By Jim Bleyer
In the 141 years since Reconstruction, there have been eight black U. S. senators — Cory Booker, Tim Scott, Kamala Harris, William “Mo” Cowan, Edward Brooke, Carol Mosley Braun, Barack Obama and Roland Burris — and two black governors, Douglas Wilder and Deval Patrick.
None were from Florida.
Since Reconstruction, there has only been one black candidate in Florida to emerge from a contested Denocratic primary and make it onto the general election ballot. Kendrick Meek, a four-term member of the U. S. House of Representatives, ran for an open U. S. Senate seat in 2010, prevailing in the Democratic primary.
Meek lost the three-way general election race against Republican Marco Rubio and Independent Charlie Crist, garnering 20 percent of the vote. (no one person in the 21st century has done more to damage the Democratic party in Florida than Crist).
Cowan, Brooke, and Patrick all hail from Massachusetts, a state where blacks comprise 8.45 percent of the population. Braun, Obama, and Burris are from Illinois where 14.68 percent of the residents are black.
Unlike in Florida, the Democratic party in those states welcomes Afro-American and white progressive candidates, not just their votes.
There are 3.4 million blacks in Florida, nearly 17 percent of the population. They vote overwhelmingly Democratic and closely align with the progressive wing.
In 2018 Florida Democrats will have the opportunity to nominate two Afro-Americans to statewide offices: Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee for governor and State Rep. Sean Shaw for attorney general. Both are exceptional candidates.
Shaw faces Ryan Torrens, an attorney who has never held elective office. In addition to his experience in the Florida Legislature, Shaw is the son of Leander Shaw Jr., the first black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. One can only imagine the volumes of rich political and cultural history that Shaw absorbed growing up.
The race for governor is clearcut: Gillum, a compelling orator and bona fide Democrat, stands out in a four-way race that includes former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, and entrepreneur Chris King.
Besides being a true progressive, Gillum has been the only candidate to take on Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, and the three Republican candidates over gun safety and immigration issues. Gillum has also energized young voters, meeting with and marching with them in the wake of the Parkland shooting tragedy.
His three opponents? Graham is the least qualified of all including the Republicans. Her public service consists of one two-year term in the U. S. House, a North Florida seat she felt she could not successfully defend.
While in Congress, Graham voted with the Republicans a whopping 38 percent of the time including approval of the Keystone pipeline, undoing EPA rules, relaxing Dodd-Frank banking regulations, and making it tougher for workers to receive mandatory health insurance.
Graham hopes to ride into the nomination on her legacy name; she is the daughter of former governor and senator Bob Graham who has been working behind the scenes to undercut the Gillum campaign.
Gwen Graham has clearly shown a disdain for Democratic values.
Levine is a wealthy elitist who is self-funding. He considered running as a Republican or Independent but determined that running as a Democrat would be along the path of least resistance. So far, he has spent $2 million a month on media.
Except for his voter registration, Phil Levine is not a Democrat, let alone a progressive. He has praised Donald Trump.
Chris King, successful businessman and the fourth candidate is, like Gillum, a true progressive. The Orlandoan’s campaign has not gained traction and he trails badly in the polls.
The charismatic Gillum gives the Democratic party its best chance to win the governorship which has been in Republican hands for 20 years. He would motivate voters who normally shun the polls in off-year elections.
It also offers the Florda Democratic party to right past wrongs and truly represent its constituency.
The fallacious notion, long perpetrated by the party apparatus, that a Democrat needs to be a centrist marginalizes black candidates and white progressives. That’s been the modus operandi under the last five party chairpersons who are either elitists (Alison Tant and Stephen Bittel), conservative (Rod Smith), or self-serving (Scott Mattox and Karen Thurman).
All shared one trait: they were supremely ineffective.
Succeeding the disgraced Bittel is Terrie Rizzo who headed the Palm Beach Democrats. She defeated Stacy Patel who was backed by progressives.
Rizzo says she will “reach out” to progressives. Sorry, lady, that’s not enough. White progressive and black voters will not be voting for Republican Lite candidates in this election cycle or any future one for that matter.
Then there are hundreds of thousands of progressives registered as No Party Affiliation. They, too, don’t buy into the failed centrist right philosophy of the state party.
The timid Democratic Party of Florida demands loyalty from Afro-Americans and progressives but undercuts their candidates in statewide primaries. And how’s that centrist strategy been working?
In 2014, party insiders torpedoed the candidacy of newly-minted Perry Thurston, an Afro-American, in the race for attorney general, favoring tired warhorse George Sheldon. Instead of losing the governor’s contest by 60,000 votes, Crist, despite his horrible campaign strategy, could have won by 150,000 if Thurston was on the ticket instead of Sheldon.
The candidate at the top of the ticket this year will heavily influence other races. Incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson is in trouble now trailing in the polls to putative challenger Rick Scott.
Gillum’s coattails could save Nelson and quite possibly give the Democrats a majority in the U. S. Senate.
In some circles it may be the “Year of the Woman” but it’s time the Florida Democratic party grew some balls.