he says, he missed the registration deadline because he was moving.
Randolph doesn't stray far from the liberal line on education and social issues. He's pro-choice, anti-voucher and supports gay marriage. He criticizes McInvale's gay adoption bill as too weak-kneed. Gays, he says unequivocally, should be afforded the same right as everyone else.
First on his agenda, however, is growth management. In his view, most of the state's problems — the environment, crowded roads and failing schools — revolve around the fact that growth isn't paying for itself: "The state has just abdicated its role. It's handed its role to local governments `which` can't be trusted to be effective, especially at regional levels. … The state has to step in and demand more of local governments."
If he wins, he'll be in a minority. And he says he won't be as accommodating to Republicans as McInvale has been. "Your job is to embarrass them," he says.
Laying the foundation
Randolph's campaign may have started off as a grass-roots effort, but this close to a key election big players are getting involved. It's Sept. 28 and Randolph and a spattering of about 30 Democratic movers and shakers have gathered in DEC spokesman Doug Stelzner's house for a $100-a-pop fund-raiser. Doug Head, Debra Booth, Marni Berger (who married last year and changed her name to Stahlman) and former state Rep. Alzo Reddick are all here. The event is designed to rally Democrats behind Randolph and allay any bad blood that might have emerged from the primary. Or, as Stelzner describes it, to "put to bed what I perceive as nastiness."
Randolph survived a bruising primary battle with attorney Self that included one particularly ugly dust-up. Randolph's campaign characterized Self as Republican-lite and accused one of Self's campaign workers, Alex Rodriguez-Heuer — who also was an early candidate before dropping out and endorsing Self — of stealing his signs. Self's campaign responded to this newspaper that Randolph's backers had set his guy up. Nonetheless, Randolph prevailed with 61 percent of the primary vote.
As the gathered mingled around Stelzner's living room, red-wine glasses and Sam Adams bottles in hand, the once and future politicians gave pep talks about the need to do more than write checks. Rodriguez-Heuer tells the group that bygones are bygones, that Republicans have mastered the art of rallying behind their primary winners and Democrats need to follow suit. Berger-Stahlman recounts how close she came to beating McInvale two years ago, despite being massively underfunded.
Then comes Randolph. This race is about more than him and McInvale, he says. It's about giving progressives a reason to go to the polls. This campaign is about laying the foundation for future progressive leaders, he tells the assembled. And if the district's Democrats turn out, he believes, he'll win.
In a typical campaign, that point would be tough to argue. But this has never been a typical firstname.lastname@example.org
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