TALLAHASSEE — Stung by a narrow defeat in a governor's race she says she never expected to lose, Alex Sink is retiring from public office, but not from public view.
The departure of the chief financial officer and Democrat, who lost to Republican Rick Scott by 62,000 votes, leaves Tallahassee with no Democratic statewide officeholder. Dozens of Sink's employees must either leave government or seek work with Republicans, who control the Legislature and all three Cabinet posts.
To fill a void, and continue the policy work begun by her campaign, Sink said, she wants to establish a nonprofit, nonpartisan, Brookings Institution-style think tank to advance the policies she focused on during her campaign, and to keep herself in play for her next political move.
"I'm not closing any doors," said Sink, 62. "I'm at the stage of my life when I've learned never to say never."
Since she conceded defeat the morning after the election, Sink said she has been on a "roller coaster" about her loss. She alternates between being pleased with the narrow margin in a year when many Democrats were trounced by double digits and second-guessing whether her campaign could have done more to find the votes.
"Losing sucks, no matter how much you lose by," Sink said recently, as she prepared to move from Tallahassee back to her Thonotosassa home outside Tampa. "Coming so close doesn't take the sting out of it, because so many people were so invested in a future with me."
Sink hopes to tap into her cross-party support to advance causes she is passionate about, such as small business, children's issues, education, lowering the state's insurance risk, the exploding costs of incarcerating prisoners and the battle over redistricting.
"Just because I was the loser of the election doesn't mean those ideas can't be presented and advocated for," Sink said.
She traveled to Washington, D.C., in mid December to meet Brookings Institution officials and learn more about their program model and, during her "thank you" tour around the state, she said "thought leaders" and supporters told her they "are looking for leadership."
One of her major concerns — small-business access to credit — appeared nowhere on the radar screen when she met with the corporation-controlled business lobbying groups in Tallahassee during the campaign, Sink said. A former member of the board of directors for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, she lost the group's endorsement to Scott and now wants to use her business background and experience working for Bank of America to increase the profile of small-business issues.
"When I did my endorsement interview with the Florida chamber, for example, they weren't asking me anything about the issues that businesses were telling me were their challenges," Sink said. "There's a disconnect there."
Sink won't say if she'll be running for governor in 2014, but she's not ruling it out. She is definitely "not running for mayor of Tampa," although she has been recruited by many, she said. "My heart wouldn't be there."
Sink's reach will extend deeply into the Democratic Party, where her running mate, Rod Smith, is expected to be elected to replace Karen Thurman as party chairman during the annual meeting on Jan. 8.
The pair hopes to re-energize the party by recruiting fresh faces to elective office, and "stake out that brand of moderate, fiscally conservative Democratic focus," Sink said.
"Alex is going to be very engaged," Smith said. "Her future will be whatever she chooses it to be."
Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor, a Tampa Democrat and Sink friend who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Mel Martinez in 2004, predicted "it won't be too hard for Alex to stay active in the public policy arena. She has a lot of interests and talents."
One thing Sink is sure about: Her decision to unwittingly accept a cell phone with a text message during a break in her last debate with Scott was no attempt at cheating.
She believes she was unfairly labeled a cheater by bloggers who were influenced by "Scott's spin machine" and "the worst part of it is that John King on CNN repeated it," she said.
"Fortunately for me, it didn't influence the votes," Sink added.
Sink already has a few assignments for Smith and party leaders, such as learning more about why Democratic voters in Palm Beach and Broward counties don't turn out to vote in midterm elections.
The slump in turnout was one of many factors that cost her the election, she said.
Eight years ago when Sink's husband, Bill McBride, challenged then-Gov. Jeb Bush, Democrats attributed the lower turnout in South Florida to the fact that it took nine days to decide a winner in the Democratic primary battle between McBride and his opponent Janet Reno. But the pattern repeated this year and Democrats didn't expect it, Sink said.
"What are the dynamics that are causing people not to vote?" Sink said. "Is it an organizational issue, or do we just have a group of voters down there that just care about federal races?"
Should Rick Scott be looking over his shoulder?
"No, he should do his job and do his job well," Sink said. But she warns that if the new governor takes on too much, such as pursuing universal education vouchers and massive agency overhauls, he could become distracted from more pressing issues.
"I just hope they stay focused on the issue at hand for Florida, she said, "which is how do they get people back to work."