Sunday, April 22, 2018

Charlie Crist's gubernatorial challenge: motivating South Florida Democrats

WEST PALM BEACH — Sam Oser is 88, and he wants to live long enough to see a Democrat get elected governor of Florida again — even one who used to be a Republican.

So Oser is ready to embrace Charlie Crist, a career politician of changing stripes who's a Democratic newcomer. No matter, says the West Palm Beach retiree: Democrats are doomed to irrelevance until they reclaim the Governor's Mansion after a 16-year absence.

"We're outnumbered," said Oser of the Republicans' dominance in Florida, sipping coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts. "The only way we can move ahead is to have a Democratic governor."

The Bronx-born Oser, a World War II veteran who needs a walker to get around his Century Village retirement complex, is now a foot soldier in an increasingly diverse army of South Florida Democrats who view Republican Gov. Rick Scott as vulnerable and believe their best hope is Crist, his predecessor.

But for Crist to win, South Florida voters need to do something they haven't done in years: Vote in bigger numbers in a governor's race.

About a third of Florida's 4.6 million Democrats live in the three-county metropolis of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, a sprawling breadbasket of liberalism that proved critical in both of President Barack Obama's Florida victories.

But off-year or midterm races for governor are a different story.

Year after year, voters in the Democratic region are among the state's worst when it comes to showing up at the polls. It was most glaring in 2010 when Scott won office and statewide voter turnout was a meager 49 percent.

The turnout in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties was worse: about 41, 40 and 47 percent, respectively. If those three counties had voted at the state average, Democrat Alex Sink likely would have beaten Scott by nearly 250,000 votes statewide. Instead, Sink lost by 61,550 votes.

Crist vows that won't happen again.

On Saturday, Crist opened his first field office in Plantation, a Fort Lauderdale suburb in the center of the region.

In a sign of strong enthusiasm, about 300 people came to Crist's event, where veterans of Obama's campaign signed up volunteers and gathered email addresses and cellphone numbers in an effort to reactivate the president's re-election effort in a gubernatorial race.

"The whole reason we opened this office first as a field office is to really make the strong point that South Florida is critical in this election," Crist said. "Everybody knows that. But we're showing it with tangible results and a great turnout."

The importance of South Florida was so important to Obama that during a private moment at Coral Reef High in Miami-Dade on March 7, he reminded Crist to focus on the region.

The past three Democratic nominees for governor, like Crist, were all from the Tampa Bay area. But Crist already appears to be focusing on South Florida more than his predecessors and most of his closest advisers hail from the area.

Crist's opponent in the Democratic primary, former state Sen. Nan Rich, is from Broward. A handful of her supporters showed up Saturday to protest Crist's refusal to debate her.

"It's disrespectful to the party," Rich said of Crist's debate dodge.

Like Rich, many of her supporters are appalled at the prospect of a repackaged Crist who walked away from the governorship to seek a U.S. Senate seat in 2010. When Crist couldn't win the GOP primary he became an independent, lost and now is running for his old job as a Democrat.

Some anti-Crist Democrats say that Republicans — fueled by what could be a $100 million ad blitz — will win by exploiting Crist's shifting positions, his image as a me-first opportunist and his past ties to disgraced state GOP chairman Jim Greer and lawyer-turned-Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, both of whom are in prison.

"I think he's going to get killed, big time," said Joanne Sterner of Pompano Beach, who proudly wore a blue "Stand with Nan" button at a meeting of the Democratic Women's Club of Broward County.

"I don't have respect for him," said Barbara Ruge, vice president of the Oakland Park Democratic Club. "He doesn't know who he is. He's just on his own personal agenda, to put Charlie first, and Florida can go to hell."

Patricia Golay pinched her nostrils at the notion of Crist as the Democratic nominee for governor. "I'll hold my nose," she said.

Marsha Smith, who organizes get-out-the-vote efforts for Democrats in Broward, said many of the reservations Democrats have about Crist are trumped by their intense dislike for Scott's policies, such as his opposition to high-speed rail, gun control and same-sex marriage, and his support for random drug tests of state workers and expansion of school vouchers.

Smith also said Scott's lack of charisma turns off voters in South Florida. But what worries her most are Democrats themselves.

"Democrats just don't show up in the midterms," said Smith, a Pembroke Pines high school teacher and union activist. "I hate to say it, but it's just plain apathy."

Broward Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar said he worries that Scott's big money will add to the problem because negative TV ads can depress voter turnout. But he added: "Rick Scott will be a greater unifier than we've witnessed in many years."

Ceasar said Crist's willingness to open a Broward headquarters shows he's determined not to repeat "the mistakes of the past," when candidates shunned South Florida and spent more time in the I-4 corridor, anchored by the Tampa Bay and Orlando media markets.

Broward is home to almost 564,000 Democrats, more than any other county in the state and more than Pinellas and Hillsborough combined, and about 14,000 more than Miami-Dade, the state's largest county.

Both Miami-Dade and Broward now have fewer registered Republicans than voters who are independent, nearly all of whom are registered with no party affiliation.

Boosting turnout in Broward is a big challenge because so many of the most reliable voters in past years — condo-dwelling, politically astute Jewish retirees — have died. The emerging electorate is not as homogeneous.

The evolving face of South Florida Democrats is increasingly younger, Caribbean, African-American, gay, female, single or Spanish-speaking. Hispanics, who dominate Miami-Dade's voter rolls, have a higher drop-off rate in midterm elections than blacks or non-Hispanic whites.

The octopus-like development of South Florida has no real hub, with its strip malls, subdivisions and used car megastores multiplying like melaleuca in all directions. But if it did, a logical choice as any is Plantation, an attractive slice of suburbia west of Fort Lauderdale, where Crist opened his first regional campaign headquarters on Saturday.

Among Democrats, Crist has overwhelming advantages in two things that are of the most value in a statewide campaign — name recognition and money — and his new converts include people whose first priority is to win.

But Democrats also insist that if they are to win, Crist must keep up a highly visible presence throughout the summer and fall to underscore the importance of voting to blase Democrats.

"That's the big question," said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, a former Democratic legislator. "He really has to drive voter turnout in Broward County. He's got to excite the rank and file and he's got to excite the undecideds."

Throughout South Florida, memories are still fresh that Sink spent too little time here before she narrowly lost to Scott in 2010.

"We couldn't get her to do anything," Oser said.

Crist's greatest asset is his ability to be a dominating presence at a political event and to personally connect with individual voters. He'll need all of that skill to motivate South Florida Democrats, who are among the hardest people to get to the polls in off-year elections.

"We've got to get them to turn out," Crist said in an interview. "It's great to have a 500- or 600,000-vote advantage. But if they don't vote, it doesn't matter."

At the boisterous Dunkin' Donuts in West Palm Beach, Mae Duke, president of the United Democratic Club of Century Village, said she will promote voting by mail more than ever.

That's because her elderly neighbors are getting older and fewer in number. Every vote matters in a complex where seasonal "snowbirds," Canadians and Hispanics increasingly live in the modest condos once occupied by liberal year-round retirees.

"Our political clout in the village is totally dependent on how many people vote," Duke said. "If the arthritis is bad on Election Day, they won't go."

Duke desperately wants Democrats to win for a change.

A lively and opinionated 86-year-old great-grandmother whose late husband was a New York City police detective, she casually dismissed the idea that Crist is a flawed candidate because he switched parties.

"Anyone who says to me, 'He switched,' I tell them, he saw the light," Duke said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Marc Caputo can be reached at [email protected]

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