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Can Democrats Pounce?

Dan Gelber & Marco Rubio
“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]
Thanksgiving was almost here, but Dan Gelber was still feeling pretty peevish about the Legislature’s special session at the end of October.

“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?

Gelber’s challenges

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.

One is political. Rubio may be bipartisan in manner, but he has picked up the mantle of Bush conservatism — starve government, help business, tout “values” — and is Crist’s chief adversary right now. This could mean Gelber’s influence on legislation will be for naught if the bills can’t get past Crist and the Senate. In the October special session to pass a Jan. 29 ballot initiative on property taxes, Gelber helped craft the House position (clearly more favorable to commercial interests). But a simpler, homeowner-oriented initiative from the Senate prevailed after Crist urged the House to accept it.

Gelber’s other problem is his own: Already halfway through his two-year term as leader, he has to produce coherent and compelling alternatives that can steal a march on the other guys. He has to draw cameras to news conferences, money to candidates and voters to polls. So far, instead of refocusing attention on big issues he says the Legislature is ignoring, he has succumbed to the political allure of one-time cuts in property insurance and property taxes.

It’s hard to talk seriously about education and healthcare without talking about money. And when it comes to talking money, Democrats remain chastened by fear of the “tax and spend” label, even as Republicans are now chastened by Democratic gains in 2006.

An illustration of this Democratic straddle is Gelber’s current focus in education: Replacing or supplementing the FCAT with a test that recognizes superior performance in a broad range of subjects, perhaps with an honors diploma similar to the Regents Diploma in New York. “We need to get a good
accountability system,” says Gelber, “and then argue about how much money we need to put into the system.”

Maybe a “Regents exam” for Florida is a good idea. But it is not even
remotely as ambitious or comprehensive as, say, then-Gov. Bob Graham’s goal in the 1980s of getting Florida quickly into the top one-fourth of states in multiple measures of school quality. Graham focused heavily on “inputs,” not results, but you can’t just test and not invest, either.

Bigger megaphone

It is not Gelber’s job alone to create a winning platform and political strategy, but he’s the Democrats’ best hope at the moment. His Senate counterpart, Steve Geller of Hallandale, is leaving the Legislature after this year. Their successors, Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee and second-term Rep. Franklin Sands of Weston, have little record of policy creativity.

Strategic positioning is difficult for any minority leader in a legislative setting. The other party controls the legislative agenda, campaigns in districts gerrymandered to protect them and now even commandeers Democratic social rhetoric [“Trojan Donkey?” April 2007].

“Our job really is to be the honest opposition to challenge the majority party on its excesses and overreaching,” says Gelber, “and to show there’s a better way.”
That “better way” is the hard part.

One option, if Gelber wants Democrats to match or beat their gain in House seats the last time around, is to get himself a clearer vision and a bigger megaphone (including an “investment” in advertising to promote the message).
But here’s another option: Gelber and Rubio, who has spoken of a desire for “world-class education,” could put aside the “issues of the election cycle” and spend however many days it takes in an “emergency” conference on education policy — just the two of them, though consulting as needed with their education lieutenants. The goal: To agree on as much as possible to achieve a real leap forward in educational achievement by the 2012 election cycle. If details stump them, they can leave that part of the policy-making to the State Board of Education and local school boards.

They could even dare the Senate to reject it without coming up with something equally comprehensive and better.

Something like that would make it truly Gelber’s moment. Rubio’s too.