This party is a dud

For local Democrats, nothing says "we surrender" like the name Diana Vazquez-Cook. Cook, you'll recall, was the kooky banker throttled by Rich Crotty in the ostensibly nonpartisan Orange County chairman's race in September. Crotty, an appointee criticized for a lack of leadership, should have been vulnerable. Yet Cook was the best the Democrats could do. She didn't amount to much more than token opposition; Crotty beat her by more than 40 percentage points.

Things didn't get any better in November. Of the 12 races for state House of Representative seats in Orange County, Democrats fielded candidates for just six and won just two.

Out of two state Senate seats, they ran in just one race and barely eked out a win even though the district was heavily minority.

Of the four congressional races, they took just one -- again, in a mostly black district. The other three Democratic candidates were trounced by 20 percentage points or more. The only one of those challengers who wasn't a multimillionaire, Eddie Diaz, couldn't raise enough money to pay for TV ads. The party all but abandoned him when newly drawn district lines gutted Diaz's Hispanic support two weeks after he entered the race.

On the state level, things were even worse. In the highest profile gubernatorial race in the country, Democrats offered Bill McBride, a Tampa attorney with no political experience and precious few public-speaking skills. McBride lost by 13 percentage points to a thoroughly flawed Gov. Jeb Bush, who spent his first term eliminating the state's $1 billion surplus via tax cuts for the wealthy, while underfunded, overcrowded schools languished.

In the race for agriculture commissioner, Democrats put up a librarian, David Nelson, against special-interest-laden incumbent Charles Bronson.

Dems managed to run a solid candidate for attorney general, Buddy Dyer, but couldn't overcome the GOP machine that backed the perma-tanned, grossly unqualified Charlie Crist. Never mind that Crist failed his bar exam twice, forget that even conservative newspapers (like Orlando Sentinel) wouldn't endorse him. The fact is Democrats couldn't make enough political hay to beat Crist.

Statewide, Libertarians fielded more candidates than Democrats, 72 to 69, respectively. The Libertarians took it as a major accomplishment. The Dems said they were conserving resources for races they could win.

All this, in spite of the fact that there are 10,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Orange County. Statewide, the Democratic edge is closer to 360,000. Florida's voting population is generally centrist, yet Tallahassee is now dominated by the right-wing of the GOP.

What's wrong with this picture?

As in Washington, Florida's Democrats have lost their soul. They put politics ahead of policy. They have no agenda beyond criticizing Republicans.

Without significant change the Democratic Party, in Orange County and across the state, will continue its slide into irrelevance.

In the words of consultant and former Democratic state legislator Dick Batchelor, "I think the structure needs to be changed, the staff needs to be changed, and the message needs to be changed. Other than that I wouldn't mess with the party."

Batchelor lays a big chunk of the blame on Doug Head, who has chaired the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee since 1992. When Head took over, the county's registered Republicans far outnumbered Democrats. But Head had Democrat Linda Chapin in the county chairman's seat. (Republican Glenda Hood was in her first year as Orlando mayor.)

Nowadays, both the chairman and the mayor are members of the GOP. (Head's silver lining is that the county commission and the Orlando city council are both split 4-3 in favor of the Democrats, the same as when he took over.) He thinks the county is looking good.

"Orange County is in good shape," Head says. "We took back the majority of the county commission. The prospect is we'll have the majority for the duration of Rich Crotty's term. At the local level, we have some progressive ideas. At the state and federal level, my job is to point fingers."

In true Democratic fashion, he points them at the GOP, specifically at last year's Republican-friendly redistricting by the Republican heavy Legislature.

"What really kills us is the degree to which protection of the incumbents, both in the county and state, led to non-productive gerrymandering," Head says. "The redistricting process killed me."

Batchelor sees things differently.

"The leader of the party has got to be someone who reaches out and invites participation," he says. "A local chairman has got to be someone who excites enough interest to be part of the organization. That's not happening now."

Head has more than once embarrassed the party publicly. Earlier this year he equated gays who voted for a gay Republican candidate running for the state House to "Jews voting for Hitler."

He criticizes fellow Democrats publicly, something that undermines his role as a party mouthpiece. He bashed Batchelor for endorsing Rich Crotty over Diana Cook, and he bashed Linda Chapin for being thin-skinned: "It's that [she thinks] people who disagree with her aren't just wrong, they're evil," he told Orlando Sentinel in 1998. He still criticizes Chapin, the late Gov. Lawton Chiles and other elected Dems for acting "like Republicans."

And he's fickle with his support. After backing Diana Vazquez-Cook earlier this year, Head privately quelled his support and questioned Cook's motives when she proved to be an poor fund-raiser and a tepid campaigner.

The fallout from last Tuesday's debacle is more pronounced in Tallahassee. Prominent Democrats -- including Head, Batchelor and former Orange County leader Irby Pugh -- have already called for state party chairman Bob Poe to resign. "What we need at the top is somebody who's out there letting [the GOP] have it," says Pugh. (Incidentally, Pugh thinks Head is doing a "terrific" job.)

As party leaders will, Poe insists the future is bright. If Sen. Bob Graham runs for re-election in 2004, Democrats will turn out in mass, Poe says. Growth trends in South Florida, he says, show Democratic leaning districts becoming more urban and ethnic, which bodes well for the party.

Batchelor -- whose role as a WESH-TV political analyst makes him one of the area's most recognizable Democrats -- has a more concrete idea: Create "Democratic clubs" to augment the executive committees and allow die-hards to be active in the party without the rigors of committee membership. The clubs would then nurture the "farm team" of quality candidates wholly missing from the Democratic ticket. (Head says he tried the idea in 1998 but found that activists who came to the club meetings did little else.)

As for connecting with the core minority voters, Head once again espouses a "We're better than them" policy.

"The African-Americans who used to say the Democratic Party wasn't looking out for them will now find out how the Republican Party looks out for them," he says.

It all comes back to the message -- or, in the Democrats' case, lack thereof.

"The Democrats do need to come up with a more coherent policy agenda," says University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett, a conservative-leaning independent. "They need their own version of [the GOP's 1994] Contract with America. If people voted issues, Democrats would win."

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