Florida Dems search for a gubernatorial candidate

The speculation runs rampant as Democrats ponder who will run against Rick Scott.

click to enlarge “HOW DID I GET HERE?” A key question in Crist’s keynote speech at the Kennedy King dinner. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
“HOW DID I GET HERE?” A key question in Crist’s keynote speech at the Kennedy King dinner.

After nearly 90 minutes of not so scintillating rhetoric from various local Democrats, former Republican Governor Charlie Crist took to the stage at the Tampa Convention Center last Saturday night, the keynote speaker for the Hillsborough County Democratic Party’s Kennedy King Dinner.

It was the biggest Democratic Party event for Crist since he switched from independent last December. Looking out at a crowd of more than 300, Crist paraphrased David Byrne and the Talking Heads, circa 1979.

“So you may wonder. How did I get here?”

Before the audience could shout out an opinion, Crist delivered the punchline.

“Well, Carol drove me,” he deadpanned. (Carol is his wife, Carol Rome.)

Crist's political metamorphosis is still ongoing. He eschewed any talk of a potential gubernatorial candidacy, instead speaking in general terms of why the Democratic Party better represents his political philosophy these days.

“It’s not about any one individual, it’s about all of us,” he said at the climax of his stunningly short seven-and-a-half-minute address. “It’s about teachers, it’s about firefighters, it’s about law enforcement officers, it’s about blacks, it’s about whites, it’s about gays, it’s about straights,” he said as the applause began rolling in. “It’s about wherever you came from, you’re welcome to this party. This is the big tent party. This is the people’s party. This is what Florida is all about. I’ve seen it, I know it, I feel it. So let’s go get it!”

But unfortunately for Democrats throughout the state who have been lusting to take down Rick Scott, no one — with the exception of former state Senator Nan Rich — has taken the plunge and declared candidacy for 2014.

A few high-profile Tampa Democrats who usually would have been found at the Kennedy King Dinner were AWOL on Saturday. One of them was Susan Smith, head of the Democratic Progressive Caucus, who simply doesn’t think Crist can win in 2014. “I think there will be a very difficult time getting Democratic activists to work for Charlie Crist. Not only that, but a Charlie Crist candidacy will motivate lukewarm Republicans into working [for] and supporting Rick Scott.”

Former Tampa Congressman Jim Davis was another no-show at the annual shindig, the year’s biggest event for the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee. The 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nominee lost to Crist that year, and when he spoke to CL last week he didn’t sound like he’d gotten over it — or the possibility that Crist could be the party’s standard-bearer — just yet. “I think he’s going to be held to a higher standard than before,” said the longtime politico, who’s now a lobbyist with the Tampa law firm of Holland and Knight.

Davis is expending his political energies on recruiting another potential gubernatorial candidate: 70-year-old U.S. Senator Bill Nelson.

Nelson, having just been re-elected, can wait longer to announce than any other candidate, Davis pointed out. He went on to list arguments for a Nelson candidacy: He’s well-known, has won a number of statewide elections, could be competitive in fundraising against Scott’s mega-millions, and is a trusted brand in a party that lacks candidates of stature. “I think you need someone who knows the state, who cares about the state, to successfully govern,” Davis adds.

Other Democrats follow suit, envisioning a Lawton Chiles scenario: Nelson leaving the Beltway to ride off into the sunset, or rather the Sunshine State, uniting a party desperate to taste power in Tallahassee.

But there’s a nagging little question. Does Nelson even want this gig?

Speculation began in earnest earlier this year, after the initial rush of excitement over a Crist candidacy began to subside. On April 25, the D.C.-based political paper Roll Call reported that the senator was considering a candidacy. “I’d say that’s true, that he’s considering it,” spokesman Dan McLaughlin told the publication. “But — and as he’s said a number of times — he presently doesn’t have any intention of running. He’s got a job to do as a senator.”

Nelson seemingly put the rumors to rest a couple of days later during an appearance on MSNBC, when he told anchor Chris Jansing, “Look I have no plans to run for governor. I love this job of senator, except that I am very, very frustrated, as we have discussed this morning, that we can’t get anything done because you can’t get people together to build consensus.”

He went on to say that while similar frustrations (as well as age) have prompted a number of his Democratic colleagues (Carl Levin, Tom Harkin, Max Baucus) to opt out of running for re-election, he’s in it for the long haul. “I feel like I’m just getting cranked up. I’m going to give it everything I have and try to bring people together.” He then talked about the model of comity that is the Aging Committee, which he presides over with Maine’s Susan Collins. “The two of us run the committee together. And that’s the way the Senate ought to be run.”

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