Space Cowboy

Someone please tell Bill Nelson that not everyone in the Democratic Party looks like him

Shields and her husband Hugh Westbrook, a Miami-based Democratic Party moneyman who owns the largest chain of for-profit hospice centers in the nation, commissioned private polling that confirmed their hunches. Reno was immensely popular among blacks in the state, a constituency vital for Democratic success in Florida and a group the more conservative Peterson was unlikely to draw to the polls with the same fervor as Reno. More important, the results showed that Reno could siphon away from Bush many women voters disturbed by his policies on education and the environment. From the outset Reno was receptive, but she let no more than a dozen people know about the discussions.

By early May, Nelson and Graham thought they had their troubles behind them and that Peterson would be the nominee. But then on May 18 Reno told Channel 10's Michael Putney she was thinking of entering the race. A media firestorm ensued. Call it Renomania.

Blind-sided by Reno's revelation, party leaders reacted coolly. They feared the race would devolve into a sideshow about Waco and Elian and Buddhists in saffron robes rather than zero in on the reasons Jeb Bush should be defeated. Graham has been privately meeting with Reno's supporters, hoping to convince them that she could never win. Nelson, meanwhile, has been strong-arming some of the party's Florida fundraisers, telling them not to raise money for Reno.

Sen. Bill Nelson: Since when does he get to pick the Democratic Party's gubernatorial candidate?
AP/Wide World Photo
Sen. Bill Nelson: Since when does he get to pick the Democratic Party's gubernatorial candidate?

It was against this backdrop that Nelson met with reporters in late July and launched his thinly veiled attack on Reno. All his talk about how the party needs a "mainstream person" is just another way of saying he thinks Reno is too liberal. Nelson claimed he wasn't taking sides, even though he proceeded to praise Peterson. "He has this incredible story that brings him credibility immediately," Nelson proclaimed. When reporters asked him to offer his perspectives on Reno, he refused. "I'm going to sidestep your question," he said bluntly.

The idea of three white guys (Nelson, Graham, and Butterworth) meeting privately and anointing a conservative white guy from the Panhandle (Peterson) as the party's candidate has proved to be a bit much for some people, black Democrats in particular, who are quick to point out that Al Gore came within a few hundred votes of George Bush only because of a massive turnout by the black community.

I've mentioned these numbers before, but they're worth repeating. In 1996 approximately 500,000 blacks voted statewide in that year's presidential election, just ten percent of total votes cast. In 2000 the number of blacks voting jumped to more than 900,000, accounting for almost sixteen percent of the vote. Any Democrat who thinks he can win Florida without enthusiastic support from the black community is mistaken.

In their private conclaves to crown Peterson, Democratic Party honchos never consulted with the state's black leaders to gauge their reaction. The decision was presented as fait accompli. "It's obvious he's the chosen one," says Adora Obi Nweze, president of the state chapter of the NAACP. "I hear a lot of people in the African-American community say they are frustrated with the way this came about. People don't know Peterson. I'm not aware that he has made any effort to reach out to the African-American community. I've never met him."

The problem for the Democratic Party isn't that blacks might suddenly decide to vote for Jeb Bush. The problem is that blacks, faced with two conservative white male candidates, might decide to stay home and not vote at all. "You cannot take our vote for granted," warns Obi Nweze. "It has to be earned."

BONUS RENO TIDBIT: Janet Reno has lost only one political contest, a 1972 run for the state House of Representatives, in District 113, which included South Beach, Little Havana, Overtown, Key Biscayne, and Coconut Grove. She easily won the Democratic primary, trouncing two challengers.

Reno was 34 years old at the time and picked up the endorsement of the Miami News (where her mother once worked) and the Miami Herald (where her father was a police reporter for more than 40 years). Before running, Reno was staff director for the House Judiciary Committee in Tallahassee, where she helped rewrite the state's divorce laws and the statutes dealing with mental health.

In 1972 Dade County was a Democratic stronghold. Having won the primary, Reno assumed she was headed for an easy victory in the general election, a safe assumption given that no Republican had ever won a seat to the Florida legislature from Dade County. But as Richard Nixon rolled to a landslide victory across the nation, his extended coattails carried Reno's opponent, John Malloy, to victory. Malloy edged out Reno 52 to 48 percent, winning by less than 3000 votes. "It was complacency," Reno told me recently, explaining her loss.

The morning after the election, she said she awoke to find a biography of Abraham Lincoln on her bedside table. "It was very comforting to learn that Lincoln lost his first election too," she recalled. To this day she has no idea who placed that book by her bed.

After losing the election, Reno decided on a different career path and went to work for the Dade State Attorney's Office, headed by the formidable Richard Gerstein. After Gerstein retired in 1977, Gov. Reubin Askew appointed Reno to take his place.

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