Columns

'Senator, That Was a Textbook Campaign for Governor'

By: Robert W. McKnight | Posted: August 27, 2014 3:55 AM
Robert W. McKnight

Robert W. McKnight

Former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes, knows politics. Other than his race for president, Gov. Graham has never lost a campaign. He is also a constant student of effective politics. So, when he came up to me in 1986 and described a campaign in which I was involved as “textbook,” I took notes.

As described in my book, "The Golden Years ... The Florida Legislature," I was asked by a Miami Herald reporter in 1982 if I had any political aspirations, beyond my then-Senate seat. I told the reporter that the only other seat of interest to me was to serve as governor of Florida.

That was probably the reason I found my name in the St. Petersburg Times, Orlando Sentinel, Miami News and other statewide papers, as a possible candidate for governor in 1986. I ultimately decided against getting into the race, due to the more urgent priorities of my family and business. But I did not make a public statement about that decision.

Perhaps that is why, in 1985, I got a call from my former colleague and good friend, state Rep. Steve Pajcic, D-Jacksonville, asking if we could meet in Miami. We met for dinner at the Bodega Restaurant on South Dixie Highway and Steve told me of his plans to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 1986.

He explained that he had received commitments from a large part of the influential Jacksonville business and legal community -- including former Speaker of the House Fred Schultz, D-Jacksonville; future Mayor Tommy Hazouri; banker Charles Rice; and the heads of the many insurance companies headquartered in the “First City.”

Significantly, Steve also said former Speaker Hyatt Brown, D-Daytona Beach, would be his chief fundraiser. Steve told me that Miami was critical to his campaign plans, and said I could be key (as a former state senator and representative from Miami) to his strategy. I told him I was honored and proud to call him my friend. I did ask for some time to think about it and discuss it with my family.

In the meantime, the list of candidates for governor began filling up with heavyweights -- Democrats: Attorney General Jim Smith and Senate President Harry Johnston; and Republicans, state Rep. Tom Gallagher, R-Coconut Grove; and Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez, R-Tampa, among others. It was apparent that among the candidates, Pajcic had the most liberal philosophy and none of the other candidates would be shy about publicizing Steve’s alleged liberal voting record.

After reflecting on the race and discussing it with a number of valued advisers, I thought that I would pass on Steve’s offer. When I told him, he was noticeably surprised and asked if we could meet again, this time at the municipal airport in Vero Beach. He disembarked in Vero from a private plane along with former House Speaker Fred Schultz.

We sat in the airport restaurant and had a long talk about Steve’s campaign. He said he would like me to consider, in addition to other possibilities, being on a short list as his running mate. He did ask me to join Shultz as his statewide campaign manager. This time Steve stunned me. Again, I asked for time to digest his proposal and get back with him and a decision. 

Pajcic’s campaign was being formed, and I was most excited to see my old friend Sergio Bendixen join the staff. I did not know Pat Caddell, but his joining the campaign brought a heavyweight from Washington and the Carter administration. Mike Cusick came on board as did my former colleague and good friend, Sen. Frank Mann, D-Fort Myers. At that point I called Steve and told him yes, I would accept his offer. As a courtesy, I also called a good friend, Sen. Johnston, to tell him of my decision.

From that call to Pajcic through Election Night, it was a whirlwind campaign. We came from dead last in the Democratic primary to a major upset primary win.

Our campaign was blindsided by General Smith crossing parties to endorse Republican Bob Martinez against us in the general election. Steve ultimately selected Frank Mann as his running mate and our campaign was considered one of the most successful in the country.

But the Smith endorsement pretty much sealed our defeat. Jim was rewarded for his support by Gov. Martinez, with appointments as chief of staff and a spot in the Florida Cabinet. Looking back on the experience, I would say among other rewards for all of us in the Pajcic campaign, was that compliment paid by Gov. Bob Gaham -- you folks "ran a textbook campaign for governor."



Robert W. McKnight served in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives during the 1970s and 1980s. He has written two books on Florida politics, available at Amazon.com; and now provides regular political commentary trademarked as “The Golden Age Quorum Call” in the Tallahassee Democrat and Facing Florida, a public affairs television program airing on ABC, CBS and FOX stations. He can be reached at bob@flpoliticalcommentary.com.  


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