BRYAN ADELINE FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Editor's Note: The 2018 election season is finally upon us, and the democratic doings in Florida have -- as usual -- made the whole country sit up and take notice. The governor's race between Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis, along with the senate race between Rick Scott and Bill Nelson, are a microcosm of both our national discourse and our ongoing national trauma. BuzzFlash decided we need eyes and ears on the ground in that strangest and swampiest of states, and Bryan Adeline is our man. He will be submitting weekly reports on the doings down in the Sunshine State, so stay tuned. This is Florida, so it only gets weirder from here. -- WRP
In Florida, when we mention the swamp, we know what we're talking about. From north to south it takes a variety of forms, but no matter where you are, it's never far away … and sometimes you're in the middle of it without even realizing it. In August in south Florida, there's no escaping the air -- so hot and thick with moisture you feel you could drown, and if the wind is right you might wish you could drown for the stink of rot that fills you full.
Traveling north through the peninsula the swamp may look less swampy, more like unending forest, but make no mistake, one wrong step and you're hip deep in muck before you can take that next step. It isn't until you head west on the panhandle that the muck gives way to higher land, yet still, the threat of flood that can wash you right back into the morass is ever-present. This we call "Paradise."
Politics in Florida is a game played by alligators, feral hogs, invasive giant pythons, brown recluse spiders, clouds of blood-engorged mosquitoes and Key West drunkards. Those who can't separate one beast from the next will recognize them as Democrats and Republicans.
From the end of Reconstruction, the state was dominated by the Democrats with brief aberrations by single-term Republican governors Claude Kirk (1967-71) and Bob Martinez (1987-91). That Martinez term followed a wildly successful two terms by Bob Graham, who went on to become a respected Senator who served from 1987-2004.
But in the heady days of the Graham era, the seeds of Democratic decline in Florida took root. Graham was a founding member of Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which had as its stated goal to move the party away from the left and tack to the center. This was necessary, they believed, to regain the support of the so-called Reagan Democrats who had left the party in droves, purportedly because of radical positions, anti-religious attitudes, elitist intellectualism, and general weakness.
While on the one hand, DLC politics enabled Bill Clinton to win a couple of terms as president, everywhere else it separated the Democratic Party from its traditional base: Middle class workers, most of whom shifted further right to become Republicans, and activist youth on the left who effectively sat out in droves at rates much higher than they had in previous decades.
In Florida, the Democrats had failed to cultivate new talent, putting up one lackluster candidate after another for the state legislature just as the Republican Party was surging in support throughout the south. The only truly reliable constituency the party retained existed among minority voters, many of whom had their ability to seat candidates reduced by redistricting plans which concentrated their votes into a small handful of districts.
The last gasp of Democratic power in Florida came walking, reluctantly, out of the US Senate in the lanky form of Lawton Chiles. Chiles had planned to retire from the Senate but was instead drafted to run for governor. He won a substantial victory against unpopular Republican governor Martinez, but for his second term run barely beat a then-obscure businessman named Jeb Bush.
Jeb, after winning the governorship in 1998, laid the sledgehammer to the Democrats in what has since become nearly 20 years of complete Republican dominance of the state almost end to end. Notable exceptions are the larger cities and Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale's enormous minority population and the greatest density of relocated northeasterners. The disparity in Democrat to Republican votes was the difference for Obama in winning the state both in 2008 and 2012. But those have been the only bright spots for the party over the entirety of the 21st century. The party itself sunk into corruption and cronyism.
For the past eight years, the governor's mansion has been occupied by a malevolent carpetbagging fraud-encrusted billionaire beast in the form of Rick Scott. He effectively bought his victory in 2010 by defeating Alex Sink, a candidate as mild as the sand on a panhandle beach.
The blame for the ascension of Lord Voldemort fell squarely on the failure of the state party to generate any enthusiasm at all in a year when the national party failed as well. Turnout was horrendous in that all-important redistricting season. When it was over, the last Democrat in significant office is the man now being challenged by the spawn of Skeletor, Senator Bill Nelson.
Nelson is a throwback to Florida's glorious Democratic past. But these days, he's just a middle-of-the-road white guy who has the distinction of having flown in space on the space shuttle. At the opening of this final run to November, he's running just about even with Scott. Nelson's best shot to gain ground will largely depend on the fortunes of the surprise Democratic nominee for governor, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, as he challenges Republican base-grinder Ron DeSantis.
The governor's race is no less than a harbinger for everything the United States is likely to be for the next 30 years. Both candidates are 39 years old. Gillum entered politics in 2003 while still a student at Florida A&M University while DeSantis ran and won his seat in Congress after attending Yale, Harvard Law, and serving in the Navy as a JAG attorney.
One would think DeSantis' education and experience would show in his public statements and policy focus, but that would be wrong. He has repeatedly demonstrated his strict adherence to empty Tea Party platitudes, a bizarre fawning idolization of Donald Trump, and a not so thinly veiled racism which showed itself the day after he thrashed establishment Republican candidate Adam Putnam to win the nomination for governor.
Using well-worn racist imagery, DeSantis described Black man Andrew Gillum as articulate while calling him a socialist whose policies, if enacted, would take a thriving Florida economy and "monkey it up," a turn of phrase that no one anywhere missed.
Gillum, on the other hand, is polished, charismatic, laser-focused on his policy positions, and practiced at delivering his progressive, people oriented message. He won an upset victory in a 4-way primary where he challenged 2 millionaires and 1 billionaire, closely but clearly beating Bob Graham's daughter Gwen 34%-31%. While the three moneyed contenders flung dirt at each other via massive TV and direct mail campaigns, Gillum developed a well-oiled ground game bolstered by social media publicity and get-out-the-vote drives.
The gubernatorial candidates are now in full campaign mode and have named their running mates. Early indicators are that Gillum has a statistically insignificant lead over DeSantis. Thus far, DeSantis has spent much of his time flinging the usual Republican attacks at Gillum while beating back charges of racism. Gillum has decried the racist "dog whistles which have turned into bullhorns" while immediately refocusing on his progressive message.
It's early, but the muck is rising fast.