Bill Nelson wanted to kick off his campaign for governor with a bang, and he used Charlie Street to do it. Now that strategy appears to have backfired.
Nelson came to the state capital a week ago, claimed Gov. Bob Martinez is soft on crime and pointed to Street, who was charged in 1988 with killing two Miami-area police officers 10 days after being released early from prison. At that stop and at the site of the killings, Nelson invited comparisons of Street to Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman in Massachusetts while on a furlough from prison.
Horton and Street are black, and Horton's case was used against Democrat Michael Dukakis two years ago in controversial campaign ads by Republican George Bush. In the same way, Democrat Nelson is trying to use Street against Republican Martinez.
So far, all the tactic has earned the Melbourne congressman is criticism.
Nelson's use of the Street case has been questioned by two high-profile columnists in the Miami Herald. In an unusual public statement, the Dade Circuit judge handling the case asked Nelson to quit using Street's name and creating more pretrial publicity. That prompted some questions about the judge's actions.
On Wednesday, George Stuart, another Democrat running for governor, issued a strongly worded statement that said Nelson "should be ashamed of his Willie Hortonizing of this election." And several black activists and even some of Nelson's own supporters have indicated they consider Nelson's use of Street inappropriate.
"Obviously that kind of thing that might look like race baiting is undesirable," said Henry Carley, president of the Tampa branch of the NAACP. "We were against it when the Republican party used it .
. and we still are."
Despite the widespread complaints, Nelson's campaign manager Wednesday defended using Street as an election issue. Ted Phelps rejected suggestions that Nelson might be appealing to racists or that there is anything wrong with using Street to attack Martinez.
"I don't understand the racial dimension at all," Phelps said. "I don't believe black people like cop killers any more than white people like cop killers. I don't believe black people like people released early from jail any more than white people like people released early from jail."
Phelps distinguished between using Street's name in speeches and using his picture in television advertisements, which he said might be racist. He said Nelson already has shot television advertisements that mention Street's name but do not show his face, but he said it is uncertain whether they will be broadcast.
While Nelson's critics lectured him on campaign ethics, the judge who wrote to Nelson and released the letter to the media was being questioned about his own ethics. A leading expert on judicial ethics said some might think Dade Circuit Judge Alfonso Sepe's act crossed the bounds of judicial propriety.
Although Sepe might have acted out of concern for Street's rights, the code of judicial ethics generally prohibits judges from making comments about pending cases outside the courtroom, said Jeffrey Shaman, a professor at De Paul University College of Law in Illinois.
"This seems to concern a pending case," Shaman said.
Sepe, who could not be reached for comment, is no stranger to ethical controversies. In 1975, Sepe resigned from his judgeship after a woman charged that he offered clemency for her husband in exchange for sex with her. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney James T. Russell found no evidence to warrant prosecution of Sepe. But he resigned before the state Judicial Qualifications Commission could decide whether to recommend to the Florida Supreme Court that he be removed from the bench.
Sepe was elected as a county judge in 1982. Martinez appointed him to a circuit judgeship two years ago, and Sepe changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican a month later.
Phelps, Nelson's campaign manager, complained that Sepe's letter was "an improper act."
While Phelps grumbled about Sepe's intervention, others have been grumbling about Nelson's use of Street.
Rep. Doug Jamerson, a St. Petersburg Democrat and one of the key blacks on Nelson's campaign team, said he called Phelps and suggested that Nelson quit referring to Street. He said the references don't help Nelson attract black voters and could hurt him.
"I don't think it's racist .
. I just don't think it's what people want to hear right now," Jamerson said. "To continue to use it might lead one to believe there are some subtle undertones to it that I don't think Bill Nelson wants."
Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen agreed.
"To blame Martinez for what happened to those two policemen is worse than unfair," Hiaasen wrote Wednesday. "It inflames the fears of voters already terrified by crime, and it injects _ consciously or not _ the same racial component that made Wille Horton a symbol of gutter campaign tactics."
This is not the first time Nelson has fumbled during the campaign.
Last summer, Stuart gained the upper hand in public relations when he took a strong abortion-rights stand while Nelson inarticulately explained why he voted on both sides of the issue in Congress. In December, Nelson returned $33,000 in contributions from CenTrust Savings after Stuart questioned whether accepting money from a failing financial institution was appropriate.
Stuart, a state senator from Orlando who trails far behind Nelson in fund raising and endorsements, unloaded on Nelson again Wednesday.
"I thought the Willie Horton thing was the lowest single point in American politics," Stuart said.
One of Nelson's few defenders was Ron Brown, chairman of the national Democratic Party. In Clearwater, Brown called Nelson's use of Street "totally appropriate."
"We Democrats have to be tougher," Brown said. "The Republican Party and its political operatives have been the cornerstone of these vicious, negative campaigns for too long. I think we can't take it; we've got to respond."
For now, it's Nelson who has been forced to do the responding and defending. The campaign manager for the man Nelson had hoped to put on the spot, Martinez, is all smiles as he watches Nelson's first statewide campaign stumble.
"This is kind of like, welcome to the NFL," chortled J.
M. "Mac" Stipanovich. "I love it."