Public frustration is an opportunity for Florida's minority party, but can Rep. Dan Gelber offer a compelling better way?
“Our job really is to be the honest opposition to challenge the majority party on its excesses and overreaching and to show there’s a better way.” — Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach [Photo: Mark Foley]
“I’ll tell you what I think,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of policies that are out of step with Florida.” For starters, he ticks off healthcare and education, which he emphasizes as critical “workforce” issues for businesses. Florida has more uninsured people than in any other state except Texas and an education system inadequate to attract the best industries with the best jobs, he says. He also cites the “almost inept” outcomes on property taxes and property insurance and criticizes Gov. Charlie Crist’s interest in selling toll roads to private operators.
“Florida has really major challenges right now,” Gelber says, “and we’re just moving everything in the in-box to the bottom, hoping it goes away.”
Gelber might be right about that “out of step” thing. The Florida Chamber of Commerce found in its quarterly poll in October that 51% of the respondents think the state is headed in the wrong direction vs. 32% who say we’re going in the “right direction.” That’s a big shift from February, when 56% said “right direction” and 31% said “wrong direction.”
It’s not clear what the respondents think the right direction would be. On another question, only 8% thought “education” is the state’s most important issue (the first time in 15 years it was in single digits, the chamber says), 18% said healthcare, and 39% said property taxes. (Crist, meanwhile, got a 79% approval rating.)
Of course, the chamber may not be thinking of Gelber and Democrats as the answer to its prayers. But, says Gelber: “Anyone who says we (Democrats) aren’t fighting for business issues has lost what I think the most important issue to Florida’s businesses ought to be, which is building a workforce that attracts ... the kind of high-wage jobs that allow Florida families to have health insurance and more discretionary income.”
Whatever the cause of voter discontent, it presents an opportunity for the minority party.
Can Gelber pounce? Can he make more out of Democrats’ 41%-to-37% edge over Republicans in voter registration in Florida? Can he demonstrate that, even with a Legislature that is nearly two-thirds Republican, Florida
is still a purple state, not red?
This ought to be Gelber’s moment. Focusing on moderate candidates in winnable districts, Gelber, 47, helped engineer a gain of eight seats for Democrats in the House during the 2006 elections after two decades of stagnation. He is smart, energetic, likeable, admired by Democrats and Republicans alike. A former federal prosecutor, he is now a lawyer at the politically well-connected Akerman Senterfitt firm. His father was a circuit judge who after retirement became mayor of Miami Beach. His mother was a teacher.
Term-limited out of the House in 2008, Gelber and his political career got a boost when longtime Sen. Gwen Margolis announced her retirement to open up her Senate seat for Gelber. He is mentioned as a future governor or a challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez in 2010. He has more influence with the House Speaker than any other Democratic leader in a decade. He says he and Marco Rubio talk often. “I’ve always liked Marco,” Gelber says. “I’ve only grown to like him more.”
But there are at least two challenges.