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

Space Cowboy

Maybe Sen. Bill Nelson spent too much time in space. After all, scientists believe that prolonged exposure to zero gravity can disturb a person's cognitive abilities. That's pretty much the only explanation I can find for Nelson's comments last month regarding Florida's governor's race.

Holding court in his office, the state's junior senator regaled reporters with his opinions, though "opinions" may be the wrong word. In Nelson's mind they must have been more like divine political scripture. Too bad he didn't have time to send them out to be carved in stone.

It seems Nelson believes it is his role, as one of the Democratic leaders in this state, to decide who should be allowed to run for governor. "You've got to have somebody that can appeal to moderate and conservative Republicans and Democrats and is perceived as a mainstream person," he declared.

Nelson revealed that sometime in the coming months he, along with fellow Democrats Bob Graham (Florida's senior senator) and Bob Butterworth (state attorney general), will hold a "prayer meeting" with the various Democratic gubernatorial candidates and force some of them out of the race. "Graham and Butterworth and I will try to get them to recognize that [it's for the good of the party that they drop out]," he said. "That's going to be very tough. There's probably going to be some hurt feelings in the process."

Your guess is as good as mine as to why Nelson believes he and the Bobs think they should decide who stays in and who must go. I was under the impression that was the reason we had elections. And excuse me for not trusting that particular triumvirate to be disinterested in their deliberations. It seems pretty clear they have a favorite candidate. But I'll get to that in a second. First let's recap the political action of the past few months.

Defeating Jeb Bush is the Democratic Party's highest priority next year. As the last presidential election demonstrated, Florida is a pivotal state. Democratic strategists believe that if they want to dethrone George W. in 2004, they must defeat Jeb in 2002.

Jeb clearly is vulnerable. The presidential balloting fiasco continues to energize the Democratic Party's base, particularly blacks. And his record in office is more conservative than the platform on which he ran in 1998.

At the start of this year, the Democrats had a problem: They lacked a serious contender willing to take on the challenge of beating Jeb. Many were hoping one of the Bobs would agree to run, but Butterworth didn't seem to have the desire for a grueling campaign, and Graham didn't want his legacy tainted by a final election that would be bitter, partisan, and possibly a loser. This left the party with a ragtag collection of B-list pols eager for the exposure but without the faintest chance of defeating Bush.

Faced with this predicament, Nelson and the two Bobs huddled privately and came up with a name: Douglas "Pete" Peterson, a former congressman from North Florida who at the time was U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. The trio then pulled other party officials onto the bandwagon, where they all began singing the praises of Peterson's life story. A former fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he was shot down and spent more than six years as a prisoner at the dreaded Hanoi Hilton. Twenty-five years after his release he returned to Vietnam as the United States' first postwar ambassador, helping to normalize relations, opening new trade opportunities, and pressing the search for the remains of missing soldiers. There is even a romantic angle: Early in his tenure as ambassador, Peterson met and married a Vietnamese woman. Party leaders envision packaging the 66-year-old diplomat as a Democratic version of John McCain, someone who can draw moderate Republicans and independents away from Jeb Bush.

Peterson, it appears, was virtually guaranteed the Democratic nomination. At the urging of Graham and Nelson, Miami Democratic fundraiser Chris Korge flew to Vietnam in early May to meet with the ambassador and talk about the campaign. "They encouraged me to go to Vietnam and meet with him," Korge says. "He is clearly the best candidate we have for beating Jeb."

Long before his name surfaced as a candidate, Peterson was asked by President Bush to stay on indefinitely as ambassador. He seemed content to do just that, but swayed by his party's appeals, Peterson resigned his post and announced his intention to enter the race.

As the party's hierarchy circled around Peterson and prepared for his return to Florida, Janet Reno was secretly approached by a small group of long-time friends who urged her to consider running for governor. "There is a political calculus to all of this," says one of those friends, Carole Shields, past president of People for the American Way. "The percentage of incumbents who are defeated is very small to begin with. But to beat Jeb Bush, with all the machinery behind him, would be an extraordinary thing. It would have to be a remarkable candidate, someone who could create excitement about the race the moment they entered, someone who could raise money not just in Florida but across the country, someone who could energize the Democratic Party and bring Democrats to the polls in record numbers. The only person I know who could do that is Janet Reno."

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.

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.

Reno's opponent from that 1972 race says he considers himself a fan. "With Janet, what you see is what you get," says the 71-year-old Malloy, who went on to serve six years in the legislature. A patent and trademark attorney, Malloy says he has been receiving calls in recent weeks from various reporters who want to talk about that race. "I have no dirt to tell anyone," he says. "It was a very clean, fair race. We both concentrated on the issues."

Malloy says he has spoken to Reno a few times over the years. "She would be a very good governor," he allows. "I'd consider voting for her myself, depending on the issues."


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