SAFETY HARBOR — For 10 years, political pros have taken it almost as gospel that the strongest statewide Democratic candidates are centrists from Florida's top battleground region of Tampa Bay.
But 2014 gubernatorial hopeful Nan Rich says that's bunk.
"We tried that three times, and we had three good candidates — we had Jim Davis, Alex Sink and Bill McBride," Rich said Monday, referring to the last three Democratic nominees for governor. "And you know what? We didn't win. So let's try something new. Let's try someone from South Florida."
Rich, the former Democratic leader of the Florida Senate from Broward County and so far the only major Democrat running for governor, met with activists from Pinellas and Pasco counties Monday. If she's frustrated by how few people are taking her campaign seriously amid chatter about Charlie Crist, Sink or Bill Nelson running, she showed no sign of it.
"I am focused really on building a network, an infrastructure around this state, and I really believe it's working,'' said Rich, 71, who has spent nearly a year speaking to Democratic club after Democratic club while generating little media attention and raising relatively little campaign money, $121,000 in a year.
To those who dismiss the prospects of a little-known state legislator, she mentions three names: Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles, each of whom started as a virtually unknown candidate and went on to win statewide races.
"I made history being the first woman Democratic leader of the Florida Senate, and I plan to make history by being elected the first woman governor of the state of Florida," Rich told about 50 people at the Democratic Women's Club of Upper Pinellas luncheon at the Safety Harbor Public Library.
Rich announced her candidacy last year.
"I became fed up with the idea that state government is bad, that there's something wrong with the government doing things for people who are vulnerable, for people who need help, educating children, making sure that people have the right to vote, (protecting) a woman's reproductive rights," she said, blasting the agenda of Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders.
The governor's "Let's Get to Work" campaign slogan, she said, turned out to mean getting to work restricting people's ability to vote and slashing support for public education.
Scott and legislators may be touting raises for teachers and support for public schools this year, she said, but that doesn't make up for years with no pay increases, shifting 3 percent of teachers' pay to retirement accounts and trying to let for-profit companies take over struggling schools.
Rich spoke of the Legislature's "unconscionable" refusal to accept $51 billion in federal money to provide health insurance to more than 1 million Floridians. She said Scott showed no leadership in trying to break an impasse between the House and the Senate on health care.
Whether or not a bigger-name Democrat jumps into the race, Rich told the Tampa Bay Times that she won't drop out.
Crist, a lifelong Republican who recently became a Democrat, doesn't worry her greatly: "Democrats want a true Democrat," she said. "They want someone who has core Democratic principles and values."
Some prominent party leaders are urging Nelson to run for governor, but Rich downplayed that likelihood. Nelson, she noted, was just re-elected and "has a six-year contract with the people of Florida to be a United States senator."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]