TALLAHASSEE - Bill Nelson has suggested Florida has its own Willie Horton case that he will exploit in his campaign for governor. Horton, an inmate who raped a woman while on a prison furlough in Massachusetts, became a household name during the 1988 presidential race. Republican George Bush referred to Horton in controversial advertisements that claimed Democrat Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor, was soft on crime.
Nelson, a Democratic congressman from Melbourne, made the same charge Wednesday against Republican Gov. Bob Martinez by inviting comparisons of Horton and Charles Street.
In 1988, Street was charged with killing two Miami-area police officers 10 days after being released early from a Florida prison as part of a program to reduce overcrowding. Nelson used Street to suggest that Martinez has not been tough on crime even though he has built a record number of prison beds.
"Martinez doesn't think he is vulnerable on this point," Nelson said at a news conference formally kicking off his campaign. "The fact is, he is going to have his hide nailed to the wall."
Asked by a reporter if Street is the governor's Horton, Nelson replied: "That's right."
Horton, who is back in prison, and Street are black, and Bush's use of Horton's case triggered charges from Democrats that he was appealing to racists. But campaign managers for Nelson and Martinez both said Street's case is different because he killed two police officers.
"I don't think there is that (racial) dimension to it," said Ted Phelps, Nelson's campaign aide.
J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, Martinez's campaign manager, agreed. But he was critical of Nelson's use of Street's case.
"For a guy who claims (he) has a special dose of integrity, to start climbing into the governor's office on the backs of two police officers killed in the line of duty is a little dicey and an exploitive position to take," Stipanovich said. "I don't think it's going to work."
As he described Street's case, Nelson misstated how prison officials determine which inmates have time shaved from their sentences to reduce overcrowding.
Nelson said Martinez's policy is to release inmates early "regardless of the severity of the crime that has been committed."
Questioned about the statement, he later acknowledged that inmates on death row and those serving life sentences are not released early.
"I can't stand here and argue with you about it," Nelson said. "The record is very clear. The facts are the facts."
In fact, inmates serving sentences for a laundry list of crimes or who have misbehaved in prison cannot have time cut from their sentences because of overcrowding. A Department of Corrections spokesman said among the excluded are those convicted of sex-related crimes and those serving mandatory minimum sentences forrape, murder, drug trafficking or a crime involving the use of a firearm.
Following Street's arrest, the Legislature tightened the restrictions to exclude any inmate convicted of various murder charges or of a violent crime against a law enforcement officer. Corrections spokesman Bob Macmaster said Street would not have been eligible for early release if those restrictions had been in place when he was charged with the attempted murder that sent him to prison.
The typical Florida inmate serves about one-third of his sentence, even though the state has authorized the construction of a record 18,700 prison beds in the last three years. But at any given time, about half of the state's 40,000 inmates are ineligible to have time cut from their sentences to help reduce overcrowding, Macmaster said.
Nelson said he would try to reduce overcrowding by sending inmates convicted of drug-related crimes to separate facilities. He said that would make more room in conventional prisons for more dangerous inmates convicted of violent crimes.
Martinez has proposed building more than 9,000 prison beds this year, and Macmaster said about one-third of them would be earmarked for people convicted of drug-related crimes.