Unlike Crist, Graham Shows Dems Importance of Playing to the Center
Around the State
Two Democrats were in the Tallahassee limelight on Monday even as their political paths were heading in different directions.
Newly minted Democrat Charlie Crist came to Tallahassee to make nice with teachers, holding a round-table event with them. Crist listened to teachers complain they don’t make enough and that rewarding good teachers with increased pay was unacceptable. The new Democrat agreed and stressed he cared more about teachers than Rick Scott does. Crist spent a great deal of time talking about what teachers need, including higher salaries, but didn’t seem as concerned about the students.
But if Crist scored more points with the teachers' union on Monday, he probably didn’t help his poll numbers which have dropped in recent months with the latest round of polls showing a close contest. The teachers' union’s grip on Florida Democrats has grown in recent years as the party’s influence at the state level has decreased. Very few Democrats in the Legislature would break with the teachers' union on merit pay and other issues.
But Floridians apparently don’t buy into the idea that education should be focused on the teachers instead of the students. The Florida Democrats don’t currently hold a state Cabinet office and haven’t won a gubernatorial election in 20 years. In the Legislature, the Democrats can barely keep Republicans from holding a veto-proof majority. With qualifying now here, Democrats are scrambling to find candidates to run for two state Cabinet offices. The Florida Democrats haven’t sold their soul to the teachers' union -- but the FEA, along with the trial lawyers, has a good claim to a mortgage on it.
Crist needs to win over his new party. But playing to the teachers' union won’t help him bounce back in the polls, though it will provide him some manpower for the campaign.
As Crist offered the same old, same old, congressional candidate Gwen Graham released her first television commercial. Despite being the daughter of Bob Graham and working as an aide to John Kerry and Howard Dean, Graham’s new ad stresses she’s a political outsider who can bring new perspectives and values -- “the North Florida way” -- to Congress.
Whatever the merits of Graham’s ad and its claims, at least she’s trying to compete with Steve Southerland for independent voters. Graham recognizes that voters are sick of politics -- and politicians -- as usual. It’s a message that’s resonating in Florida. Southerland used it to beat Allen Boyd in 2010. The same year, political-outsider Scott defeated career politicians Alex Sink and Bill McCollum. All over Florida, candidates have come out of nowhere insisting they’re not career politicians and it’s worked. Just ask Curt Clawson, Ron DeSantis, Patrick Murphy, Trey Radel and Ted Yoho.
Graham gets something that Crist hasn’t grasped. Voters with no party affiliation are growing in Florida and their frustration with politics has led them away from the two major parties. Crist could take a page from Graham’s gamebook and try to keep his focus in the center. The more Crist plays to the Democrat base -- even as primary rival Nan Rich has proven to be a minor irritant -- the more his poll numbers tank.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.