Beating 'round the Bush

The year was 1990, and Florida Democratic Party leaders were facing the unthinkable: Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, whose approval rating was below 50 percent during his entire term, might actually win re-election. There he was in the spring leading all potential Democratic challengers in pre-election polls.

Into this lurch stepped "Walkin'" Lawton Chiles. The popular three-term U.S. senator, only two years removed from citing "burnout" for his decision to leave Washington, easily won the Democratic nomination and vanquished Martinez in the general election. Chiles' first term was a rocky one, however, and he trailed in his bid for re-election throughout the 1994 campaign. In the end he squeaked by Republican newcomer Jeb Bush in the closest gubernatorial race in the state's history.

Chiles himself could not alter the state's political trends. His second term witnessed the first Republican majority in the Legislature in more than a century, the GOP capturing the House of Representatives in 1994 and the Senate in 1996. In 1998, Bush completed the trifecta by soundly defeating Buddy Mackay to become only the third Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Observers noted that African-American votes for Bush increased from 8 percent in 1994 to 14 percent in 1998. But black voters in 1998 were frustrated with Florida's Democratic officials for removing Opa Locka legislator Willie Logan a year earlier from a leadership post in the party's state House caucus.

Which leads to the question: How does Jeb Bush look now in the eyes of those who voted for him two years ago? And is there a viable Democrat who might challenge him in 2002?

Florida was thought to be an easy win for the 2000 Republican presidential nominee, George W. Bush, what with the state's voters having favored the GOP in nine of the 12 previous presidential elections. Plus, if the trend wavered, well, the generally popular Jeb would deliver his state to his brother.

Something happened, however, on the road to the White House. Jeb Bush squandered much of the political capital he had developed among African Americans by eliminating affirmative-action programs in state contracting and university admissions. In response, black voter turnout in the November presidential election increased 50 percent statewide over 1996, with 93 percent of that group going for Democrat Al Gore.

The governor received bad press for meeting privately with presumptive House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay before the election. He also was forced to fend off criticism from some Republicans that he wasn't doing enough to help his brother. And when it appeared for a brief time on election night that Dubya was going to lose, Jeb, it seemed, had failed the family.

Florida's governor has clearly taken some hits in the weeks following the most disputed presidential election since 1876. His approval rating dropped 8 points, from 63 percent before November to 55 percent in early December. Polls show that 54 percent of African Americans think he is doing a "poor" job, up 20 points since the summer. And while 62 percent of state residents as a whole hold George W. to be the legitimate winner in Florida, only 12 percent of blacks do.

How much Jeb Bush's political future is in doubt depends upon whom you ask. Florida Republicans, banking on the old adage that "voters have short memories," maintain that most of the 2000 election controversy will be soon forgotten. After all, they say, the presidential race was never a referendum on the governor.

Probably true for most, but not so for African Americans, evidenced by both their record turnout and their rejection of the Texas Bush. And allegations of voter disenfranchisement and intimidation will still be resounding two years from now, when Jeb seeks re-election. The Florida Conference of Black State Legislators has already called for an independent review of the state's electoral process in lieu of the governor's "blue-ribbon" bipartisan task force.

Jeb could easily face unforeseen hurdles to re-election. Poor public perception of the goings-on in D.C. might impact his ability to hold onto his office. Closer to home, he has some difficult budget matters to deal with this year. And he could conceivably find himself campaigning in 2002 amid an economic recession.

So Democrats say that Jeb Bush is vulnerable. Maybe so, but the party's opportunity to take advantage is questionable because it lacks viable candidates.

Democrats dominated state politics for a historically long time, creating weak organizational politics in the party, drawn along personal lines. By the 1980s, Republicans were busy appealing to race-conscious whites and recruiting from among anti-tax/anti-welfare elements of Florida's middle-strata suburbanites, many of them recent transplants. Slow to respond, Democrats continued relying upon individual politicians with lifelong ties to the state.

At present, there appear to be few Democrats who could run an effective statewide campaign. Attorney General Bob Butterworth, first elected to his post in 1986, worked out the state's $11.3 billion settlement with the tobacco industry and chaired Al Gore's campaign in the state. Three-term Agriculture Secretary Bob Crawford's remarks as a member of the state elections board certifying the initial 2000 results should anger party faithful from Pensacola to Key West. Newly elected U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson will be in only the second year of his first term in 2002.

That leaves Florida's senior U.S. senator and former two-term governor, Bob Graham. Graham, on Gore's short list of possible vice-presidential running mates, briefly considered a gubernatorial run in 1998 before deciding to seek a third Senate term. He is known to be frustrated in Washington, because he is not considered to be one of the more important players and because of the majority status that Republicans have held in the Senate since 1995.

Graham left the governor's office in 1986 with an astronomically high 83 percent approval rating. He won his Senate seat that same year, besting Republican incumbent Paula Hawkins. He received more than 60 percent of votes cast in each of his re-election efforts, and recent polls indicate a similar percentage think the senator is doing a good-to-excellent job.

While Graham could be the front-runner in a contest with Bush, he will face an important consideration. State law would require him to resign from the Senate, because an officeholder can't hold one position and run for another if the two terms would overlap. That would allow Jeb to appoint a successor to serve out the remainder of Graham's Senate term.

The evenly divided Senate places increased pressure on incumbents to remain in Washington. And Minority Leader Tom Daschle will be doing whatever he can to keep every single Democratic senator in place.

Florida's three-decades-long political realignment resulted in Republicans' ability to win offices and more whites moving toward the GOP. These developments have been offset by the increased presence of solidly Democratic African Americans and a tendency of many whites to vote a split ticket. Democrats now hold a slight lead in statewide voter registration (43 Democrats vs. 39 percent Republicans). But the growing numbers of "other" (either no party affiliation or minor party) suggest the two major parties might continue to lose loyalists.

Some suggest that Bush-Mackay was the first campaign to reveal Florida's 21st-century profile. If so, a Graham-Bush contest would seem like the final one for the 20th century. One candidate would be the last of a line of moderate Democrats who began addressing problems -- racial, educational, environmental, socio-economic -- long ignored. The other would be a Republican who, like two-thirds of Florida's population, was born elsewhere, many arriving after Chiles, Graham and others did their work to force the state to overcome its past.