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Cabinet members share sense of security

In 1923, the year Nathan Mayo became Florida's agriculture commissioner, Benito Mussolini seized the Italian government, Welch's Grape Jelly made its way to store shelves and Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments was playing silently at the movies. Mayo remained in office until 1960, the same year John F. Kennedy won the presidency, the first communications satellite went into orbit and Janet Leigh screamed in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

When Mayo, the state's longest-serving Cabinet officer ever, took office, fewer than 1-million people lived in Florida. When he died in April 1960, the population was pushing 5-million.

A few months after Mayo's death, Doyle Conner won the post. He still is there, and he has seen Florida double in population.

Snaring one of Florida's six Cabinet posts may not be the easiest task around. But once candidates win election, they have one of the most secure forms of employment around.

According to the state Constitution, Cabinet officials can stay on the job as long as they keep getting re-elected.

Governors have only two terms. Critics, including Gov. Bob Martinez, long have said that unlimited terms allow officers to create their own fiefdoms. But nothing has changed.

Since 1900, incumbent Cabinet officers have been defeated at the polls only five times. The most recent defeat came in 1974, when Comptroller Bud Dickinson, who was accused of misusing political contributions, lost to Gerald Lewis in the Democratic primary.

Sometimes, not even political corruption charges can bring a Cabinet officer down. Thomas O'Malley was re-elected treasurer in 1974 even though he had been indicted on charges of extortion and mail fraud. After the House impeached him, he resigned and was convicted and sent to prison.

Another reason it is easy for Cabinet officers to keep their jobs is because they have a lot of friends with a lot of money. That is partly because most of the Cabinet offices are linked with a particular special interest group _ often one the official regulates _ that can garner cash to support the incumbent.

Even Secretary of State Jim Smith and Education Commissioner Betty Castor, who don't have clearly defined big-money constituencies, each raised about $1-million dollars during this campaign.

Pointing out the ties between incumbents and those they regulate is a favorite tactic of political challengers.

That was what Lewis did when he ran for comptroller in 1974. He promised he would serve only two terms. He took no money from the banks he would regulate.

Now Lewis seeks his fifth term, and since 1982 he has accepted contributions from 40 percent of the directors of Florida's failed savings and loans, according to the Miami Herald.

Have the voters noticed? Hardly. A new poll suggests that Lewis faces little danger of losing his job.

In fact, the tightest Cabinet race this fall is the agriculture commissioner contest, where there is no incumbent.

With Doyle Conner retiring, thejob is open for the first time since Chubby Checker recorded The Twist.