Twenty years ago almost to the day, I was at the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Petersburg Beach presiding over a gubernatorial candidates forum. It was part of the Florida Press Association/Florida Society of Newspaper Editors 1994 annual convention.
Pretty much the same thing as you'll find going on today at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic former (Republican) Gov. Charlie Crist were invited to the mid-afternoon event, though the governor is unlikely to appear. His schedule for Thursday shows him in Tallahassee all day. Meanwhile, Democrat Nan Rich, former state Senate minority leader, and Libertarian Party candidate Adrian Wyllie will wait until Friday morning to make their cases.
I'm not sure if you'd call the candidates forum in my day better or worse. Certainly, it was different.
If I had to rank the two years, I'd say 2014 wins hands down for drama and probably heft. But I doubt any election year at a Florida newspapers convention ever did, or ever could, beat 1994 for sheer entertainment. I remember afterward the Jacksonville Times-Union carried a short editorial calling the event "a hoot and a half."
I hope you'll take a minute to let me walk you down memory lane.
In 1994, as FSNE president, I got to call the shots on organizing the forum.
If today's forum planners went too far overboard to exclude all but two candidates on the same bill, I went entirely in the opposite direction -- probably to the dismay of the biggest names who showed.
I included everybody, sent an invitation to all 18 gubernatorial qualifiers to speak at a three-hour forum, and dang it if 12 didn't show up. In fact, the only significant no-show was the big goober himself, Gov. Lawton Chiles.
(Notice the governor, a Democrat, didn't feel it necessary to attend a candidates forum until the Republican field had sorted itself out. And I don't recall a single criticism of Chiles for it.)
At any rate, it seemed to me at the time that reporters and editors were missing the plethora of side issues that draw ordinary Floridians to run for the state's highest office. By focusing on party darlings, I reckoned, we were blind to the real passion on the fringes. I thought maybe in 1994 we should finally take a closer look and see what we find.
Well, showing up at the hotel early in blue silk suits with campaign teams in tow, were the major players -- the Republican challengers I called the Pepsodent Five: Jeb Bush, Ken Connor, Ander Crenshaw, Tom Gallagher and Jim Smith. Each looked around at the chairs for the seven other candidates, none of whom registered a blip on anybody's polling scale, then went to work shortening their remarks. They were not pleased. And in retrospect, I truly regretted that aspect of the day. These candidates had spent a great deal of time and money to talk to Florida's most influential audience, and the format shortchanged them.
Who were the others? Let me tell you. The truth is, the morning was a home run -- if not for the Pepsodent Five, certainly for the group of assembled senior editors and publishers who suddenly found themselves staring down the raw side of political ambitions. Ask yourself, are these folks so different from 2014 fringe candidates?
-- Josephine "I'm one tough mother" Arnold. "Call me Dr. Jo," she told editors. The 55-year-old Republican osteopath from Seminole said her experience as a single parent who raised an autistic child has given her "a beautiful vision for Florida." A number of conferees asked her what that vision was, but she never elaborated.
-- Robert Lamar "I'm a leader" Bell. Precise, straightforward, intense. In a less crowded Republican race, Miami attorney Bell, 51, might have been the horse to watch. A former military man. "The military," he said, "produces leaders while politics produces only more politicians." Editors nodded.
-- Robert P. "What about people?" Brown. Republican Brown, 38, of Boynton Beach, had something to do with land development, but he didn't say what. He was pretty angry, too, but he didn't say why. He called his wife "a hell-raiser from New York" who was active in the abortion movement, but he didn't say on which side. How is government in Florida? "Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy," he said. "Awful. Dreadful. Sloppy, sloppy." He promised to do something about that, but he didn't say what. So later, editors thanked him for coming, but they didn't know why.
-- John J. "I don't take crap off anybody" Gargan. The 63-year-old Cedar Key insurance agent who had just switched from Independent to Democrat, showed up in a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "My chiropractor cracks me up!" Then he spent half his speech explaining why he had worn it -- something about proving to the press he wasn't just another bull in the herd. "I ride a motorcycle, I play poker, I play a good game of pool and I have an eye for the ladies. And those are my good qualities." Gargan was the founder of THRO, Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out. Which pretty much summed up what he wanted in Tallahassee. He said his election would "redefine state government." Editors believed him.
-- Earl F. "I got fire in my belly" Kinlaw. "Call me Earl." The 63-year-old Largo Democrat grew up on a Central Florida dairy farm where he "could have been another Tom Sawyer" but apparently chose telephone installation instead. He hated crime. He hated problems without solutions. He loved dogs. And he wanted to pipe water from Central Florida to the west coast. "They've got a lot of lakes." Ever since the third-grade he's "read The St. Petersburg Times like the Bible." Why vote for Earl? "Because when I get going, I really get going. I'm wired. I'm wired." Editors were falling off their chairs.
-- Peter "I have bad news for you, folks" Karl. Karl, from Hollywood, was the Whig Party candidate. "You remember us." To troop the colors, he showed up wearing a tri-cornered hat. While Republican candidates promised to build more prisons -- and, by the way, Charlie Crist running for a Senate seat was one of them -- Karl said Florida already has more prisons than any other state. It doesn't need jails, it needs a new judicial system including new judges and more effective police. "If you want me, you'll have to write me in," he said. "I won't spend your money to get on the ballot." Editors might not pencil Karl's name in, but for reasons known only to him, my husband Mick -- in attendance and snapping pictures for me -- said he did.
-- Stephen Glenn "It's all just media hype" Villard. Orlando Democrat Villard, 35, said he was running to give attention to fathers' rights. He regaled the long fight for custody of, and visitation access to, his 9-year-old daughter whom he never gets to see. "I've filed 5,000 contempt of court complaints," he said. "Five thousand. But judges don't care. They don't hear. They don't listen." Then he wept openly. Editors fell silent.
All in all, for Florida editors, that gubernatorial candidates forum in 1994 was like a morning at a petting zoo. We saw animals we knew and many we encountered rarely. Some made us laugh, some made us cry. But we all had a pretty good time and learned something new.
When time was up, the Pepsodent Five, who towered like giraffes above the others, exited the room almost at a gallop, their campaign staffs trailing behind. They had planes to catch, babies to kiss, money to raise.
Meanwhile, back at the podium, Earl F. Kinlaw turned to me and said, "I sure hope that durn car of mine starts ..."
I look for today's gubernatorial candidates forum in Coral Gables to be long on edge and short on smiles -- or even revelation. Saturday's too, probably. On the other hand, this is Florida in 2014. Try petting the animals now and you could lose a hand.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.