FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

Politics at center stage

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

The saying is that all politics is local, but money and social-media technology seem today to have made all politics national. Local candidates who generate enough internet buzz by taking ideologically extreme positions on issues can attract cash and other kinds of support from all over the country — from people who care not a whit for the issues and problems most important in that local community.

The result too often is that the political parties churn out candidates who don’t reflect the moderate views that most people in most places in America continue to share. This certainly seems to be true with many of the elected representatives in our state Legislature, who with one hand push a 12th century social agenda for Florida that’s laughably out of sync with the 21st century economy they say they’re building with the other.

Those who comment on this current chasm tend to bemoan the lack of consensus and consensus-builders. I may be too optimistic, but I believe the center will hold. There are still many in politics and in leadership roles who understand that public service ultimately involves solving local problems — and who understand that solving those problems involves finding, or creating, common ground through compromise.

Exhibit No. 1 is Jeb Bush, who on several occasions recently has said he would never sign onto a straight-jacket pledge like Grover Norquist’s no-taxes oath. Bush, whose anti-tax credentials are fairly well established, frames the issue in the broad terms of public service, not the narrow terms of taxation. The politician’s duty, for him, is to serve his constituents, not someone else’s idea of ideological purity.

There are others who value the middle ground. I recently met and was impressed by Will Weatherford, the incoming Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. A conservative Republican, he has a reputation for listening and attempting to be inclusive. I hope he can provide some fresh air in the coming legislative session.

Meanwhile, outside the Legislature, two Tallahassee friends of different ideological stripes have founded a non-partisan, non-profit effort called Village Square (tothevillagesquare.org) that holds forums and tries to generate informed, civil dialogue about both local and national issues. Allen Katz, a Democratic city commissioner, and Bill Law, a Republican who was president of Tallahassee Community College and now heads St. Petersburg College, decided to form the group after sharing dismay at the lack of facts and reasonable thinking that accompanied a local debate over a coal plant.

This year is also the 30th anniversary of Leadership Florida, the non-partisan, non-profit group spun out of the Florida Chamber of Commerce to help educate business and civic leaders about statewide issues. Under Executive Director Wendy Abberger, Leadership Florida (I was a member of the group’s 17th class) remains a bright spot in maintaining a semblance of unity and understanding in a state of self-interested regions.

One voice too little heard in Florida these days is that of Jim Bacchus, who has provided thoughtful leadership in Florida since the days when he was a senior aide to Reubin Askew, who served as governor and then as U.S. trade representative. Bacchus went on to become a congressman from Florida’s 15th congressional district, which included much of Orlando and the Space Coast. The first Democrat in the South elected by a predominantly Republican constituency, he established a reputation for representing all his constituents fairly and for working effectively across the aisle. After two terms, he was named to the appellate body of the World Trade Organization, the final authority on trade disputes among its 155 member-nations, which account for 95% of global commerce.

Bacchus’ consensus-oriented leadership is credited with helping establish the credibility of the WTO’s appellate process. In 2003, the appellate body ruled against the U.S. after a group of countries, including China and Brazil, filed a complaint against steel import restrictions the U.S. had imposed. President George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw the restrictions averted a trade war; more important, it sent a signal that even the biggest player in international trade was willing to abide by the appellate body’s decisions.

The case validated the reputation for rigorous impartiality and fairness Bacchus and the court had attempted to establish in its early years. In the appellate body’s first 60 cases, Bacchus says, “All of our judgments in every single case were by consensus. There was a never a single dissenting opinion filed.”

Today, Bacchus is one of two chairs of Greenberg Traurig’s global practice group. He spends much of his time traveling, representing international clients (General Motors in China, for example) from the firm’s office in Washington, D.C., and advising groups like the International Chamber of Commerce.

Bacchus has no plans to re-enter politics; he remains a staunch advocate of free trade and free international investment — and for the idea that “solving problems is the primary task of public servants. That means bringing people together.”

He brings an international perspective to the current political divide in the U.S. “Our inability to make our institutions work together is hurting us worldwide ... to do all we need to do to assert and defend the cause of freedom,” he says. The spirit of compromise is vital to America, he says. “We’ve forgotten that.”

His experience as both a congressman and trade judge, he says, makes him believe we can rediscover the middle ground. “I found through time that it is possible to bring people together.”

Go to Links More columns by Executive Editor Mark R. Howard are here. Note: Articles older than 30 days require registration (it's quick and free).