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Nancy Smith

Democrat Nan Rich's Enduring, Families-First Rise in Florida Politics

November 26, 2013 - 6:00pm

Don't tell Nan Rich she can't win. She won't believe you.

This is a Democrat who knows who she is, what she wants to do and why. In her marathon, year-and-a-half run for governor of Florida, she didn't expect help from the men in her party, and certainly she hasn't had any.

Doesn't seem to faze her.

"It took until 2010 to have a woman Democrat elected leader in the Florida Senate," Rich told me during an interview last week. "What does that tell you?"

Rich, 71, was the Senate minority leader from 2010 to 2012, when she was term-limited out and couldn't run anymore. She was known as one of the most liberal voices in the Senate and a tireless advocate for children and the poor. Even in the House from 2000 to 2004 -- outnumbered just as she would be in the upper chamber -- she was very much a Democrat's Democrat.

Nan Rich is a product of her generation. I can say that with confidence because she and I are contemporaries. I recognize her. We are both of an age. And I can tell you Rich is not the center of her life. She is not one of the political animals we see so often today. She discovered, developed and lived her commitments, her social passions, before she discovered politics.

Rich's close-family upbringing stayed with her, bred within her deep values and a profound sense of responsibility.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who won Rich's redistricted seat in 2012, said Rich always kept quiet about it, but she took care of her own family's business just as carefully and lovingly as she did the state's. "A lot of people don't realize that for all those years in the Senate, she would take her elderly mother out every Sunday.

"She made sure her family never suffered because of her work. Yes, that is a generational thing you don't see much anymore. I think the world of Nan," Sachs said. "She's all 'families first' -- hers and Florida's."

Down from the North

In the 1950s, Rich's parents brought her and her two sisters from the garment district of New York City to Dade County, where she grew up. "Early on I was committed to public education," she said. "We all were. The whole family. Education meant everything. And that's where I get my passion for it."

In 1960 she entered college at the University of Florida in Gainesville. But during that period, her grandmother who lived in Hollywood introduced her to David Rich. The couple fell in love, married and college was done after three years, before she could finish.

She and David had four children, and to this day the family devotion to public education continues through two of her daughters who live in Los Angeles and a third who serves on the Broward County School Board. "I'm proud of that," Rich says now. "Proud of our strong family and their direction."

After their children graduated from high school, Nan and David Rich moved to Weston. "Never once did I think about going into politics," she told me. "It never crossed my mind."

But then she had joined and become active with the National Council of Jewish Women. The NCJW became Rich's launching pad. Its mission -- "improving the quality of life for women" -- propelled her to action.

In 1980 she worked with people like Elaine Bloom of Miami and became a founder of the Florida Guardian ad Litem program, a public-private partnership that recruits volunteers to advocate in court for abused, abandoned or neglected children. The program was passed in 1980, two full decades before Rich herself was part of the Legislature.

So effective was Rich with the NCJW that in 1996 she became the organization's first national president from Florida. She kept the post through 1999.

One of the organization's greatest success stories was Home Instruction for Parents of Pre-School Youngsters -- HIPPY, for short -- and Rich was in the thick of it. "It's a program we brought back from Israel," she said. "It's a pre-K program that helps close the gap for people in low socio-economic environments, teaches structure and it teaches mothers how to be the first educators of their children.

"It started in Israel as an aid for immigrant parents," she said.

It was HIPPY that first brought Rich and Hillary Clinton together.

"The Miami Herald had done a write-up of the program and our trip to Israel, and when Hillary was still the first lady of Arkansas, she saw that article, cut it out and wrote to me. She just liked the sound of it, so she invited a few of us to Arkansas and she implemented the program there." That was in 1985.

"You know, they didn't even have mandatory kindergarten in Arkansas at the time and we were bringing in pre-K."

"In the '90s, I became the first president of HIPPY USA, and with Hillary and Ruth Westheimer on board, those were great days," Rich said. "HIPPY has had a beautiful history. And all of a sudden I realized it had been a career ladder for me.

"The more I did, the more I wanted to get done."

Rich was a major player in another NCJW groundbreaking Florida program funded through the Legislature in the early '80s, "Children Have All Rights Legal, Educational and Emotional" -- otherwise know as CHARLEE.

"There were few places back then for girls caught up in the juvenile justice system," she explained. "This is the program where we basically found homes for abused and neglected children, mostly girls."

Through all the years the single constant that Rich claims made it all possible was her husband, David. "I couldn't have done any of it without his strong support," she said. "My family has always been there for me, but David keeps everything together for me, especially now. I couldn't run for governor if he weren't behind me all the way."

No Universal Pre-K: Bad Day

Her greatest disappointment? "There have been a few," she admitted, "but failure to get the Legislature behind universal pre-K in 2002 was one of the biggest disappointments. "We had a chance to have a program that would have been a model for the nation, but it never happened. We could have and should have had all pre-K teachers degreed."

Besides education, which Rich calls "grossly undersubscribed under Rick Scott," these are her three greatest concerns at the moment:

-- "Our child welfare system is broken. I'm a big supporter of community-based care, but we need to not have it centralized in Tallahassee. Individual communities, I think, better know their needs. The way we pay, recruit, and train people who are the case managers who go into the homes -- these are issues that have to be addressed.

-- "Seniors are my other great concern. Did you know we have over 54,000 seniors on waiting lists for home- and community-based care? That's community care for the elderly, home-based care, Alzheimer's respite, feeding programs -- over 54,000. These programs generally cost around $6,600 a year to provide support services in the home. But listen to this: If they go into a nursing home, that costs us three to four times as much -- about $22,000 a year -- and very often it's not the best kind of care. It's best to keep a senior in the home, if possible.

-- "We've got the disabilities community. I have so many people who want me to help with services for people with disabilities. Respite care has been dramatically slashed. All kinds of services have been reduced."

Rich continues to fight for other classically progressive social principles: preserving abortion rights; equal rights for same-sex couples; preventing what she calls an attempt by Republicans "to privatize our public schools by turning them over to for-profit management companies"; stricter gun control laws; reinstating environmental and growth management regulations repealed by recent Republican legislatures; now even legalizing medical marijuana.

Retired South Florida political consultant William Fischer told Sunshine State News he believes Rich would "chew the guts" out of Charlie Crist if she could get him in a debate. "I don't think he would ever do it," said Fischer. "Why should he? He doesn't have to. But I'm pretty sure she scares him more than the governor does because she's true 'color blue' and would expose his conservative core."

Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, admits she's a big Nan Rich fan. "I've worked with Nan since she was in the House, because I used to be in Tallahassee all the time as executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau.I think she would make an excellent governor. Nan knows how to reach across the aisle, she always had an open door and she can work with the business community -- she understands equally the importance of free-market economics and the state's chronic social problems."

Rich claims she can keep going, even though money is hard to come by. "We have a strong core of 78 people who work hard on the campaign," she said. "We do a lot with a little social media and email.

"And we can feel an increase in support. I was just at a fundraiser in Leesburg -- what a fabulous turnout. Women are energized this year. They see a war on women, my issues are their issues, so I'm propelled by their enthusiasm. ... Not taking the Medicaid money from the federal government -- women don't understand it."

Said Maria Sachs, "I think Nan would make an amazing head of the Department of Children and Families. No one is as compassionate about children and the frail elderly as she is. I haven't spoken to her about it, but she knows this area better than anyone else. I'd like to see whoever wins the governor's office appoint her for DCF. It's a job beyond Democrat or Republican. It's about our children, about compassion and hard truth. Nan is tough, boy would she ever ace it."

Fischer, meanwhile, says he's heard the rumors. "It's out there pretty good if I've heard it way down here in Dade County: Charlie is going to offer Nan DCF. Word is, all she has to do is fold her campaign and jump on his bandwagon."

I couldn't reconnect with Rich to get her reaction to that one. But I'm betting she isn't ready to end the governor's ride. She's beginning to feel a little love out there. And besides, the party's done nothing for her -- hasn't lifted a single finger. Who can blame Nan Rich if she lollygags awhile before jumping on their shovel?

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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