Have Democrats Already Lost Florida?

Orlando -- On the final Friday of a parched and quarrelsome October, Florida Democrats were bumping around a hallway in Disney's faux-elegant Yacht and Beach Club Resort on the opening night of their state convention, perusing campaign items for sale (three Hillary buttons for $5!), sussing out the evening's schedule ("The progressives are supposed to be having a party, but where are they?") and, mostly, grousing about the conspicuous absence of presidential candidates.

"This whole thing here is a joke," said John Taylor, a hulking schoolteacher from Jacksonville wearing the tallest, most bodacious Chef Boyardee-style, star-spangled red-white-and-blue hat you ever saw. "How stupid the Democrats are -- we're shooting ourselves in the foot!" Taylor angrily recalled some of the Republicans' tactics for suppressing the Democratic vote in 2000 and 2004. "They stole two elections, and now we've been working six years to make sure that don't happen again. And the Democrats screw us!"

"Forget that," his friend said. "You're beating a dead horse. I blame the candidates. You've got, what, ten or eleven of them? And not one of them shows up here?"

It's rumored that Mike Gravel will be in town tomorrow, I note (and he did appear, at the convention and an antiwar rally). "If he's here, that's where my vote is going," said the friend.

Not Taylor's. "I'm going to have to resign from the Duval [County] Democratic Party" -- he serves on its executive committee -- "just so that I can vote for somebody else. I'm going to vote Libertarian, probably. Or I might cross over and vote for Huckabee. My wife will kill me. She's the treasurer of the Duval Democratic Party! She retired from her job to work full time, for no money, for the Democrats. And I'm the man in the hat! But why not? What difference does it make? The Democrats don't care about us in Florida."

"I think it sucks," says Bob Matherne, a bearded middle-aged fellow in a Kucinich shirt. Matherne's been registering LGBT voters in Sarasota for months now, but daily headlines featuring the war between national and Florida Democrats have made it tough. "People don't understand the situation -- and neither do I, really. They're asking for clarification: 'What's going on? The Republicans aren't being penalized for the early primary. Why are we being penalized? Why would Democrats do this, already knowing about Florida's problems with voting?'"

Florida Democrats can surely be excused for feeling a wee bit put-upon -- and confused. Across town just the weekend before, 5,000 Florida Republicans had been dined, wined and wooed by their presidential candidates at a lavish event culminating in a debate aired on Fox. Meanwhile, Florida Democrats -- who'd planned to trump the Republican weekend with their own presidential extravaganza -- found themselves in the bizarre position of being boycotted by their candidates.

This strange saga began innocuously enough. Fearing likely attempts by big states like Michigan and Florida to disrupt the parties' primary calendars with early dates in 2008, Republicans and Democrats ruled at their 2004 conventions that states trying to butt in before Iowa and New Hampshire would lose half their delegates. The Republicans left it there. The Democrats decided to try and fix things. The Democratic National Committee's rules committee was tasked with bringing order to the chaotic primaries. Twelve states applied for two additional early primary slots, which were awarded earlier this year to South Carolina and Nevada. Democrats in other states could not vote before February 5.

That created a sticky situation for Florida Democrats when, to nobody's surprise, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law in May scheduling the state's primary for January 29. (In most states, primary dates are set by the parties.) The primary date was wrapped up in a bill mandating a paper trail for the 2008 election -- a popular measure the minority Democrats could not afford to oppose. Besides, the loss of delegates was largely a toothless penalty, since according to precedent the Democrats' eventual presidential nominee controls the seating of delegates -- and surely wouldn't alienate folks from the nation's largest swing state by turning them away.

But the DNC did not leave it there. In August the rules committee voted to strip all the state's delegates unless Florida came up with an alternative to the January 29 voting. "I understand Florida's dilemma," DNC rules committee member Donna Brazile told me later. "But this is not about states' rights; this is about a process we're trying to keep some control over." Two weeks after the DNC vote, Democratic chairs in the "First Four" primary states jacked up the ante with their notorious "four-state pledge" demanding the candidates focus exclusively on them. The signees -- including John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- agreed to do no campaigning in Florida or any other state that might try to jump the gun. And under party rules, "campaigning" means just about everything: e-mail messages; calls to voters; TV, radio or newspaper ads; rallies; hiring campaign workers; holding press conferences. The only thing Democrats are allowed to do in Florida -- where folks have been complaining for years, with some justification, about being used as an ATM for the party -- is fundraise.

As Florida Democrats bayed in protest, DNC chair Howard Dean salted their wounds by opining that their votes "essentially won't count." Almost overnight, the unsavory reputation Florida Republicans had earned during the riotous Gore v. Bush 2000 recount battle was relegated to ancient history, and the Republicans' sagging hopes of carrying Florida -- where Democrats scored big in the 2006 midterms -- were suddenly sky-high. "The Democrats like to talk about Republicans disenfranchising black voters in Florida," state GOP chair Jim Greer shouted happily at a Black Republicans soiree. "How many delegates will the Democrats be sending from Florida to their national convention? Zero!"

Not exactly music to Democratic ears. "Leave it to Democrats to create a distraction born out of a nuanced disagreement over some arcane party rule," fumed Florida House minority leader Dan Gelber in a letter to Dean, as the rhetorical fur flew between Washington and Tallahassee. The options for Florida Democrats were hardly attractive -- "a lose-lose situation," said Steve Geller, the State Senate minority leader. While there was no way to change the January 29 primary date, the DNC said Florida could come into compliance by effectively declaring that vote meaningless -- a dubious move, to say the least, in the "state of disenfranchisement" -- and either holding subsequent caucuses, a state convention to choose delegates or a pricey vote-by-mail campaign. "Why would we have the presidential candidates' names on a ballot, have people go to the polls and vote and then find out that we're not counting their votes?" asked former state chair Terrie Brady. "We don't want to confuse Florida voters more than they're already confused." Even so, the Florida Democrats were seriously pondering the vote-by-mail option when Governor Charlie Crist and GOP legislators placed a regressive property tax referendum on the January 29 ballot. A strong Democratic turnout would be essential to defeating it.

In late September Florida's Democratic leaders voted to stick with the early primary. The four-state pledge kicked in, transforming the campaign into a running farce. When Obama emerged from a Tampa fundraiser and answered a few reporters' questions, his no-no made outraged headlines in Iowa. In an absurd episode later that day, the chastened candidate left another fundraiser with St. Petersburg Times reporter Adam Smith in hot pursuit. In response to a series of questions about Florida issues, Obama finally said, "I'm not allowed to talk to the press, guys!" Smith persisted: "Isn't it up to you?" Obama: "Nope!" Smith: "Aren't you the guy trying to lead the country?" Obama: "I signed a pledge!"

Meanwhile, the Republican candidates continued to roam the state freely, crowing about "Democratic disenfranchisement" and about how, in the words of disgusted Democrat Mark Esche, "the Democrats want our money but don't give a damn about our votes." (And the money had been flowing: by the end of September, Democrats had raised more than $10 million in Florida, triple the amount of the First Four states combined.) Esche, like many of the 2,600 who showed up for the Democratic convention, wore two buttons expressing most party members' sentiments: No Vote, No Money, read one. The other was stamped with the name of the DNC chair, with a screw superimposed: Screw Howard Dean. (Ironically, Dean's candidacy for DNC chair was enthusiastically backed by Florida delegates in 2005.) Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Alcee Hastings filed suit against Dean and the DNC for violating Florida Democrats' voting rights and "impairing minority voter participation" in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; a federal hearing is scheduled for December 5.

"Every time the DNC calls me up I say, My wallet is closed," said Esche. "If they're going to treat us like dirt, I don't see any reason to give them any help. Because, really: Iowa? New Hampshire? South Carolina? They're sideshows. The Democrats are punishing themselves. And isn't that stupid?"

The only happy Democrats in Orlando were the "Hill people" -- none more so than Mary Wilson, a frizzy-headed bundle of cheer who's served as president of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Fan Club since 1995. "I just loved her all the way back then, and it's just gotten worse since then," Wilson said, her sweatshirt drooping from the weight of (by my hasty count) twenty-three Hillary and Billary buttons, along with one of the ubiquitous Screw Deans. "The realities of politics, and what goes on behind closed doors, just burns me up," Wilson said. "But what are you gonna do? Anyway," she said, reaffixing the beam on her face, "Hillary will fix it! I give her carte blanche!"

Senator Clinton's fans have reason to feel giddy: their candidate is the lone Democrat benefiting from this latest "only in Florida" fracas. Just as in Michigan, where Clinton was the sole leading Democrat to leave her name on the January 15 primary ballot, she has outmaneuvered the opposition here. While the other Democrats eagerly signed the four-state pledge and pandered to Iowa and New Hampshire voters by boasting of their fidelity to the party rules, Clinton was the last to sign it, issuing a tepid statement through her campaign manager -- and quickly dispatching putative First Gentleman Bill to the state in her stead. At the time she signed the pledge, Clinton held thirty-point leads in the Florida polls. With her challengers surrendering the field, she still does. "My girl is savvy!" Wilson says.

Her foes, meanwhile, were not. Obama's campaign manager called the Florida primary "nothing more than a straw poll." Edwards's campaign, terrified of bad press in Des Moines or Manchester, sent nary a sign, bumper sticker or button to Orlando. (There were some goodies for the Obama, Clinton and Richardson folks.) A furious supporter called Edwards's headquarters and was told the campaign "thought their presence was not encouraged." Later, on Saturday, a couple of rogue Edwards backers commandeered a table and decorated it with hastily hand-painted signs. In keeping with the less than festive atmosphere of the weekend, there was a bitch session in full swing when I sidled up. "Republicans are saying, Look at these assholes -- they're shooting themselves in the foot again," said Francis Goss, a bearded refugee from New Jersey. "You don't make war with your own party!" cried a local pipefitter in a Vietnam veterans ball cap. "That's the kind of thing you do in a back alley, have these fights -- not in public!"

Have the Democrats already blown their chance to retake Florida next November? Dean has tried to cast the dispute as "a fight among politicians" that will be long forgotten by general-election time. "This is such a process story," says Brazile, "that I just don't know at the end of the day that voters will take this out on the Democrats -- this is a very volatile election season." But for six months and counting, the Democratic fracas has been the major topic of political buzz in Florida, with a steady drumbeat of local television soundbites ("The Democrats will be in Orlando this weekend -- the question is, Will their candidates be here?") and newspaper and magazine headlines (Will Dean's War on Florida Backfire?). According to recent polls, a whopping 77 percent of Floridians have heard about the Democratic boycott -- pretty impressive for "inside baseball." By a 62-to-16 margin across party lines, they think the DNC is off its rocker. And in a statistic cited by Senator Nelson at the convention, where he received a hero's welcome for suing the DNC (and for his romp over Katherine Harris last November), independent Florida voters already say they're 22 percent less likely to vote for a Democrat because of the whole primary mess -- far more than enough, as the St. Petersburg Times editorialized, to "turn Florida red." In another sign of trouble, Clinton has lost her lead in Florida general-election polls since the Democrats' boycott commenced, with Rudy Giuliani moving ahead.

"There's no question the Democrats will lose votes over this," says State Senator Geller, who spent much of the weekend trying to hunt down a journalist from Iowa who was reportedly -- and rather bravely -- stalking the convention. "The only question is how many. There was great anger at the Republicans after 2000. Today, there's great anger but it's at the Democrats." Among the Democrats, too. A few county leaders have reported losing longtime activists, some so outraged they've switched parties. Party stalwarts are encouraging other Democrats to cut off the party; top Democratic fundraiser Wayne Hogan of Jacksonville called Dean personally to cancel a DNC fundraiser this fall. Meanwhile, as Geller said, the Republicans "are smart -- they won't let it die." In early October the Republican Party of Florida mailed fliers to thousands of registered Democrats picturing an elderly man dabbing tearful old eyes and the caption: "Has being a Florida Democrat brought you to tears? You're not alone." Across the bottom, the message is more blunt: Ready to Switch Parties? A voter-registration form was helpfully enclosed. The GOP has run ads proclaiming that while the Democratic "contenders have come here to take our money, they won't stand up for our right to be heard"; online, the party is tallying up Floridians' contributions to the absent Democrats. And, for good measure, they're working up an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative to bring out Christian conservatives next November.

"The Washington Democrats seem to be having a hard time accepting that what they've done is a serious mistake and really jeopardizing the election in Florida," says Jack Shifrel, who's been active with the party since Bobby Kennedy's campaign in 1968. Shifrel circulated a passionate "Dear Fellow Democrats" flier at the convention, urging them to withhold campaign money and "tell the DNC that threatening not to allow Florida Democrats to participate fully in the 2008 Democratic Convention will make the Democratic Party the butt of even more embarrassing jokes." Shifrel, who hopes to help organize an eventual Clinton campaign in Broward County, says, "It was a dumb mistake to take a chance on turning off Democrats and independents here. It is fostering an image of, 'Oh, here they go again. They don't want to win. They're such a circular firing squad.' All the stupid jokes that people make about Democrats.

"It's incredible when you think about it. I believe the issues are on our side, more than ever. I believe we have better candidates. But it doesn't mean we're going to win."

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