Politics is like baseball: The seasons are long and dull, and only toward the end does it get exciting (if then). So unless you're a political junkie -- definition: watching "Meet the Press," "The Chris Matthews Show," "Face the Nation" and "This Week" back-to-back despite a Sunday-morning hangover -- you don't care yet.
Soon, however, politics will find you. The presidential primaries are only two months away, and the TV coverage will be inescapable. Closer to home, the Florida Legislature will go into session March 2. A week later comes the Orlando mayoral election -- little more than a coronation for King Buddy Dyer -- and three contentious city council races. Then the congressional primaries heat up. Then the county commission. Then the general election. It's an embarrassment of riches.
People will urge you to vote (and you should, really, you should). Pollsters may ask your opinion. You will feel vaguely guilty for knowing neither the candidates nor the issues.
Fear not. We're here to help.
Below we foreshadow the people and issues that will drive Central Florida politics over the next 51 weeks, and make recommendations on who and what to support, and who and what to shun. Use it as a cheat sheet. Or use it as an opening line at a bar, as follows:
"That Johnnie Byrd really is some kind of jerkwad, huh? May I buy you a drink?"
Come to think of it, there's another parallel between this year's election and the recent World Series: In both cases, you've got the favored, deep-pocketed, buy-yourself-the-win team (George Bush, the New York Yankees) versus the insurgent, surprisingly challenging team (Howard Dean, the Florida Marlins). Go fish!
I have a running bet with my editor about next year's presidential election (the loser pays for the winner's bender). He thinks the tide is turning on Dubya, that the post-Sept. 11 glow has faded, and that as the body count and price tag in Iraq goes up the nation will collectively decide it's time to kick Shrub to the curb.
I don't discount the idea that Junior is the worst president ever, but I think his political machine is too strong, and the Democrats too discombobulated, for him to lose. After all, Karl Rove managed to make Iraq the Next Big Crisis just in time for the 2002 elections. Imagine what they'll cook up for the summer of 2004, especially if the president ain't polling so well. Terri Schiavo would be a better president, true, but I think we're stuck in the Bushes.
The Democratic wannabes: Al Sharpton wins if all the white candidates suddenly die. Carol Moseley Braun wins if all the white candidates, plus Al Sharpton, suddenly die. Dennis Kucinich's ears are too big. Joe Lieberman's too conservative. Wesley Clark is polling well, but he can't seem to keep a coherent or consistent position on anything other than that Bush is bad (never mind that shortly after Sept. 11, Clark was praising Bush and his neocon pals for a job well done). Once the fun of having an antiwar general in the race dissipates, he'll be gone.
Now for those with potential. Howard Dean is the frontrunner, and you should support him. Yes, I worry about him pulling a Mondale -- losing badly -- but he talks like an ass-kicker and that is exactly the kind of adversary Dubya needs. John Kerry is smart, but boring, and from Massachusetts. I don't know why John Edwards isn't doing better; he's smart, well-spoken and invigorating. But he's only got a shot if the race stays competitive through the southern primaries, where the good-ole-boy charm wins votes. As for Dick Gephardt, he's a perennial candidate who has done nothing to warrant his stature. Blah.
Note to Ralph Nader: Stay the hell out of it or I'll personally hit you in the face with a pie.
The race for Bob Graham's Senate seat is a wild card. With him out, it's the no-name Democrats versus the truly scary Republicans next November.
The Dems: The primary is March 9, and there are four Democrats belatedly jockeying for Graham's seat, since they had all pledged to get out if he ran. Two -- Alcee Hastings of West Palm Beach (yes, the same Alcee Hastings who was impeached as a federal judge and removed from the bench in 1989 after allegedly fabricating his successful defense in a federal trial on bribery charges), and Peter Deutsch of Pembroke Pines -- are U.S. representatives, meaning they have an advantage in their hometowns. The big question for them is whether or not that will translate into statewide recognition. Betty Castor of Tampa is a former state senator, education commissioner -- her website points out that she's the only Dem candidate to win a statewide election -- and president of the University of South Florida. The fourth is Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, a conservative Democrat who argues he can win the votes of South Florida's Cubans, typically a GOP stronghold. The race is already getting nasty, with Deutsch questioning Penelas' ethics and party loyalty.
Of the four, Penelas and Castor have the best shot of knocking off whichever Republican wack job (below) wins the primary. Of the two, I think Penelas has a slight edge, especially if he can pull in moderates and some Cuban-American conservatives in the general election. (Unlike past years, there is no runoff election in the primaries, meaning that even if a candidate doesn't take a majority, he or she still wins with the largest plurality. In a reasonably close five-way race, that means the winner could escape with less than 30 percent of the vote. This time around, second place is no place.)
The Republicans: Bill McCollum should have gone away four years ago when Bill Nelson beat back his bid for the upper chamber. But McCollum's back, taking another crack at extending a political career that's best forgotten. In case you already forgot, here's a little rundown: McCollum ran for Congress in 1980 pledging eight-year term limits; but Washington, it seems, is just too nice a city for him to leave. So, after 20 years in the house of Representatives, he ran for Senate, trying to capitalize on the dubious honor of being a relentlessly zealous House manager during the Clinton impeachment.
During his time in the House, McCollum voted to weaken the Clean Water Act, toxic-waste regulation, growth management and mobile home safety requirements, while pushing legislation to deport legal immigrants convicted of shoplifting (he offered to amend the law after a prominent local Republican's son got sent back to Canada after being convicted for theft and fraud), maniacally fighting medical marijuana and pushing for 14-year-olds to be tried as adults.
Then there was the Golden Leash award, which the nonprofit Public Campaign bestowed upon McCollum in 1998. This honor goes to the member of congress most willing to do the bidding of his bankrollers. McCollum took lots of money from financial services companies -- about $660,000 -- and, in turn, wrote a harsh bill making it harder to file for bankruptcy, and ensuring that when bankruptcy is filed banks are in line to get paid ahead of child-support payments. Because, you know, bank executives need the money more than kids.
Johnnie Byrd is an Alabama ideologue with only personal aspirations in mind. House Speaker Byrd has spent the last year turning the Legislature into an arm of his campaign for Senate. His efforts to raise money and extol his own virtues -- at your expense -- are shameless, worthy only of a trip back to Plant City.
Byrd's answer to the state's prospective deficit? No new taxes, no new fees, not even allowing the state to collect taxes on such currently exempt items as T-shirts sold in sports arenas. Instead, he thinks grabbing $1 billion from the state's trust funds -- money originally earmarked for roads and affordable housing -- makes good fiscal sense. Not to mention his sharp cuts to education, environmental programs, anti-youth smoking measures and social services for the poor, all ladled out with a heapin' helpin' of sermonizing about "liv`ing` within our means."
Of course if you are the House speaker, your means include spending $750,000 to renovate House offices, building a private bathroom for yourself and other Tallahassee bigs, and employing 13 communications staffers to proclaim your good deeds. (By comparison, Byrd's predecessor, Tom Feeney, had only one staffer.)
Like McCollum, Daniel Webster is another hometown boy parroting right-wing lines to get right-wing votes. Webster boasts that as the first Republican speaker of the Florida House in over a century (in 1996), he led the "revolution" that gave Republicans control over every single entity of the Florida governance, barring of course the U.S. Senate. He wants to do away with the filibusters Democrats are using to block Bush's more extreme judicial nominees. When you don't like the results, change the rules.
Larry Klayman's (his campaign office is located on Sand Lake Road in Orlando, though he lives in Miami) claim to fame is that he once headed Judicial Watch, the right-wing "watchdog group" that relentlessly hounded Bill Clinton in the 1990s. (Objectivity note: in a nod to fairness, he also sued Dick Cheney over his secret energy policy meetings.) When someone's campaign platform consists of being the "antidote" to Hillary, you just have to roll your eyes.
Katherine Harris will probably get in the fray. While she's not as wacked as McCollum or Byrd, she did give the presidency to Shrub, and for that she should not be forgiven.
Most of Florida's statewide races are pretty close, and even when Republicans win, voters tend to counteract that by enacting progressive constitutional amendments, such as those calling for smaller classes and the bullet train.
Despite the state's centrist nature, and thanks to the partisan redistricting process, Florida is represented by more than its share of ideologues, and Central Florida is no different. All these fine folks are up for re-election next November.
Ric Keller: According to all us prognosticators, Ricky-boy (as Dubya so fondly dubbed him) should never have made it to Congress. Three years ago he faced a daunting election against favorite Linda Chapin (who seriously underestimated him) and stunned everyone by winning. Last year, he faced re-election against former cop Eddie Diaz, who had a miserable campaign, and beat Diaz badly. Orange County Democratic leader Doug Head says he's "in talks" with a potential candidate to challenge Keller next year, but no names yet.
Keller (R-Orlando) is, for the most part, just another Republican who toes the party line. He seemed to be on the fast track to a high-ranking GOP position, but his recent divorce hurt his "family values" cred and cost him points with the religious right, raising the outside possibility that Keller could get a primary challenger as well.
He has popped his head out of the sea of GOP yes-men, however, to save the endangered fast-food industry from pesky lawsuits. (It's an interwoven friendship: The fast-food industry supports Keller's campaigns; come lunch time, Keller supports the industry's profit margins.)
Keller has two things going for him: One, he's a glutton for punishment. No matter how much abuse this newspaper gives him, he comes back for more. You gotta admire that. Two, he's a big supporter of Pell Grants, and even fought the administration's plans to hack them in this year's budget talks.
Tom Feeney: Tom Feeney performed a neat trick his last year as state House speaker. With the term-limits clock ticking on his political future, he used the redistricting process to carve himself an overwhelmingly Republican congressional district. He ran for that seat, and -- lo and behold -- he won. With Feeney (R-Oviedo) facing re-election next November, Head admits, "there are no challengers on the horizon."
With Ricky-boy muddied by divorce, Feeney has become the Sunshine State's new GOP golden boy, riding the wave he started in winter 2002, when he became the cheerleader for the GOP's efforts to win the postelection battle in Florida. Like Keller, he's mostly a good soldier, though he has been quoted saying Bush's Iraq policy is too liberal, and that America can't play "nanny" to those we've bombed. On the legislative front, Feeney's main accomplishments are sponsoring legislation -- at John Ashcroft's behest -- to tighten up on federal judges who dole out lenient sentences (silly judges, thinking for themselves) and trying to strengthen the draconian USA PATRIOT Act, civil liberties be damned.
John Mica: John Mica (R-Winter Park) likes rail. I like rail too. And since he's Central Florida's biggest rail proponent, his unbending support for rail makes him tolerable.
Corrine Brown: Corrine Brown is the Demo-crats' Feeney (though less influential in her party): a lawmaker in a safe, minority district who does what you'd expect her to do, even when common sense would dictate otherwise. For instance, when LYNX wanted to drop an overly costly paratransit contract earlier this year, Brown (D-Jacksonville) sent an aide to oppose the move because the contractor was black. (LYNX did it anyway.) And despite the multitude of allegations surrounding the Sanford Housing Authority, Brown has steadfastly remained among the authority's staunchest supporters, fighting a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development takeover. When the Orlando Sentinel asked her about a report indicating the SHA falsified financial records, Brown responded: "I don't necessarily believe all of that. The list of things they said was wrong in that report was not the priorities they were setting earlier."
In Congress, she regurgitates Demo-cratic talking points on the economy and the Iraq war. She's in her sixth term now, and most likely will see a seventh; not necessarily a bad thing, but not necessarily a good thing either.
A decade ago, Florida was a Demo-cratic state. Dems controlled the governor's mansion and the legislature. How things have changed. Republicans control everything now, and the party's fringe controls the House. A progressive's only hope is the ever-so-moderate Senate, which occasionally puts a kink in the right's plans. Here are some things and people to watch.
Gov. Jeb Bush: As governor he's a lame duck, which means he's thinking about his next step. His term ends in 2006, the same year Bill Nelson will be up for re-election in the Senate. Barring some political catastrophe, Jeb's a good bet to knock off Nelson, the former astronaut who only seems to pop up on TV when NASA is in the news. A Jeb victory there would set up a run for president in 2008, possibly against Hillary Clinton. You, me and everyone else who isn't a hard-core Republican are already tired of the moniker "President Bush." But if he so chose, Jeb could easily be a top contender for the GOP nomination.
Mel Martinez: Martinez wasn't county chairman long enough to be more than a two-trick pony -- going after growth management and hotel taxes -- before Bush appointed him HUD chairman. Either way, everyone thinks Martinez is running for governor in 2006. Democrats don't appear to have anyone who can beat him.
Florida Legislature: What can you say about a Legislature that, despite years of hard-fought court battles and the testimony of countless experts, decided Terri Schiavo can't be allowed to die? Johnnie Byrd (prompted by Jeb Bush) racked up points with the Christian right, but how arrogant and ill-informed do you have to be to interject yourself into a battle that has been decided time and time again? The so-called "Terri's Law" will likely be overturned and we'll have to go through the whole mess again.
But this most recent incident is indicative of a Legislature enslaved to the GOP's religious and supply-side factions. The Senate often stands as the voice of reason, as with the budget and medical malpractice reform, but when Jeb sides with the House, as he typically does, the dam only holds for so long.
The good part is, every single state rep and senator that's not term-limited is up for re-election in 2004, so there's always the potential for change. Then again, the districts are built to protect incumbents (especially Republican incumbents). I'm not a big fan of voting Democratic for the sake of voting Democratic, but we've got to do something to even the scales a little.
Bullet train/Class-size amendments: The fact is, Jeb Bush hates this bullet train, and he'll do anything to (beware the pun) derail it. He intentionally underfunded the agency in charge of rail, and has tossed about the idea of asking Florida voters to revote on the idea, considering the first leg alone will cost more than $2 billion.
Byrd and Bush both hate the class-size amendment, and a petition drive is already under way to reverse part of it. Expect both of these to be on the table as the Legislature tries to balance the budget next year.
I can understand lawmakers' frustration, and am not a fan of direct democracy and referenda in general; but what's done is done, boys. Instead of insulting voters by telling them, "You screwed up, so try again," your time would be better served realizing that these amendments were a reaction to Tallahassee's indifference to Floridians' desires.
Florida Hometown Democracy Act: Environmentalists are just about giddy over this constitutional amendment, which would force county voters, not county leaders, to approve major changes in a county's comprehensive plan. Sound like a lot of gobbledygook? It is. But, point of story, it would effectively kill anyone's chance of ever getting a big change (such as rezoning land outside of a county's urban service area to residential) put through. Simply stated, voters wouldn't know enough about these projects and would instinctively vote no to all of them.
On the surface that doesn't seem too bad. Elected officials are far too friendly with developers, and the Legislature doesn't help much either. But this is democracy at its worst, and would force Joe Six-packs to delve into land-use decisions in which they have neither the background nor the interest to study what's involved. Not a good idea.
But, if Florida can enact a constitutional amendment to protect pregnant pigs, expect this thing to pass if it makes it onto the ballot in November.
The county, and its chairman Rich Crotty, are at a crossroads. The past year was dedicated to Crotty's transportation plan, Mobility 20/20, which would use a half-cent sales tax to fix I-4, improve state roads and eventually fund some sort of rail.
It was a flawed plan, and Crotty made things worse by acting arrogant and refusing to debate. He didn't charm anyone, and on Oct. 7, Mobility 20/20 went down in flames. There's talk of bringing the plan back to voters in some altered form, perhaps minus rail and I-4 toll lanes. Here's the catch-22: A weaker plan probably stands a better chance at passing, but it won't work; the county needs to be bold, and push for beltways and mass transit and anything to get cars off I-4. I'm not sure, however, that taxpayers are ready for something so audacious. In other words, a mediocre plan passes, a good plan fails.
Either way, Crotty has political capital to burn. His next election, after all, isn't for three years. Take a chance, Rich.
Teresa Jacobs: God bless Teresa Jacobs. In her three-year tenure on the Orange County commission, she's become one of its two stars (the other being Linda Stewart), sharp as a tack and unafraid to ask the tough questions. Her background as head of the Orange County Homeowners Association gives her an aura of activism the dour commission desperately needs. She's pushing to get the school board and county leaders together to talk about school capacity issues, and has even taken them to Palm Beach County to study that county's no-capacity-no-growth policy.
Jacobs recently got into a tussle with her colleagues, who took such offense to a comment she made on Local 6 that they spent an hour bitching her out before removing her honorary title as vice chairman. She called a 1999 decision to allow a billboard on county property in a designated no-billboard zone "perhaps corrupt" -- a decision pushed by her predecessor, Bob Freeman and overruled by Mel Martinez. After Martinez shut the deal down, the billboard owner sued. The county settled in August for $50,000 and allowed the owner put up his billboard. Thanks a lot, Mr. Freeman.
Keep speaking your mind, commissioner. And if you're ready to rock the boat, consider running for the chairman's spot three years from now.
Jacobs is the only current commissioner up for re-election next year, and as of this writing she is running unopposed. The commission's two open seats, District 3 and 5, on the other hand, have drawn interest from old-timers and neophytes as well. Some people of note: Larry Calabretta, a former county nuisance-abatement board member who almost got the county sued over his unbending opposition to an east Orange County rave club two years back (he was supposed to be impartial), is running to replace Mary Johnson (the term-limited commissioner who hasn't known a nonpolitical life in decades, and hence is running for clerk of courts). Calabretta ran against Johnson in 2000 and lost. Activist Kim LaFleur is also considering a run, though he hasn't yet filed his papers. So is Mildred Fernandez, who by virtue of last name alone looks like a contender in the heavily Hispanic District 3.
In District 5, former city commissioner Bill Bagley, who lost to Patty Sheehan in 2000, is mounting a run. So is Jim Kallinger, a state representative and former activist with Florida Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative pro-business group.
Orange County School Board
Can anyone remember a time when the school board made news for doing something right? It has allowed developers to buy their way out of the county's school-capacity plan -- and cheaply, too. Some schools are riddled with fire code violations, while the board delays the renovations promised during last year's half-cent sales tax because of the class-size amendment. Builders received a report about increased impact fees from school administrators that the elected board members hadn't seen. It has divulged students' private information to anyone who asked. Whether these or any number of other flubs that have made headlines in recent years, the school board always seems to be screwing something up.
But pinning blame on any one person is nearly impossible. In a sense, it's no one's fault and everyone's fault, all at the same time. The school board is made up of PTA types, political amateurs who are often ill-suited to address the district's serious issues. The problems seem overwhelming.
Four of the seven board members' seats are up for grabs next year. Unlike the county commission, school board members don't face term limits, meaning they can run every four years until they die. So far, however, only one current member -- Karen Ardaman -- has signed up to run again. The ever-so-chatty Susan Arkin isn't running again. The other would-be incumbents, Bert Carrier and Kat Gordon, are either not running or they haven't filed their paperwork yet.
Gordon needs to stick around; she's the board's only black member and has been a strong advocate for minority issues. Carrier seems to be impartial, and offers a sort of common sense perspective to the board's discussions, an antidote to some of the board's former shrill and reactionary members, like Barbara Trovillion Rushing. Ardaman was a strong proponent of the successful effort to air school board meetings unedited on government TV; before, the school board would air commendations but take out messy debates and such. For that, she gets my vote too.
Orange County Sheriff
Kevin Beary may be in for a fight this year. The longtime Orange County sheriff is being challenged by two former subordinates, Rick Staly and John Tegg. Staly is saying the sheriff's office is top-heavy and doesn't solve enough crimes; Beary retorted that Staly wasn't liked by those who worked under him. Former deputy Tegg has made similar allegations, saying Beary spends too much on frivolous items, such as a barely-used airplane, and travels too often.
Indeed, Beary has taken some heat for being out of town 400 working days in the last five years, including trips to Israel and Russia. Beary says the trips have made his office stronger, but Tegg has said there are "internal power struggles" while Beary is gone.
Still, it's tough to imagine Beary losing an election. He's our very own cowboy, a sheriff who still goes out on patrol from time to time. He simply looks the part. Who wouldn't want a sheriff plucked from a John Wayne film?
But Beary's power base seems to be faltering. Three years ago, he was seen as so untouchable that no one even challenged him. Perhaps the shine is wearing off, as well it should. Beary's brand of good-ole-boy sheriffin' has worn out its welcome and it's time for a change.
City of Orlando
Buddy Dyer will win re-election as mayor of Orlando and the city will continue along its cautiously progressive course. If the mayor succeeds with his toughest battle -- revitalizing the Parramore neighborhood -- and the city's budget stays balanced, expect him to turn his eyes toward bigger and better things. Maybe the governor's mansion in 2006? (Then he could fire Secretary of State Glenda Hood.)
Patty Sheehan: Right-wingers don't like Patty Sheehan. They blame her for spreading the rumor that mayoral candidate Pete Barr used the "n-word" at a party. They don't like her because she's liberal. Of course, they really don't like her because she's gay. Then again, most of them don't live in her district.
Nonetheless, she faces a tough re-election fight this year, against Tom Langford (son of former mayor Carl Langford). Langford will have good name recognition, but Sheehan believes he's too conservative for her district, and points out that he opposed sidewalks and the downtown skate park, which was her idea (though Hood tried to take credit for it).
Ernest Page: When Glenda Hood didn't want her council meetings to be televised, Ernest Page -- along with former commissioner Don Ammerman -- pushed for it over and over again until Glenda caved. Page also cast the deciding vote in the gay-rights ordinance the city passed last year, characterizing it as a "fairness" issue. The former Democrat turned RINO (Republican In Name Only) also worries that the city's annexation policy -- which over the years has notoriously circumvented black neighborhoods -- is making his district increasingly white.
The reality is, though perennial candidate Lawanna Gelzer is challenging him, Page is a mainstay in southwest Orlando and will be around for another four years.
Betty Wyman: Wyman isn't a big fan of public debate. Her favorite phrase, it seems -- while putting her hand on her chin -- is, "Mayor, it's time to move on," any time things get a little rowdy. Wyman is older, retired and had some intestinal problems a few years back -- the Atkins diet didn't agree with her -- but she is still a force for whoever happens to be in charge at the moment.
Wyman, a Democrat who turned Republican in a big press conference three years ago, is facing Luis Pastrana, a former regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Orlando. Not coincidentally, Wyman's district is the most Hispanic district in the city. In June, Pastrana resigned from the Puerto Rican office, saying the job had become too political.
It's time for Wyman to step aside. She's a throwback to the era of going along to get along, and thankfully, the city council is starting to move beyond that.