IN FLORIDA, DEMOCRATIC STALWARTS BEAT THE DRUM AGAIN
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 11, 2005 -- Here at Disney's Contemporary Resort outside Orlando, the business of the Democratic Party this weekend was all business. The party faithful came from around the state to the Florida Democratic Party Convention to enjoy a few parties, sure, but first and foremost to find out how they are going to get their campaigns for the state legislature, Congress and the White House back on track.
On Friday night and in all-day general sessions that heard from speaker after speaker determined to fire up the crowd of delegates from county executive committees around the state, the conventioneers heard from legislators, congressmen and senators, Sen. Barak Obama - the party's "rock star," as Sen. Bill Nelson called him - and Democratic White House hopefuls ex-Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, former U.S. Sen. and 2004 vice-presidential nominee John Edwards. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former First Lady Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, both thought to be strong candidates, did not make the trip.
They also got a fiery warm-up Friday night from ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the newly-elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who was here in Orlando just a few months ago (at a different Disney resort) to snatch the party's leadership post away from among field of eight rivals. In 2004, Democrats flocked to another Walt Disney resort to win support from Florida's Democrts for the 2004 presidential campaign. Back then, John Kerry was floundering in fourth place, Howard Dean was still nursing his hysteria and far ahead of the pack, then North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was just getting noticed, and folks like Rep. Dennis Kucinich and frmer Secretary of State Gen. Al Haig were still being taken seriously.
Today, though, after the terrible drubbing the party took in the 2004 election, there is hope once again, even if it has had to be beaten into the delgates with hammering speeches by dozens of the party's most compelling figures. One of those was Cong. John Lewis of Georgia, a Democrat and Alabama native who came by his civil rights credentials via busted heads and bones during 42 arrests from Montgomery (broken arm) to Selma (concussion). He rallied the troops to a renewal of the historic Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and the long-deceased War On Poverty launched in the Lyndon Johnson Administration.
But for all the veneration given Lewis by speakers before and after the short, stooped Georgia congressman, most eyes were on Edwards, whos bright smile and spiffy hairdo are undimmed from their luster of 2004, but who seemed somehow downbeat and more unlikely today to become a serious presidential candidate. Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, who has left no doubt months ago he is seeking his party's nomination, spoke to the faithful at an early breakfast session.
They also heard some tub-thumping enthusiasm from Davis, who is giving up his congressional seat to seek the Governor's mansion in Talahassee as Gov. Jeb Bush heads into retirement. Lewis, the senior minority whip in Congress, told a briefing later that a senior House minority whip, "I never had to whip" Davis - who reminded him of several occasions when he had. "Well, maybe a couple of times," Lewis laughed.
Poverty was a key issue for many speakers, particularly after the much-criticized performance of state and federal officials in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. None were more focused than Sen. Edwards, now heading a poverty center in North Carolina, who said the average net worth of black households in America is $6,000, that of Hispanics $8,000, and of white households, a whopping $80,000. Lewis, Edwards, Davis and Warner all addressed ways of changng that situation, but were ultimately short on specifics.
Lewis is endorsing Davis based on his general fitness and his commitment to civil rights, and that could go a long way to helping the normally soft-spoken Davis beat State Sen. Rod Smith, who is reckoned by some as a better speaker and a more conservative Democrat. But, in truth, says delegate Barry Tillis, "They're both liberals, and we're all Democrats." That was a point made, too, by Fla. attorney-general hopeful Walter "Skip" Campbell, a state senator and moderate leader who was also endorsed by Mark Warner.
Sen. Obama, whose rousing speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston last year was often described as the finest of the convention, was not in peak form Saturday night, but was far more thoughtful as he spoke. Introduced by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson as a colleague and former Editor of the Harvard Law Review, Obama recalled a meeting with a 105-year old woman named Margaret Lewis who told him of the hope that grew in her as a century of change unfolded and gathered momentum with the introduction and passage of the major civil rights legislation of the Sixties.
The slim, tall senator told the story of his own swift and unlikely rise to the U.S. Senate, and recounted a trip after his election to conservative Cairo, Ill., a city at the southernmost tip of Illinois that suffered the most devastating earthquake in continental U.S. history in the early 19th Century.
Instead of being greeted with threats as his Illinois colleague, U.S. Sen. Dave Durbin, was 30 years earlier - Durbin was warned his phone calls from his motel would be intercepted by the switchboard operator, who was ready to relay them to the White Citizens Council - he told of being greeted by "two or three hundred" supporters with "Obama" buttons as he arrived in a Cairo neighborhood his colleagues once feared to enter.
All in all, then, it was an impressive showing in a state where Democrats lost handily, and have not had a net gain of legislative House or Senate seats in more than 20 years, according to State Senate minority leader Steve Geller. Now, they've come back from bankruptcy just a few months ago and have $1.2 million in the bank. All agreed that this year and next, things will get even better and victory will come. The drum-beaters had accomplished what they came to do.