Tight race to succeed chairman of Dems

Published Jan. 13, 2013

Not since at least 1992 have Florida Democrats had as heated and competitive a race for state party chairman as the one now raging between Tampa's Alan Clendenin and Tallahassee's Allison Tant. Both sides claim the upper hand, and the vote will take place Jan. 26 in Lake Mary.

Here are four things we think we know about the campaign so far:

1. We really have no clear sense of whether Clendenin, a retired air traffic controller, or former lobbyist Tant will win the race to succeed Rod Smith. At first blush, Clendenin would seem to have the edge — especially after party leaders in the Democratic strongholds of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on Tuesday signed a pledge to cast all their votes for him.

Pledge, schmedge. Less than a day later, one of those six officials, Palm Beach state committeeman John Ramos, announced he would support Tant. A running tally of declared votes compiled by Tallahassee activist Jon Ausman has Clendenin with 438 votes (about 77 percent of what it will take to win) and Tant with 337 (about 60 percent of what's needed).

Tant told Buzz she has closer to 400 votes locked down. She benefits from ongoing, aggressive arm-twisting from longtime pal Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Our guess? Tant will be the next chair of the state Democratic Party. She has overwhelming support from the party establishment, including Wasserman Schultz, Sen. Bill Nelson, most of the Democratic congressional delegation and the teachers union. The party establishment usually wins out in these races.

2. State party staffers ought to be worried. Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the state party, will almost certainly be looking for a new job if Clendenin wins. Hard to see how Clendenin would retain a top staffer who actively campaigned for Tant.

3. The shadow of the 2014 gubernatorial race hangs over the election. It may not be accurate, but plenty of players in this party chairmanship drama see repercussions for the race to take on Gov. Rick Scott.

Tant is a top fundraiser for President Barack Obama, whose political team clearly has fond feelings for Republican-turned Democrat Charlie Crist, while Clendenin's base of support comes from the grass roots, where skepticism about Crist is widespread. That may help to explain why Alex Sink, Crist's toughest potential rival for the Democratic nomination, backs Clendenin.

For the record, Tant says that as chairman she and the party would remain steadfastly neutral in any Democratic primary for governor and that she has no preferred candidate.

4. Wasserman Schultz has diminished her reputation. The Broward Democrat may well wind up delivering the chairmanship to Tant, but the difficulty the DNC chairwoman has had snuffing a challenge from an obscure activist like Clendenin hardly signals vast influence among her home state party activists.

Rubio on guns

Sen. Marco Rubio has a long record opposing gun control, but in a Political Connections interview airing today on Bay News 9, the Miami Republican suggests he could support one restriction likely to emerge from Vice President Joe Biden's task force: universal background checks, so that people buying weapons or high-capacity magazines over the internet or at gun shows could no longer avoid criminal background checks.

"I think you'll find support for that so long as there's not a public database that people can look up and see who owns what guns and where they live," Rubio says in the interview also touching on immigration reform, Crist, the fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy relief and Rubio's presidential ambitions.

Political Connections airs at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m..

Tough on Crist

Miami New Times published a strong and tough profile of Crist.

From the article: "Crist wasn't a star football player, as he and his father have implied, New Times has found. And perhaps even more surprising, his father and closest confidant, Dr. Charles Crist, was a segregationist who — despite a kind heart — resigned abruptly from the Pinellas County School Board in 1977 following a controversial tenure. Charlie Crist was also a mediocre student and, according to his ex-wife, an inept husband who dissolved the marriage after only eight months and disappeared."

Boost for Nelson?

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller's announcement Friday that he will not seek re-election in 2014 could be a boost for Sen. Nelson. Nelson could potentially grab the chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, now held by Rockefeller. "Sen. Nelson is sorry to see his good friend Sen. Rockefeller retire," Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said. "It's really a little early to talk about future leadership on the Commerce Committee, except to say Sen. Nelson has long been a consumer advocate going back to his time as Florida's insurance commissioner. And he'd be honored should circumstances ever allow his chairing that committee."

Democrats would have to maintain control of the chamber.

Alex Leary contributed to this week's Buzz.