Mr. Jones and Media

It may seem as though Janet Reno and Bill McBride are the only two Democratic candidates in this year's gubernatorial race. In fact, there are 14 other people who want to take a crack at Jeb Bush in the race for governor.

Some of them may well be insane.

But one of them, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami, seems to have been lumped into the Fruit Loop category even though he lacks the requisite crazy-idea quotient.

While Reno and McBride are both sketchy about their plans to drum up the cash to put their education reform and health care plans in place, Jones all but breaks out the charts and graphs to give specifics on his plan to raise revenue.

Yet, in what may be the only televised debate among the Democratic candidates, Jones has been left by the wayside. The Aug. 27 debate is co-sponsored by a West Palm Beach television station. Jones can't participate, organizers say, unless his polling numbers increase.

At a July 17 press conference, where Jones christened his new Tampa campaign office, only Bay News 9, The Tampa Tribune and Weekly Planet saw fit to show up. And Bay News 9, the local 24-hour cable news channel, only sent a cameraman.

Why is such an experienced candidate being given short shrift?

There's probably a combination of reasons, according to Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause of Florida, a group that works against the influence of special interests in government. While Wilcox can only speculate on the press' allergy to Jones' campaign, he said, he would guess that money has something to do with it.

In the past three months, Jones has raised $201,000 compared with the $565,000 and $370,000 raised by McBride and Reno, respectively.

"I think that is a problem with the press," he said. "They tend to take how much money someone has raised and equate that somehow with the seriousness of the candidate."

Wilcox may only be able to speculate. But as a former news director for Florida Public Radio, he has 20 years experience in politics and the media.

Wilcox is currently lobbying for legislation that would give free airtime to political candidates so voters can make more informed choices. Information in paid ads is often misleading, he said, and doesn't give voters a fair chance to assess candidates' views on real issues at a level that goes beyond sound bites.

"They are just advertising, saying so and so is a real friend to education without there being real depth to it," he said.

This is unacceptable since studies show that most voters get information from TV, where coverage of politics is poor and scant, he said.

While some view Jones' lack of funds as an issue, the candidate himself isn't concerned about it. He's recently hired a new fundraising team and is sure that more money will come in, he said. At his press conference, he alluded to what he thought were the larger issues in his not being included in debates — race and experience.

Age and citizenship are the only qualifications to run for public office. If factors such as experience, a voting record and knowledge of the issues were factored in, he'd be the only one in the race to qualify, he quipped.

"What it (his exclusion from the debate) means is that the debate will be full of rhetoric and not substance," Jones said. "Which is probably why they don't want me there."

And while race hasn't stopped him from winning public office in the past, it may be what stopped him from participating in the debate.

"If you're going to use the Mason Dixon poll, let's make sure the survey is representative of all groups of people this time," he told reporters and supporters in Tampa, challenging debate organizers.

Political science professor Susan MacManus agrees that race may be a factor for Jones, who is black. While blacks have made significant strides in attaining public office, only one has made it to the governor's mansion in recent history, she pointed out. That was L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia.

But overall, said MacManus, Reno is a much bigger factor for Jones than skin color. Among Democrats, Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties contain the largest number of people who vote in primaries, she said. Although Jones is from South Florida, Reno is more popular there, according to MacManus.

"She's the South Florida candidate," the professor said of Reno.

That may well be. But it's no reason for voters to be deprived of the chance to hear the Jones plan for collecting $1-billion in unpaid sales tax, saving the state money on Medicare prescriptions, or increasing spending in the juvenile justice system so that wayward youngsters don't grow up to be career criminals.

Jones can't do anything about the lack of news coverage, he said. If TV and print reporters don't want to give their customers quality political coverage, it's not up to him to try to change that. And he refuses to blame Reno for stealing thunder that could have been his.

"It was important for Reno to enter the race because nobody believes you can beat Jeb Bush until you beat Janet Reno," he said.

It was a pithy quote. It's too bad that so few journalists were on hand to hear it.

Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at 813-248-8888, ext. 163, or e-mail her at [email protected].

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