Campaign 2006: Florida
DEMOCRATS ARE FIGHTING HARD FOR FLORIDA
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla., Nov. 5, 2006 -- Until a short time ago, this tourist-friendly, laid-back town of 50,000 on Florida's southern Gulf Coast wasn't on anyone's map of political hotspots. But even the Washington Post's Website had a Bradenton, Fla., dateline on its top story this morning until Saddam Hussein's death sentence topped it. Even so, by Sunday afternoon, judging from the cameras, crowd and reporters present at a last-minute Democratic rally in front of the Manatee County Democratic headquarters, the nation's eyes were back on big little Bradenton.
Bradenton and other south Florida communities are big news because with the near-certainty of a victory for popular incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and a down-to-the-wire race for Governor between Rep. Jim Davis and Republican Charlie Crist, chances look good that several Congressional seats will tip back into the Democratic column, helping the party to wrest control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the GOP.
That prospect brought Nelson, along with 13th District Congressional candidate Christine Jennings, a bright, moderate Democrat with a strong fiscal message and a long history of community work, and Florida Chief Financial Officer candidate Alex Sink to a last-minute, mid-afternoon rally of Democratic faithful alongside busy Cortez Road in Bradenton. The turnout was impressive for Florida, where the hot sun and high humidity usually conspirte against anything that happens outdoors and off the water.
Nelson, asked about the outcome on Tuesday, said "We'll take back the House, certainly; the Senate - well, I think we'll pick up five seats, and maybe six." Introducing Nelson, County Democratic Party chairman C.J. Czaia said he hopes the senator would one day come back
to the county as President. The crowd of 150 supporters cheered with abandon.
Nelson, a fifth-generation Floridian and political moderate who was the second U.S. Senator to ride along on the Space Shuttle and sits on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has not stumped for the presidency but has a genial, genuine persona and the substantial intellect the job requires and voters usually want. A Danish ancestor running from the aftermath of a bar brawl on the New York waterfront in the early 1800's stowed away on a ship that took him to Port St. Joe, then and now a hot, humid outpost on the Atlantic coast of Florida, where he started a farm in what is today the shadow of the launch towers at Cape Canaveral. Nelson often marvels that a great-grandson of that fellow has strapped into a rocket and roared into off into space.
As he worked the crowd, supporters also lauded Nelson for running a television advertising campaign that has never criticized his opponent, Rep. Katherine Harris, the Republican albatross who gave up the 13th District seat to challenge him for senator. She is running far behind in every poll.
Nelson was there to buoy the Jennings campaign, which has thrived against the vicious attack ads of her former friend, car dealer Vern Buchanan, a multimillionaire who has pumped some $6 million of his own money into the race, making it the most expensive in the United States and perhaps the most costly ever. Jennings is said to be 10 points ahead of Buchanan despite being heavily outspent.
Jennings, the founder and former chairman of Sarasota Bank, was once her own opponent's banker; she sold the bank and made $15 million on the sale several years ago. She and Buchanan, whose net worth from a string of car dealerships estimated at $50 million, had long been friendly as they worked together on many different boards and organizations in nearby Sarasota over the years. But news reports in the Sarasota Herlad-Tribune in recent momths have tied to him a series of querstionable deals, lengthy battles over taxes and offshore companies, and the bankruptcy of a firm he chaired until the day it went belly up.
Thus, the last few months have been anything but friendly, with Buchanan running relentless attacks and annoying robo-calls on Jennings that accuse the petite banker of wanting to raise taxes and grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens; ironically, Buchanan said he was opposed to arresting all the illegal aliens and deporting them, but when asked how that differed from amnesty, he said, "I, uh, haven't thought that out yet."
As for Jennings, someone in the audience quipped, "I never knew a banker who wanted higher taxes." She describes herself as a social moderate and fiscal conservative. "You can't call me a liberal," Jennings told one supporter Sunday..
Sink, also a former banker and the party's candidate for Chief Financial Officer of Florida, promised the American Reporter - which has written extensively on the topic - that if elected she would address the issue of usurious interest rates and high late and overlimit fees charged by credit card companies and banks. As Sen. Nelson told AR today, "Banking has been getting its own way" in the Federal government under the Republicans.
Also stumping for votes was Democratic County Commission candidate Sarah Meaker, another moderate who hopes to unseat a well-funded opponent with a grassroots campaign against rampant overdevelopment in the county.
Nelson, speaking to a crowd that included many elderly Democrats and one younger man in a wheelchair, offered a ringing endorsement of stem-cell research. He also won strong applause during a 10-minute speech as he urged Democratic workers to keep working hard until the polls close, reminding them Republicans are doing the same.
It was not a message lost on the assembled Democrats. Most will return to party headquarters later today, tomorrow and Tuesday to continue the fight for what Sen. Nelson called "a day of new promise, and hope," beginning on Election Day.
Joe Shea is a member of the Manatee County Democratic Executive Committee and a regular contributor to Democratic causes and candidates.