Journalists know that one of the best ways to learn what makes a politician tick is to sit down with him for an off-the-cuff chat. That is what I did last week with former state Sen. Rick Dantzler.
So, what forces make the 46-year-old Dantzler tick: His wholesome upbringing in mostly rural Polk County, which he calls the "crossroads of the state," and his love for Florida.
A Winter Haven lawyer, Dantzler was elected to the House in 1982 when he was 26. He was elected to the Senate in 1990. He left the Senate in 1997 to run for governor but became Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay's running mate on a Democratic ticket that fell to Jeb Bush in 1998.
I asked Dantzler why he was not a gubernatorial candidate this time. "My wife and others forbid me from using the "G' word, and that's for governor," he said.
This time, he is running for commissioner of agriculture. When asked why he was qualified for the position, now held by Bush appointee Charles Bronson, he said: "Agriculture is the heart and soul of all the districts I represented for nearly 16 years. My family has been in agriculture for many years. I've been a citrus grower."
"I chaired the agriculture committee in the Senate, I handled Bob Crawford's deparment, the reorganization bill, right after he got elected. I chaired Subcommittee A in the appropriations committee, which is where the department's budget is funded. So, I understand how the department's organized, I understand how it's funded. And I also chaired natural resources for many years, which is where many of the issues of agriculture lie. I feel absolutely qualified."
Dantzler believes growth management is one of the most important but neglected issues in Florida politics and governance.
"We lose 200,000 acres of farmland every year, and it's mostly lost to open encroachment," he said. "One of the real ironies is that a way to accomplish many of our environmental objectives is to keep our agricultural community strong. A way to preserve the quality of life that many people came to Florida to enjoy is to keep our agricultural community strong. There is a direct link between agriculture and some of the other quality-of-life components. If all the people who move to Florida in a single year were to locate in the same place, we'd create a city bigger than St. Petersburg every single year."
In addition to agriculture, Dantzler said, Florida officials should place the "revenue base" and the "moral dimension" at the top of their agendas. The moral dimension, he said, is difficult to talk about. "How can it be that just a few years ago, a man could be dragged behind a pickup truck until he was dismembered just because he was black?" he asked. "How can that be in this day and age of our country?"
As a seasoned politician, Dantzler saves his most troubled observations for the way election campaigns are conducted: Typically, candidates pay for a benchmark poll that identifies three or four wedge issues that incite or inflame voters. The campaign becomes those issues _ even if the issues are not the ones that will create policy to improve the state's quality of life.
"The whole reason for elections is to force the people to make certain policy choices," he said. "If the candidates don't force the people to make those choices, then we've abdicated our responsibility. The whole civic model collapses. That's the frustration I felt during the last governor's campaign."
But Dantzler turned his frustration into good. Besides returning to his practice, he wrote a book, an illustrated anthology of autobiographical short stories named Under the Panther Moon. It will be published early next year. Its purpose is to show voters a slice of authentic Florida.
"The book was born out of my experience of running for governor," he said. "I saw firsthand how few people know how our state's put together. I'd start talking about things we did as kids, and the audience (mostly out-of-staters) would get this polite look on their faces and they would think, "What planet is this guy from?' My book was therapeutic."
Although the characters in Under the Panther Moon are fictional, they are, like Dantzler, the embodiment of real life in Florida.