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Democrats should take their cue from the winners

I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat.

_ Will Rogers

In recent weeks, top elected Democrats in Florida have been meeting with the goal of asserting more say-so over the party in the '98 election.

You might think this is natural. But it is news. There has been some distance between elected Democrats and the Florida Democratic Party.

For one thing, Democrats who actually win elections tend to be more centrist than the party structure, which is strongly laced with labor, teachers, public employees and liberal activists.

A couple of years ago, the party's executive director helped arrange a deal to give elected Democrats more votes in party affairs. The official response of the party's leaders was to dock his pay.

Yet the Florida Democratic Party controls the grass roots. It controls the party's local races for the Legislature. It controls the nuts and bolts of building the party's future. This is exactly what worries the elected Democrats.

Sure, the Democratic Party won the last two big elections in Florida, the 1994 governor's race and the 1996 presidential race. But beneath that shining surface, the foundation is shaky.

Democrats have lost control of both houses of the Legislature in recent years. They lost seat after seat that they should not have lost.

Jeb Bush looms as the likely Republican candidate for governor in 1998. Beyond that, Republicans will get to redraw Florida's political districts if they run the Legislature after the next Census.

These hard truths are what prompted the elected Democrats to act. Some of those involved have been Cabinet members Bob Butterworth, Bill Nelson and Bob Crawford, state Senate leaders Ken Jenne and Buddy Dyer, and House party leader Buzz Ritchie.

Their talks began before the Democrats lost last week's special election for a House seat in Tampa. But that shocking loss of a "safe" seat put an exclamation point on their concern.

They are not worried about ideology as much as the basic mechanics.

That includes recruiting and grooming good candidates. Reaching out to Republican and non-affiliated voters. Expecting the Republican attack and fighting back effectively. Organizing volunteers and absentee ballots.

If some of the elected officials had their way, they would replace the party leadership, including state Chairwoman Terrie Brady. But they know they can't. Brady enjoys strong support among the party regulars, the rules for ousting her are too cumbersome, and the last thing the party needs is civil war.

So all sides are stressing cooperation, not division.

"I can say a thousand bad things about Tom Slade," Jenne said of the chairman of the Florida Republican Party. "But the truth is, he's a damn good hard-nosed party chairman. He raises money. He enforces discipline.

"The difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is the difference between attending West Point and attending Columbia in the 1960s. We are riotous, questioning, undisciplined. God knows how we ever win an election."

Nelson, who also is a former U.S. representative, says last week's special House election in Tampa was an example of the Democrats' failing to respond to a Republican negative campaign.

"That's why I'm getting seriously armed to the teeth," Nelson said of his own re-election. He cited last year's victory by Democrat Jim Davis in a U.S. House race in Tampa.

"What Jim did is exactly what you've got to do," Nelson says. "You've got to go out and take your message and have the horsepower to get your message out. You've got to define yourself for what you really are, instead of letting your opponent define you to the voters."

The officeholders are asking: Why not let those of us who have won elections have a little more say in the next campaign? What a concept.

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