The last election prompted some reassessment by Republicans and Democrats locally, and both Hillsborough County party organizations have changed their top leadership. We sat down with each new chairwoman to get her thoughts on recent problems, current issues and her plans. Here's what they had to say:
As the new leader of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, what are your priorities?
Growing our membership. I'm looking at our clubs to increase our capacity. I saw two years ago that this was happening organically. We have East Hillsborough, which you don't think of as being very Democratic, and they were having 60 and 70 people a month at club meetings. New Tampa, the same thing, 50 people a month. Northwest Hillsborough, 25, 30 people a month. These give people networking time, a social time, but also allows us to meet in groups that are reasonable, foster a sense of community and do the work of all these precincts.
Barack Obama won Florida and Hillsborough County, but local Democrats didn't gain any state or federal seats. Why?
We have to look at redistricting. There's a redistricting petition now. We haven't officially taken a vote, but I predict we will be heavily involved in that redistricting petition drive. When the districts are drawn so tightly, you can register tens of thousands more Democrats but if they're all in the same district it doesn't change the complexion of your state Legislature or who's in Congress.
Five local Republican legislators and two county commissioners won re-election without any Democratic opposition. Another dropped out, leaving an open House race, but the Democrats had no credible candidate. Why this lack of competition? Do you intend to field a larger slate in the future? If so, how?
The Democratic Party has definitely been on a downward spiral, and now we're pushing upward. That's really evidenced by the last election, not only with Barack Obama, who won 53 percent to 46 percent here in Hillsborough County, but also by Kevin Beckner, who won 55 to 45 percent. But really when you have a County Commission that's six Republicans and one Democrat, and you have all Republican representation locally, you don't have people who are interested in stepping up to the plate. It's hard to get candidates when your party doesn't have a bench and it doesn't have activists who are ready to go out there and knock on doors. But I think that's changing. We will have a stronger slate of candidates, more people running, this time around.
Abortion rights, gay rights and environmental issues are often litmus tests for Democratic support. Is that an obstacle to appealing to a bigger voter pool? If so, what would you change?
I don't see environmental issues as very polarizing. Both parties try very hard to say that they're paying attention to environmental issues. That debate is done. The abortion debate appears to be fading a bit. It's become less of a lightning rod in the last few elections. The gay rights issues have become more prominent, and there's been major shifts in public opinion. This year in California on gay marriage, which is really the far end of the agenda, the vote was 52 to 48 percent, Even though the support of gay marriage lost, it really demonstrates an amazing change in attitude. In two or four years that's going to be repealed. Younger voters voted 62 percent against that ban, and they're the future. Florida will follow suit, but maybe 10, 15 years from now.
The local Democratic Party is notorious for internal strife and lack of unity. How do you plan to overcome that?
I hope we lose that reputation. There's this surge of really great energy and people. A lot of people are ready to close that chapter here and they will overwhelmingly prevail.
What should the state do, if anything, about its tax structure? Should the state introduce an income tax?
As a party representative I don't believe that locally we've taken any stand on that. People might want to do something if it comes up more on the state agenda.
Do you think unions have too much say about the Democratic platform and who gets party backing?
They seem to be in balance in this state. They're involved in the Democratic Party, but they don't own the Democratic Party. Nationally, for some time, I thought the unions should have a stronger role because it's so important for working people. My father was president of a local union in Washington, D.C. My three brothers are union electricians there. I really look at the unions proudly and feel like they have been one of the main forces in protecting workers and making sure working people get a living wage.
What are your thoughts about having a county mayor?
There is a lot of disagreement within the party. If we try to do some kind of endorsement one way or another, my prediction is we won't be able to.
A referendum on transit is expected to be on the 2010 ballot. As gas prices continue to plummet, do you feel rail is necessary in Hillsborough?
The party hasn't taken a stand on that and it's something I'd like us to look at. But for myself, I think it's so important. It's such a loss that we are one of the last major metropolitan areas in the country to have an initiative for light rail and mass transit. It's the No. 1 environmental issue and the No. 1 planning issue.
Who would you like to see run for the U.S. Senate to replace Mel Martinez? If Jeb Bush runs, what are the chances for Democrats?
Democrats have a huge list of potentials, Just in the last few days I've heard all kinds of names, including Jim Davis, Kathy Castor, Robert Wexler, Dan Gelber, and I imagine there are others that will come forward. Chances for Democrats are very, very good, but Jeb Bush would be more difficult to beat than Mel Martinez.
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.