An endangered Florida species is walking off the stage.
Bob Graham didn't just push the door wide open for a potentially bruising U.S. Senate race in announcing his plans Monday not to seek a fourth term. He slammed another door shut on a political era.
After decades of riding the coattails of Democratic giants from LeRoy Collins to Reubin Askew to Graham to Lawton Chiles, the Florida Democratic Party must now rely on a new generation.
"We have not produced another leader of that kind of quality in statewide office," said Barney Bishop, a lobbyist and former state Democratic Party official. "We have the potential down the road, but there isn't anybody right now who has that level of quality."
When you think of the Florida Republican Party, you think of Gov. Jeb Bush. Who, other than Bob Graham, is the face of the Florida Democratic Party?
"That's the challenge for the new generation of leadership," said Jim Krog, a lobbyist who managed Chiles' two successful campaigns for governor. "That's where the focus has to be for the Democratic Party."
With former Attorney General Bob Butterworth unable to win even a state Senate seat in 2002, the closest thing to a Democratic torch bearer today is U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Many Republicans view him as entirely unintimidating.
It has been a steady decline in power for a party that Graham transcended. Indeed, many Democrats have quietly grumbled for years that Graham, like Chiles, kept his distance from the party and did little to build it for the future.
When he entered politics nearly four decades ago, Graham's party controlled state government. He prepares to leave office with Democrats barely whispering in Tallahassee. Nelson is the only other incumbent Democrat elected statewide.
"I would not describe the state of the Democratic Party in Florida as in decline," Graham said after announcing his plans to retire. "As in many things in life, there are ebbs and flows and I am very enthusiastic about the future of the party in Florida because I think it represents mainstream Floridians' aspirations."
While Democrats in 2002 badly lost the gubernatorial election and saw their numbers in the Legislature and the congressional delegation shrink further, they can find reasons for optimism.
They still lead in voter registration, and the 2000 presidential election reaffirmed how evenly divided the state is politically. Graham's Senate seat is hardly a sure win for Republicans.
"This state is heavily divided right now, and anyone who argues otherwise is mainly arguing their own agenda," said Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, who said Graham's lesson to future statewide candidates is to bridge the myriad competing interests of Florida. "The challenge to all the candidates is who can best fill Bob Graham's shoes."
When another aging Democratic stalwart, Buddy MacKay, lost to Jeb Bush in the 1998 governor's race, it was hard to see younger Democratic statewide contenders on the horizon.
Now Democratic Mayors Pam Iorio of Tampa and Buddy Dyer of Orlando are viewed as potential statewide candidates. So are Davis and Rep. Allen Boyd of Monticello, and legislators such as state Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and state Sen. Rod Smith of Gainesville.
"I would not write off the Democratic Party at all, even with a larger-than-life figure like Bob Graham leaving office. The bench now is better for the Democrats than it is for the Republicans," argued Butterworth, who contends Democrats have the advantage for Graham's seat.
"This is a moderate state," he said, "and a moderate Democrat has a better chance to win that seat than a conservative Republican."
But there is only one consistent statewide winner among Florida Democrats, and he's leaving.
_ Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 and adamsptimes.com.
1936: Born in Coral Gables
1955: Graduated from Miami High School
1959: Married Adele Khoury of Miami Shores
1959: Graduated from University of Florida with bachelor's degree
1962: Received law degree from Harvard University
1966: Elected to Florida House of Representatives
1968: Re-elected to Florida House
1970: Elected to Florida Senate
1974: Re-elected to Florida Senate
1974: Taught a semester at Carol City High School, retroactively included as first "workday"
1978: Began workdays as part of gubernatorial campaigning
1978: Elected governor of Florida, defeating Republican Jack Eckerd
1982: Re-elected governor, easily defeating Republican L.A. "Skip" Bafalis
1986: Elected to U.S. Senate
1992: Re-elected to U.S. Senate
1998: Re-elected to U.S. Senate
Jan. 2001: Logged his 365th Workday
Jan. 31: Heart surgery
Feb. 27: Files campaign papers to raise money for presidential election
Oct. 6: Drops out of presidential race
Nov. 3: Announces retirement from U.S. Senate.
- Compiled by Times news researcher Cathy Wos. Sources: Associated Press,Florida Handbook, Miami Herald, Times files, Times wires.