Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Opinion

Nickens: For Florida politics, a week to remember

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For political junkies, it was a remarkable week.

Charlie Crist entered the race for governor as a Democrat after once holding the job as a Republican. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster became the city's first incumbent mayor in more than 25 years to lose re-election — and it wasn't close.

And by Friday, Republicans still couldn't recruit a top-tier candidate to run for the late C.W. Bill Young's congressional seat as Democrat Alex Sink prepared to move from Hillsborough to Feather Sound and became the favorite.

Nobody would have predicted all three of those developments. Each has its back story that does not translate neatly to the other two. But here are five takeaways:

1. Extremism is out. Crist delivered perhaps his best political speech at his campaign announcement in St. Petersburg by addressing mainstream Floridians and embracing centrist positions on public education, the environment and job creation.

In the St. Petersburg mayor's race, Republican attack ads portrayed former City Council member and state legislator Rick Kriseman as an out-of-touch liberal Democrat. It didn't work. Kriseman ran a safe, smart campaign that stuck to city issues that have nothing to do with partisan politics.

Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, two Republicans who rode the tea party wave into office in 2010, should be paying attention.

2. Competence is in. Foster lost the mayor's race in part because he failed to lead on big issues. He embraced a new pier design but could not get voters behind it. He failed to reach an agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays on looking for new stadium sites, and efforts to improve public schools and redevelop the high-poverty Midtown area stalled.

The inability of Congress to accomplish much of anything is one reason why Republicans are having a hard time recruiting a high-profile candidate to succeed Young. There are business and family reasons why former mayors such as Rick Baker of St. Petersburg and Frank Hibbard of Clearwater, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and other established Republicans have decided not to run. Another reason is they each have made a difference in public office and don't see that opportunity in Washington.

Who wants to raise a ton of money, endure a flood of attack ads from anonymous groups and be one of 435 members in a fractured U.S. House where Republicans can't agree among themselves on how to resolve the biggest issues?

3. Personality matters. Crist ranks among the best retail politicians ever in Florida, and voters like him even when they disagree with him. Being polite and appearing empathetic are important.

Opinion polls show voters have not warmed up to Scott, whom legislators and others describe as warmer in private than the stilted, awkward governor who appears in public.

One of the reasons Young became the longest-serving Republican in Congress is the personal relationships he built over decades. He was gracious and polite, and there are countless stories of how he helped constituents, business leaders and veterans cut through red tape. It's not clear how that personal goodwill transfers to one of his former aides, David Jolly, who is running as a "Bill Young Republican.''

4. Inclusiveness is in. Crist took a while to mention he is now a Democrat, but he was really talking to independents and to moderate Republican voters. He also was talking to women, Hispanics and black voters who feel unwelcomed by a Republican Party that opposes abortion rights, refuses to move on immigration reform, engages in voter suppression, fights health care expansion and embraces the state's "stand your ground" law.

In the mayor's race, Kriseman swept the precincts in predominantly black neighborhoods that Foster won four years ago. Those voters felt neglected, and the incumbent's last-minute attempts to make amends were too late. Kriseman talked in his victory speech of how no part of the city succeeds unless everyone succeeds, and he will have to follow through on his promises to do better for those neighborhoods.

5. Regionalism and cooperation are in, and isolation and parochialism are out. Foster failed to develop strong relationships with county commissioners, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other regional leaders. Kriseman understands the St. Petersburg mayor has to be a player on the state and regional level for the city and all of Tampa Bay to succeed. That means working together on issues ranging from the Rays to transit to higher education to the arts.

Tampa Bay residents are not as hung up on political boundaries as some of their elected leaders even as they are proud of their individual communities. That's why it's doubtful Republicans will be successful calling Sink a carpetbagger as she runs for a Pinellas congressional district. She is familiar to Pinellas voters, and her former work as a bank executive often brought her to the county. Young looked out for the entire region in Congress, steering millions to the University of South Florida, MacDill Air Force Base and other institutions outside his district.

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