1. Opinion

Nickens: Democratic candidates for governor are not ready for prime time

Photo courtesy of FOX 13 The four Democratic candidates for Florida governor, from left, Chris King, Gwen Graham, Philip Levine and Andrew Gillum during a debate Wednesday, April 18, 2018, moderated by Craig Patrick and sponsored by FOX 13. The 60-minute debate was commercial-free discussion of issues facing the Sunshine State.
Published Apr. 20, 2018

Here's a sentence that will surprise some folks: I agree with Blaise Ingoglia.

Ingoglia is the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a state representative from Spring Hill. That's an inherent conflict that he doesn't recognize, and we don't agree on much of anything regarding the role of government in society or public policy. But we both watched last week's first debate among four Democratic candidates for governor, and we reached the same conclusion. Ingoglia declared in a news release that the candidates sounded "uninformed and woefully unprepared to lead …''

That sums up my first impression. What have these people been doing since they decided to run for governor of the nation's third-largest state? They apparently are consumed with raising money and practicing empty sound bites. They clearly haven't spent enough time learning about the issues and how state government works.

Beyond platitudes about the importance of public schools, they have no clue how much the state spends on public education and no clear ideas for improving schools other than spending more money and reducing standardized testing. They predictably want to raise the minimum wage, but they can't say how fast or by how much. They want to accept federal Medicaid expansion money and provide health coverage to more people, but they demonstrated no grasp of how changes proposed by Republicans would hurt poor people and limit access.

High school debate teams are better prepared than these Democrats were for their big debut. They're fortunate it was taped in the afternoon at WTVT-Ch. 13 and did not air in prime time. But you can bet the Republicans recorded every word.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine could only guess the state budget for public schools is in the "multi-billions.'' Orlando businessman Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum got pretty close with estimates of $22 billion, but they couldn't say how much should be spent. Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee declared "you're not going to get a magic number'' for increasing education spending and "it's whatever I determine …''

There was more pandering than policy.

Three out of four (not Levine) wisely opposed the constitutional amendment to raise the homestead exemption by another $25,000. But none of them could coherently explain how that amendment would cost cities and counties millions and force deep cuts in local services. Three out of four (not Graham) sounded ready to embrace legalization of recreational marijuana, but there was no acknowledgement of the potential consequences. Everybody wants to ban semiautomatic assault rifles, but most of them had no clear, practical approach for achieving that goal.

Orlando lawyer John Morgan, the father of the medical marijuana amendment, would have been more entertaining if he had run for the Democratic nomination. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn would have offered a strong track record and a more thoughtful, centrist approach. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a former Florida House minority leader, would have been far more knowledgeable about public policy.

These candidates need a crash course in state government and in developing clear, specific proposals. None of them are remotely ready to debate Republicans such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who seems like he has held public office since he was 12, or House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes, who is as passionate and knowledgeable about policy and politics as he is wrongheaded on issues such as public education and health care. They might be ready for U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast, who dodges questions about state issues and appears to think he can be elected governor with nothing more than a positive tweet from President Donald Trump and a regular perch on Fox News. But that's only a guess.

Maybe my critique of this off-Broadway preview is too harsh. It's not easy to run for public office at any level, and these Democrats are running statewide for the first time. It takes guts, boundless energy and a ridiculous amount of money to be competitive. The learning curve is steep.

But there hasn't been a Democrat in the Governor's Mansion in 20 years, and this opportunity should not be wasted. So consider this tough love.

Study up on issues such as public education and health care. Remember some key facts, like Florida ranks 49th in per-capita spending on public schools and 35th in average teacher pay. Or that the Legislature increased general per-student spending this year by 47 cents. Learn why federal Medicaid block grants would result in rationing care in Florida. Be prepared to explain there is no need for work requirements for Medicaid recipients because the program is so miserly that childless adults who aren't disabled already don't qualify.

Develop specific policy proposals that are ambitious but achievable. Community college is not going to be free, as King proposes. Charter schools are not going to be abolished, as Levine suggested. "What I determine" is not a clear goal for increasing education spending, despite Graham's vow.

Fortunately for the Democrats, it's only April. Consider last week's disappointing debate as the last spring training game. The regular season starts now, and they need to up their game. Fast.


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