Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith believes Florida’s misshapen districts have hampered Democrats’ ability to win elections, almost more than any other factor. And he won’t give a Shermanesque statement on not running for governor again. Smith spoke to TRR in an exclusive interview on March 31st. Here’s what else he had to say.
Smith, who took over the party from embattled former chair Karen Thurman, was in the midst of a statewide road trip that he said had taken him to multiple rallies, many on the same day, with firefighters, teachers and other union members, plus meetings with party supporters in Tallahassee, Sarasota and in South Florida. Smith was enthusiastic about recent elections in Jacksonville, where the candidate Smith personally endorsed, Alvin Brown, scored a surprise berth in the upcoming run-off against a tea party candidate, as well as in Tampa, which will host the 2012 Republican National Convention, and where Democrats held the mayor’s office (which they’ve controlled since Reconstruction) and picked up all four open city council seats.
“I think [mayor-elect] Bob Buckhorn, number one, was a strong candidate from the outset,” Smith said of the Tampa race. “I think [out-going mayor] Pam Iorio getting involved in that race helped. She was enormously popular. I felt like [the outcome] shows that… the consensus in Tampa was Democratic. ”
But Smith added that the Tampa wins were also a commentary on Gov. Rick Scott’s unpopularity in Hillsborough County, which would have been a major recipient of the funding and jobs that could have come from building a high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.
“I have to tell you that the feedback, and its more anecdotal than anything else right now, was that the timing of the governor’s declining of the high speed [rail] money, I think that worked to our great advantage. That was seen as a lot of jobs immediately beneficial to Tampa.”
Smith pointed to Scott’s poll numbers, in the low 30s, which make him one of the most unpopular governors in the U.S.
“Given the first 60 days is your honeymoon, that ain’t much of a honeymoon,” said Smith.
He was also heavily critical of the governor’s tenure so far.
“I will tell you that Gov. Scott’s only been in office for a couple of months and I think he has carved out the differences very very well between the parties, and I think that’s gonna be enoumously beneficial” to Democrats, said Smith. “And I think you will see starting pretty soon, a constant drumbeat of our carving out what he’s doing and why we think its the wrong direction for this state to take. Someone reminded me recently of his pledge [to create] 700,000 new jobs. Well I’ve gotta be honest with you, the way he’s going now, he’s gonna have to change the number just to get back to zero. He’s turned away 25,000-plus jobs in infrastructure, where you always get your money back. He’s privatizing thousands of jobs. He’s turning away opportunities for thousands of school teachers in this state.”
And yet the chairman declined to make the state party’s message about Scott, or to take the posture that Democrats would seek to “take their state back.”
“The Republicans and especially the tea party iteration keeps talking about ‘taking their country back.’ Every time I hear somebody say we’re gonna take this country back, I always say back to what?” said Smith, adding, “I never use the line we’re taking the state back. I say we’re taking the state forward.”
Smith plans to take an optimistic message into the 2012 election, in contrast to other state parties with tea party governors, whose messages focus on their unpopular state chiefs. Smith said Scott’s actions will make the differences between the parties clear, and that the baseline message for Democrats is “hope and optimism for the future.”
It’s a counterintuitive strategy at a time when Democrats nationwide are fighting pitched battles with Republican governors over union rights, education spending and budgets. But then, Smith is a counterintuitive guy.
He personally endorsed Alvin Brown, 48, an African-American former advisor to Bill Clinton, in the Jacksonville mayor’s race, despite their being a second Democrat in the race. The party kicked in more than $123,000 of Brown’s $165,000 total, in a traditionally Republican city where few believed any Democrat could win. Brown emerged as a surprise second place finisher in the March 22 election, beating out Republican moderate Audrey Moran and a third Republican, Rick Mullaney. He’ll face tea party candidate Mike Hogan, 61, who raised more than three times Brown’s take in the March race and who is supported by the city’s public sector unions, in the run-off.
Here again, Smith’s take is counterintuitive for Democrats.
“Brown was one of the only two candidates who took a ‘no new taxes’ approach,” to the Jacksonville race, said Smith. “And unlike his Republican opponent, in kind of an odd circumstance, Brown is not supported by police and fire because Alvin would not take the issue of retirement off the table. And that was not to say that what he would do [about the budget.] He’s said that everything’s got to be on the table because his focus is on creating jobs.”
Smith said Brown’s jobs focus — particularly regarding Tampa’s ports — will make him competitive in Republican-leaning Jacksonville, including with “the business community, who were by and large were not with Hogan, but were with Audrey [Moran] and Mulaney moreso.”
Smith said the party was committed to putting both resources and manpower into the May 17 runoff, but he insisted Brown had the ability to fundraise on his own.
Beyond specific races, Smith repeatedly returned to the theme of redistricting, which he said will play a vital role in improving Democratic prospects statewide. Even in years where Democrats have delivered Florida for a presidential candidate, as in 2008, they haven’t done nearly as well down the ticket, picking up just one statewide seat in 2008: Alex Sink as then-CFO. [Democrats did pick up two U.s. House seats in 2008, with Alan Grayson and Susan Kosmas picking up seats they'd wind up losing in 2010, in Florida's 8th and 24th districts. They lost one House seat in 2008, Tim Mahoney's seat in the 16th district, for a net House gain of 1.]
Smith said that thanks to the passage of the Fair Districts Amendments, that record will likely change. He said that alongside Texas, Florida is one of the “most malapportioned states in the United States.”
“And the result of malapportionment would be that we simply weren’t coimpetitive in a number of districts because we had allowed our votes to be so packed in some other districts,” said Smith. “That’s not going be the case after the courts rule this year.”
“I don’t want to overrate it in the sense that we still have to have good candidates and effective message and hard work,” Smith said, “but if we do that and if we … start off in a field in which we’re competitive … think we will do much better.”
Smith, who said he is putting together a plan (called “Project 67″) to give Democrats a ground presence throughout the state, believes that without gerrymandered Republican advantage, Democrats have a good chance at picking up seats both statewide and in federal races.
“I think there are 9 counties where we have no presence now and 10 where we have only a token presence,” Smith said, pushing back on the idea that the party has fixated too much on more conservative, white Democratic and Independent voters in northern Florida and the I-4 corridor.
“I believe in a 67 county strategy, [and] we’re going to employ that,” said Smith. “But within that … I mean, what is the famous saying, [that you ask a] bank robber, ‘why do you rob banks?’ ‘Because that’s where the money is…’ why do you go to certain parts of Florida? That’s where the votes are, and that’s the votes that are gonna be there for us if we look at the demographics.”
Smith acknowledged that those demographics are changing, however, saying “if we look where we are now and what this state’s gonna look like 20 years from now, we’ve got to be doing the things now that put is at a long term advantage.” But he stuck to his insistence that getting redistricting right is a, if not the, top priority for Democrats.
“Many of the advantages the Republicans now enjoy were carved out in 1982 in reapportionment, [then] carved out and reiterated in 1992 in reapportionment.” Smith said. “We did not react effectively …and we did some of the things that frankly, really kind of fed their success. But I have to tell you that I think there’s a new Florida that we’re talking to much more effectively than they are.”
But Democrats have also underperformed, particularly in recent cycles, in counties where they hold the electoral advantage. Southeastern Democratic strongholds like Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, have often performed at or near the bottom compared with other counties in terms of voter turnout in recent cycles.
In 2010, for example, Broward County (the second largest county in the state) had the lowest turnout of the 67 counties at 41.0 percent. Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county and home to more Democrats than any other, was third to last, at 41.5 percent. (Tiny Hendry County was sandwiched in between.) Palm Beach’s 47.5 percent turnout was also below the statewide average of 48.7 percent, and well below several Republican leaning counties, which saw turnout in the high 50s.
Smith chalked that up mainly to a failure by the party to put enough resources and boots on the ground, rather than on the air.
“My wife always warns me not to use sports metaphors, but I really think its the blocking and tackling aspect of the game,” he said. “I didn’t think we had a ground game in place that was effective. I did not think we had the GOTV effort. I really think that in certain areas of the state that are critical to us, you’ve got to have people on the ground and you have to have people in place at the precinct level to be successful, and I don’t think we did that as well as we should have. I think media is critically important, but it is ‘a’ component, not ‘the’ component of success. And I felt like we became so reliant on the media aspect of what we were doing instead of realizing that in the end, certainly early voting and absentee voting are a function of investment of time and money and I didn’t think we did that very well, and we’ve got to go back and do what we did in 2008, where I thought we did that extraordinarily well.”
COUNTING ON THE RETURN OF YOUNG, MINORITY VOTERS
In addition to redistricting, Smith is counting on the naturally higher turnout of young and minority voters in presidential years to boost the party’s chances in 2012. But there’s no mistaking the fact that the party had deeper issues in 2010 than just a lack of precinct captains. A fall-off in Hispanic support, weak early and absentee voting, and anger among some African-Americans over the Alex Sink campaign’s distancing itself from President Obama and healthcare reform, and skipping some key events in the Black community, also contributed to Rick Scott’s narrow victory in the governor’s race — in which Smith was running for lieutenant governor.
Smith said he didn’t agree “100 percent” with all the decisions made on the campaign, but said that “hindsight is 20/20″ when it comes to evaluating how the campaign was run. And he was very reluctant to criticize the decisions made by the Sink campaign.
“In baseball, when you lose 10 to nothin’, you don’t worry about whether you sent the runner or not. When you lose 1 to nothin’ you second guess every decision you made,” said Smith, adding that 2010 was a different climate, given voter anxieties about the economy and healthcare, and that President Obama’s policies are becoming more popular now with the voters Democrats need to win elections.
And he said that the campaign’s tactics were often dictated by the flood of money coming at them from Scott’s campaign.
“I feel like now looking back on it, that certainly had we been more effective on the ground game at the end, there were 60,000 votes out there that we left on the table,” Smith said. But while he said didn’t want to “use it as an excuse, I also can’t discount the enormous personal financial investment [the Rick Scott side] made in their campaign. That put such a focus on us in being able to compete media-wise, that … you know all things being equal we did really well. All things weren’t equal.”
Smith indicated the campaign probably should have shifted more resources to get-out-the-vote efforts, early voting and absentee ballots, rather than paid media in the closing stretch of the campaign, and that “I believe that there were 60,000 votes out there that we just physically didn’t get to the polls.”
He also said the party needs to sharpen its focus on “non-Cuban Hispanic” and younger voters, particularly in the I-4 corridor. The party has hired a Central Florida director, Betsy Franceschini, whose duties will include coordinating Hispanic outreach. Smith said he interviewed three candidates, all of whom, like Franceschini, are Puerto Rican, for the post. And the party added a new position for Andrew Gillum, an African-American onetime candidate for party chairman, to do campus outreach.
Smith would not comment on the budgets for either, but said the party hopes to “arm” Gillum with a “significant budget” going into 2012. He said Franceschini’s role regarding Hispanic outreach would be conducted in partnership with AFSCME and other unions, as well as with Organizing for America, which will reprise its role organizing voters for President Obama’s re-election.
Smith seemed to play down the party’s tensions with African-American voters (there currently is no African-American equivalent to Ms. Franceschini on staff, and Black outreach is handled by other current staffers,) calling their turnout and percentage vote for Democrats a rare “bright spot” in an otherwise dismal 2010 election. Smith has tapped Rep. Frederica Wilson to serve as one of his vice chairs, saying her district and Rep. Alcee Hastings’ districts have the ability to deliver a critical mass of African-American votes in 2012. Kendrick Meek, who held the District 17 Congressional seat before Wilson, often played a similar role for the party, though the vice chair position is new. Smith said much the party’s Black outreach is focused on increasing the party’s inroads into the Caribbean-American and Haitian communities, which are growing in numbers and political influence in South Florida. On the day of the interview, Smith was returning from meetings with Caribbean-American leaders in Broward.
“The whole focus is this kind of ‘quilt’ we have to put together to be successful,” Smith said. “And that quilt that we have to put tobether is a quilt that looks like this country; that looks like this state now looks; and if we do that and if we make sure that we recognize … and respect the differences in that quilt, I think we do well. And if we don’t, we door poorly and don’t generate votes.”
Smith said the party also needed to do better on new media outreach. The party currently has no new media director, and on the day of the interview, its website was still promoting Smith’s run for lieutenant governor and his election as party chairman. A party spokesman said the new website was in the works, and initially said it would be up by Friday. As of Sunday, the old site was still online.
‘AWAKE THE STATE’, AND EYE ON THE GOVERNORSHIP?
Smith has been criticized by some Democratic activists for failing to make an appearance at the recent “Awake the State” rallies in Tallahassee, which drew thousands of activists to the state Capitol to protest budget cuts and attacks on public sector union benefits. Smith said his absence was due to his hectic schedule, not a lack of interest.
“I just can’t be everywhere,” Smith said. “I will promise [to] be involved with Awake the state, but it just wasn’t something that worked out for me that particular week because I’m focused on what I’ve got to do. ”
Smith said he thought the rallies were important, especially since social media and the Internet allow them to proliferate beyond the day, time and place of the events. And he said he believed the pro-union movement around the country will have a positive impact on the election for Democrats.
As for his own future, Smith said he would not rule out running for governor again, as he did unsuccessfully in the 2006 primary against Jim Davis, who ultimately lost to Charlie Crist.
“I have given no thought to that,” Smith said, “But if you say do you foreclose, I don’t foreclose anything, and I don’t anticipate anything either. I anticipate I’m gonna do this [remain as chairman] for two years, and I anticipate that I’m gonna go home then. My commitment to this is something that’s taking more time and anergy than I think anybody would have imagined, because we took over at a time when I have to tell you, people were awfully dispirited. [But] we sold out in Sarasota Sunday night and we sold out in Western Florida this week… folks bounce back.”
Smith said he made a commitment to the party to finish out Thurman’s term, but that he did not plan to seek re-election. “I’m very excited about what I’m doing right now. I’m very enthusiastic about what I’m doing right now. But I think that two years of this is enough.”