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In race for governor's job, Sink emphasizes the personal over the professional

Florida CFO Alex Sink is trying to define herself for voters, many of whom don’t know 
her or what she does.

Associated Press

Florida CFO Alex Sink is trying to define herself for voters, many of whom don’t know her or what she does.

MIAMI — Alex Sink, vying to be Florida's first female governor, stood before hundreds of enthusiastic supporters and spoke with great affection about childhood mornings spent on her family's North Carolina farm.

Dressed in a seafoam green suit with a soft, curved collar and elegant pearls, she recalled in her Southern twang how her mother "froze fresh vegetables and made our clothes."

She thanked her husband and spoke of her pride as a PTA mom "who started her son and daughter's math club."

But for her first big speech since announcing her candidacy, Sink, the state's chief financial officer, never once uttered "banker."

As the former Florida president of Bank of America, she spent nearly three decades in a world dominated by dark suits and bottom-line deals. Her Cabinet-level post means she oversees the state's complex financial operations.

Instead, she introduced her fellow Democrats at the Fontainebleau Hotel ballroom in Miami to Sink the farmer's daughter, Sink the PTA mom, Sink the wife.

It was her very intentional way of dealing with what is perhaps her greatest challenge as she faces Republican candidate Bill McCollum: Voters don't know who she is.

Moreover, McCollum's camp is trying to stamp the "banker" label all over her, knowing plenty of voters have a bad taste for banks in this era of home foreclosures and dwindling credit lines.

So Sink, 61, made sure her speech was more autobiographical than political, more personal history than professional resume.

"Running for governor, people want to know who their governor is on a personal level," Sink said later. "People need to know who I am and where I come from and what's important to me. People need to know who Alex Sink is."

Many of them don't even realize Sink is a "she." Letters to her office often start out, "Dear Mr. Sink."

National pollster Matt Towery, former campaign strategist for Republican Newt Gingrich, said Sink is wise to recognize that she is unknown.

"McCollum may have a little advantage in terms of name ID," Towery said. "But they're basically in the same position. Both of them have to define themselves."

McCollum has a lengthy political career that includes terms in Congress and three runs for statewide office. Like Sink, he serves in the Cabinet. But McCollum's position as Florida's attorney general gives him more media exposure.

Sink concedes her post is so obscure, people "assume I work for the governor."

An April Quinnipiac poll found that McCollum got a 48 percent job approval rating, with 34 percent saying they "don't know." Sink, by contrast, had a 33 percent job approval rating — and nearly half, 46 percent, of those polled saying they "don't know."

Towery said Sink could take lessons from her husband's failed 2002 bid for governor.

"Bill McBride was basically a Tampa lawyer who was just there and didn't really have a personality or anything else," Towery said. "McBride came across as rather stark, and I think Alex Sink can come across as very folksy, very much 'of the people.' "

That was clearly Sink's tactic in Miami.

"The farm is where I grew up, and where my mom and dad taught me some things that have stayed with me ever since," Sink told the audience. "Above all, teaching me how to be self-reliant. How to stand on my own."

The closest she came to acknowledging her banking career was when she reminisced about acquiring a "love" for numbers while watching her father pay the monthly bills for fertilizer and animal feed.

Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Sink has to talk about more than her childhood and motherhood if she wants voters to elect her.

"She's going to have to describe her professional experience in detail because people are going to ask how she became CFO, and they're going to want to know her qualifications for governor," Greer said.

"And while growing up on a farm might be embraced by farmers, I think the voters of Florida are going to want to talk about her professional experience."

Lynda Russell, former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, worked with Sink when Sink was stumping for McBride's 2002 gubernatorial campaign. She said it is especially important for Sink to share her personal story with the "party faithful."

"They are the ones who are going to be her foot soldiers, so they need to feel good about her background and her story."

Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party and a member of the Democratic National Committee, said he found Sink's personal story compelling.

"I think the part about her rural background was received the best, and from a very urban audience," he said. "She made it very clear, and correctly so, that she is not a career politician. And that is somewhat refreshing.

"I think there was a genuineness and warmth there."

Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

fast facts

Alex Sink

Age: 61, born in Mount Airy, N.C.

Residence: Thonotosassa.

Career: Elected in 2006 as Florida's chief financial officer; worked at Bank of America, formerly NationsBank, 1974-2000, including as Florida president from 1993-1998, 1998-2000.

Education: Bachelor's in mathematics from Wake Forest University.

Family: Married to Tampa lawyer Bill McBride; children, Bert, a junior at Stanford University, and Lexi, a sophomore at Wake Forest University.

In race for governor's job, Sink emphasizes the personal over the professional 06/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 8, 2009 9:06pm]
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