Decision 2006- A Reporter’s Thoughts

As a news event, Decision 2006 was hard to cover in a “Here’s Candidate A, here’s Candidate B, here’s what they think about Issue C” sort of way.

Stories kept popping up that pre-empted traditional coverage of the electoral contests even as they changed the electoral landscape. The Mark Foley saga is the most obvious example. Foley’s e-mails, at first thought not newsworthy by newspapers including the Herald, were suddenly very newsworthy– not only because more explicit instant messages to Congressional pages surfaced, but also because the rather lead-footed reaction by Speaker Hastert and his minions took on a metaphoric life of its own. After the Abramoff headlines and the resignations of Tom Delay and Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham, this was another sign, to many voters, that Congressional leadership was more about protecting its own and holding onto power, than doing right.

So news time that might have gone to campaign coverage was devoted to Foley; his allegations of molestation by a priest, the hunt for a successor candidate, then the questions about how voters could be notified that a vote for Foley was a vote for Joe Negron, etc.

We had a far smaller-scale scandal eruption here in South Florida- the insidious and threatening messages Rep. Ralph Arza and his cousin left on Rep. Gus Barreiro’s cell phone. This episode and reaction to it dominated south Florida news coverage during the critical last two weeks of the campaign. Indeed, in Orlando covering US Senate debate on November 1st, I worked the phones, and did a “live shot” describing the process that would be used to pick a replacement candidate for Arza.

Marco Rubio avoided the Hastert mistake. He had little choice, knowing that the hateful words used by Arza and his associate would be played and re-played endlessly soon enough. His immediate public assertion that Arza would have no leadership role in the house and his private exhortations that Arza step down finally had the intended effect.

The Democratic threat to sit out the organizational session upped the stakes big-time. Marco Rubio’s moment of glory as the first Cuban-American speaker might be overshadowed by a protest over ugly, racist language and tactics of intimidation.

In the end, Arza’s misdeeds, unlike Foley’s, were not seen as symptomatic of a larger malaise. Charlie Crist got a larger share of the black vote than Republicans had previously. While the Democrats gained 6 House seats (stopping a decline that had lasted better than a generation), it seemed voter dissatisfaction with Tallahassee ran much more to issues like insurance and rising tax burdens than it did to the Arza matter, ugly as it was.

But beneath the Arza/Barreiro bad blood is an issue that will continue to be a problem for the Republican party-the schism that was most evident in the state Senate primary in District 38. Frank Bolanos, his campaign managed by Arza, and backed by State Rep. David Rivera and Governor Bush, took on incumbent Senator Alex Villalobos. It was a scorched-earth effort, complete with campaign flyers with a Villalobos photo morphing into that of Hillary Clinton. It left a lot of other state Reps. who stuck with Villalobos infuriated.

The day after the primary, Charlie Crist and other cabinet candidates and Governor Bush came to Hialeah on a statewide “Unity Tour”. I watched Rep. Rene Garcia, a Villalobos backer, have a rather heated conversation with an event organizer who wanted him– as the local state Rep.– to introduce the Governor. But the wounds of Villalobos/Bolanos were too fresh. Garcia wound up introducing Carole Jean Jordan, who then introduced the Governor.

Rubio, when I interviewed after the election, said he expected residual bitterness would be no problem. He said people who acted, not in the interest of solving the public’s problems, but to settle old scores, were committing “an abuse of power that equates to corruption”. Obviously, Rubio wields a lot of clout now– any criticism of him is always off-the-record and accompanied by “if you put my name to this, I’m in such hot water”. But it’s difficult to think this internal divide won’t have some effect on how events play out in Tallahassee, in the next couple of years.

Some races that I expected to cover a lot generated few stories, because of candidate strategy. The top race on the ballot, Nelson-versus-Harris for Senate, was almost invisible in South Florida, other than Bill Nelson’s TV ads. I was on both candidates’ mailing lists, so presumably was kept informed on their visits to our area. I can recall only a handful of campaign appearances here. Katherine Harris would show up periodically to shake hands at Versailles (everybody’s favorite emblematic Little Havana stop, though for Harris, it proved risky. Our camera caught her being confronted by a Cuban-American concerned about her hard-line stance on illegal immigration).

Bill Nelson sent me few notices on campaign events of any kind, but the only advertised Bill Nelson campaign event in South Florida in the final weeks of the campaign that I recall was a lunch at– where else?– Versailles. Not with voters, but with former Senator Bob Graham. We sent a camera. Nelson seemed to have no real message to impart, other than that we was opposed to the Castro regime and hoped Fidel would die soon.

When people asked me about that race, their questions generally boiled down to “What’s with Katherine Harris?” I never heard anyone but the candidate herself say she had a chance at an upset. She made her forecast with an amusing attempt at precision, saying all her polling data indicated to her that she would triumph with 53 percent of the vote.

A 60-38 percent loss seems pretty bad in our half-blue, half-red state. But remember– Bob Graham swamped Charlie Crist by a similar margin eight years ago… and who can forget the 70-29 percent pasting Connie Mack put on former first-brother-in-law Hugh Rodham in 1994?

By contrast, we saw a lot of Charlie Crist and Jim Davis. Davis, frankly, felt to me like a rerun of Bill McBride, the Democrats’ 2004 candidate for Governor– operating at a charisma deficit, unable to come up with compelling descriptions of his prescriptions for Florida. His stump speech about education always sounded, like McBride’s, as though it had been written by the teacher’s union: “We must stop using the FCAT as a political weapon against our teachers and students.”

By contrast, when Barack Obama came down to Miami to appear with Davis and Jones, he summed up his feeling about programs like FCAT testing with a humorous, easily-understood quotation that he claimed came from a southern Illinois farmer: “You don’t fatten a hog by weighing it.” In other words, testing won’t improve student performance unless accompanied by improved instruction. Davis, in months of campaigning, never came close to making his criticism so succinctly and memorably. And he- like Bill McBride- never looked very comfortable speaking to crowds or even meeting voters.

Charlie Crist, by contrast, appears to love campaigning. He is a politician, head-to-toe. There seems to be no “off” switch. Crist came to NBC 6’s newsroom in the American Airlines area two years ago to do an interview with another reporter. I shook his hand and spoke for maybe 30 seconds with him. He asked for my card. Three weeks later, I received a handwritten note from Charlie, expressing his pleasure at having chatted with me. I got the feeling Charlie Crist writes a lot of those notes.

This campaign year’s most-uncomfortable moments, for me, dealt with the discussions of Crist’s private life-more specifically, his sexuality. The subject was all over the blogosphere in the summer and fall. It was clear the Democrats– once the Mark Foley scandal broke– were anxious to find something similarly scandalous in Crist’s background.

Smaller papers covered it. The Broward New Times ran a piece naming a Katherine Harris staffer as Crist’s lover. They offered, on their web site, a piece of a mysterious video deposition– a woman saying that that staffer, Bruce Jordan, had talked to her of his romance with Crist.

A gay-oriented publication called the South Florida Express quoted Reform Party candidate Max Linn as saying that Charlie Crist had discussed being gay with him years ago, at a St. Petersburg-area leadership seminar, had discussed how his private life could do in his political career.

October 24th, I interviewed Max Linn, who had been granted a spot in the first statewide debate-the one sponsored by PBS (an appeals court later shut Linn out of that debate). I asked him whether, if he was allowed in, he would try to make an issue of Charlie Crist’s private life. He replied he wouldn’t– that that subject was Crist’s business, not the public’s.

A week later, a judge in Tampa let Linn into the 2nd debate, the NBC-sponsored faceoff hosted by Chris Matthews. They were doing pre-show audio checks when Matthews found out. “Oh Christ”, he said, on a live mike. “I’ve got to talk to the General Manager”, meaning the top guy at Channel 8 in Tampa, where the debate was taking place. When the GM emerged, he and Matthews walked away from everyone else. His mike still on, Matthews said “What if he starts gay this, gay that…” Then the audio technician cut off the sound.

A few minutes later, Max Linn walked on the set. He was miked up, and walked right over to Charlie Crist, leaned in and whispered– “Charlie, I promise no personal attacks”… then something about Crist being a “good man and good governor.” Linn continued: “I never meant any offense. You’re a good man and I’ll always support you.”

Linn then proceeded to give Crist what-for on the issues, accusing him of being an empty suit and abandoning traditional Republican fiscal discipline, but did not discuss Crist’s private life.

The Thursday before Election Day, I had a photographer hanging around outside an advertised Crist campaign event. He was approached by Margaret Hostetter. She is a Christian coalition member who ran, as a Republican, against Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in the year 2000. She handed my photographer a piece of paper– a pledge she wanted Charlie Crist to sign. It said, in essence, I am heterosexual and I will resign if it’s ever revealed that I have misrepresented my sexuality.

Charlie Crist never attended that campaign event. Maybe his plane was late, maybe his staff saw trouble in the mix of a TV camera and Margaret Hostetter.

The very next day, a gay activist in Tallahassee who used to work for the state Democratic Party staged a for-the-cameras stunt, going to GOP headquarters in Tallahassee with a letter form Charlie Crist, urging him to come clean about being gay, basing his claims on the New Times story and the mysterious “video deposition”.

That was the day the issue of the candidate’s private life became a story on some TV stations in Florida and on some web sites. Some major papers backed into the story by reporting Gov. Bush– standing at Crist’s side during a day of fly-around appearances– called a reporter a “horse’s ass” for his questioning on the subject. I worked on the story for half the day. We even interviewed Margaret Hostetter. My news director decided it didn’t belong on the air.

Ms. Hostetter was still trying to push her pledge document on Crist the day before the election, arriving just a few minutes late to confront him and a gaggle of cameras covering a “honk-and-wave” event on the corner of Federal Highway and Oakland Park Boulevard. She sought me out, though, and argued forcefully that I and other mainstream media were depriving the voters of information that some might regard as relevant to their choice… that Charlie Crists’s candor, not his sexuality, was the real issue. It’s the kind of conundrum journalism schools study.

The most significant result locally– in terms of the overarching storyline of Decision 2006– was Clay Shaw’s defeat at the hands of Ron Klein. Shaw took a gamble by, early on in the campaign, making it clear he wasn’t one of those Republicans in iffy districts who would run away from the Bush White House. The first time I covered his campaign was when he brought Dick Cheney to Boca Raton to raise money, way back in March. It got a lot of coverage because it was one of Cheney’s first forays outside of Washington after his hunting accident, when the Vice President was still the subject of a lot of late-night monologues.

I asked Clay Shaw whether he saw a downside to bringing in Dick Cheney to campaign with him (the obvious upside was money-the fund-raiser brought in a healthy six-figure sum, as I recall). Shaw talked about Cheney having been his neighbor in DC, and a good friend over the years. He complained that Democrats offered only criticism, but no viable alternatives. He showed no interest in distancing himself from White House positions on issues like Medicare reform and the war in Iraq, positions that might be a tough sell in his district-a district with only a slight Republican edge, that had voted for John Kerry in ’04.

Those were the issues that Ron Klein talked about at pretty much every campaign stop. They were the issues– particularly the war– that Klein’s advertising was built around, a steady drumbeat of “all this money spent, all these lives lost, and still, Clay Shaw doesn’t question the Bush war plan”. And Shaw– who also brought in the President and even Karl Rove for fundraisers– really struggled to articulate a response. It wasn’t until just a few days before the election that he ran an ad in which he looked into the camera and talked of putting his constituents’ interests above party loyalty. It was too little, too late.

Then, of course, after his defeat, Clay Shaw complained that Donald Rumsfeld really should have been replaced before the election. This, from a man whose criticisms of Rumsfeld during the campaign-if they’d been uttered at all– had certainly been soft-peddled.

The good news for Republicans is, it could have been worse. And the Shaw/Klein contest highlights why. Over the years, Clay Shaw had escaped some stiff challenges– he squeaked by Elaine Bloom in 2000 by a few hundred votes. When the lines were re-drawn by the Republican-dominated legislature, Shaw’s district was moved north. Democrats in Miami Beach were dropped, Republicans in Palm Beach added, to make the seat safer.

Around the country, Republicans have dominated state legislatures, and re-drawn lines– with precision computers can offer– to maximize their advantages. That likely kept the losses in the House down. In the “New Yorker” magazine, Hendrick Hertzberg points out that in 2000, Democrats won the aggregate vote for the same 33 Senate seats that were up this year by about a half-million votes. This time, Democrats’ margin was seven million. Florida’s part of that trend–Bill Nelson won by a million votes this time. He beat Bill McCollum by only 150-thousand votes in 2000.

So– what were voters saying? Although Ron Klein’s ads would suggest the war was top of mind, many voters we talked with on Election Day (an admittedly unscientific sample) mentioned the economy as the source of their dissatisfaction… surprising, considering that GOP strategy was to tout job creation numbers and the economy. My take? Though macro-economic indicators were headed north, south Floridians may feel a special pinch, because of insurance and tax bills and housing costs that are soaring.

Both in Washington and Tallahassee, politicians who did get elected say the message is that voters want an end to partisanship and a renewed focus on problem-solving.

In Washington, can Pelosi and Reid hold together their more substantial “Blue Dog” Democrats with more liberal colleagues who see a chance for major action? Can Speaker Pelosi deliver on ethics pledges? Her backing for John Murtha and the prospect of Alcee Hastings chairing the Intelligence committee raise doubt.

In Tallahassee, can Pruitt and Rubio maintain fragile party unity? And how will legislative leaders work with the new Governor? On the toughest issue of all– insurance– Charlie Crist’s big talking point throughout the campaign was that insurance companies that offer auto and property coverage in other states but only auto insurance in Florida should be required to offer property coverage here too. Marco Rubio told me (only after the election) that would affect exactly one company insuring only 1000 Floridians– in effect, that it’s a better sound bite than plan of action.

And what will lawmakers do with some of potentially-controversial Crist campaign positions-favoring civil unions for gay Floridians, granting civil rights-restoration to felons who have served their time?

As we like to say in the TV biz… stay tuned.


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