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Alex Sink's tactical, conventional and safe choice: Rod Smith

JACKSONVILLE — Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink offered a glimpse into her decision-making style Tuesday when she confirmed that she has chosen former state Sen. Rod Smith as her running mate.

The selection, which comes a week before the primary when most of the media attention is on the bitterly fought Republican primary, is both conventional and tactical but, perhaps most importantly, it is safe.

Smith, 60, a lawyer and former Alachua County state attorney, brings with him name recognition in the state's most conservative areas and an ability to work with the Republican Legislature.

Smith prosecuted serial killer Danny Rolling in Gainesville, solved an unsolved murder in Pensacola, and as a labor lawyer early in his career represented police and firefighter unions. He earned a reputation as a garrulous and articulate lawmaker who worked as a consensus builder during his six years in the state Senate representing Gainesville.

So enamored by Smith and his eloquence, former Republican Senate President Jim King picked him to deliver one of two eulogies at his memorial service. King died of cancer last year.

Smith ran a failed campaign for governor in 2006, losing the primary to former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis. As a candidate, he lost the crucial I-4 corridor but won the vote-rich counties of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

Sink said she chose Smith because he "knows how to root out corruption and will be a strong partner to clean up the mess in Tallahassee." She said she wanted a running mate with integrity and that Smith "shares my commitment to growing Florida's economy, improving our public schools, and holding state government accountable."

Smith said he agreed to join Sink's ticket because, "I feel she will permit me to use my strengths."

Rick Scott and Bill McCollum, who are vying for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, have not selected running mates.

Democrats welcomed the announcement, which leaked out Monday, as a solid but not unexpected choice.

"Rod Smith has been a fighter for Florida for a long time," said Ana Cruz, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with the campaign. "Alex and Rod Smith make a great team for Florida."

Buddy MacKay, a former Ocala congressman and the lieutenant governor for former Gov. Lawton Chiles, said he is "an admirer of Rod Smith," and believes "he'll be excellent."

The moderate politics of Sink and Smith will put the ticket in line with most voters, said state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Sarasota Democrat whose name was mentioned as another possible lieutenant governor contender. "It will be hard for the other side to make it a ticket outside the mainstream," he said.

Republican political consultant J.M. "Mac'' Stipanovich, a friend of Smith's, said the selection "wasn't daring or terribly imaginative'' because Sink attempts to do what many Democratic candidates have done before: appeal to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.

"Rod Smith satisfies the primary requirement of a lieutenant governor pick — which is that they don't get you in trouble," Stipanovich said. But, he warned, Sink "better stay the hell away from him because he's dynamic and she's dull as old dishwater."

Sink's decision to announce her running mate before the emergence of her opponent in the primary was a pragmatic move. A former banking executive, the decision meets her need to "be out of the gate, running hard," the day after the primary, she said.

It also gives her some attention as her Republican rivals, Attorney General McCollum and businessman Scott, duke it out in a tight and bitter primary.

"People are sick of this, they don't like it and they aren't hearing any message from these candidates that is reflective of their lives and the struggles that they're experiencing," Sink said Tuesday, after a small early voting rally at the Jacksonville Firefighters Hall. "I wanted to go out there and say: 'You have a choice.' "

Smith's losing bid for governor, however, is ripe with vulnerabilities that are likely to carry into Sink's campaign.

For one, Smith has made a career in government, while Sink likes to call herself an outsider. After serving as state attorney for eight years, he served in the state Senate from 2000-2006 and registered to lobby the Legislature the last two years.

In particular, Smith's connections to U.S. Sugar are likely to come under scrutiny because they poured at least $2 million into political committees that launched nasty attacks against his opponent.

Smith's voting record could also become fodder for opponents. He supported a tax increase and wanted to restore the intangibles tax to pay for higher teacher salaries.

Republicans were quick to seize on Sink's selection. Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Katie Gordon Betta said Sink is "embracing a running mate whose promises to raise taxes were even rejected by his own party four years ago."

Meanwhile, a new political committee — with ties to the Republican Governors Association — is poised to hit Sink with virtually the same ad the RGA used against her earlier this year. It suggests she eliminated jobs in her role at Bank of America at the same time she took huge bonuses.

Sink began airing her first TV spot in her bid for governor Sunday, in which McCollum and Scott appear to be children duking it out while she appears as the adult in the room prepared to tackle the state's problems.

Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]

Alex Sink's tactical, conventional and safe choice: Rod Smith 08/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 8:44pm]
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