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An insincere debate on crime

Published Oct. 16, 2005

It's hard to decide who behaved more insincerely Wednesday: Bill Nelson, who began his official campaign for governor by demagoguing on the crime issue; or Gov. Bob Martinez's smart-mouthed aides, who pretended to take offense at Nelson's tactics. Almost everyone else can legitimately criticize Nelson for trying to parlay the tragic Charles Street murder case for political advantage, but the Martinez campaign has sacrificed that privilege. In a gubernatorial debate four years ago, Martinez claimed that serial killer Ted Bundy would be "walking the streets" if a bill supported by his Democratic opponent, Steve Pajcic, had become law. That charge was wrong factually as well as morally, but Martinez didn't let the subsequent criticism of that cheap shot prevent him from casting further aspersions on Pajcic's supposed lack of "backbone" for fighting crime.

Two years later, Martinez and his campaign manager, J. M. "Mac"

Stipanovich, further sullied their credentials on the crime issue when they eagerly assisted George Bush in keeping Willie Horton's name on the minds of voters during the 1988 presidential campaign.

So when Stipanovich and Martinez aide Brian Ballard, in strikingly similar language, accused Nelson of opening his campaign for governor "on the backs of two (dead) police officers," they sounded a lot like Don King questioning the integrity of a boxing official.

Florida's voters will be ill-served if Nelson insists on trying to make a household name of Street, who was charged with killing two Miami-area officers in 1988 only days after having been released from a Florida prison under a program designed to relieve overcrowding. The issues of crime and imprisonment are too important and complex to be reduced to caricature. Every governor, not just Michael Dukakis and Bob Martinez, is responsible for making difficult parole and furlough decisions - decisions made even more wrenching by the growing strains of prison overcrowding. Focusing a campaign on the inevitable

individual failures of our overburdened prison systems demeans our political process, and adding subtle tinges of racism to such a cynical campaign only demeans the process further.

That is not to say that the Martinez administration's record on crime does not make an inviting, legitimate target. The governor has proved forevermore the proposition that prison walls do not a law enforcement policy make. After almost four years, the governor has given Florida many more prison beds - and less of virtually everything else related to crime prevention and rehabilitation. The results are clear to the millions of Floridians who feel less secure than they did four years ago.

Nelson, along with Martinez's other challengers, still has ample time to make a more honest case against the governor's generally unfavorable law-and-order record, but his opening salvo was not encouraging. If anything good came out of this dismal early day of politicking, it is the possibility of the chastening effect that the Martinez camp members may experience as a result of having their own cynical tactics turned against them.