Disclaimer: Kartik Krishnaiyer is currently serving as the Deputy Campaign Manager for George Sheldon’s Attorney General Campaign and will not be discussing this campaign on TFS. This is a historical piece looking at Mr. Sheldon’s previous statewide campaign.
Yesterday, as I attended the well executed “unity rallies” the Florida Democratic Party put together I could not help but talk about the memories of George Sheldon’s previous statewide General Election run. What I have tried to forget often is that the campaign for Sheldon that year was against Charlie Crist, for a post that was being abolished in two years.
Commissioner of Education was an elected office in Florida until 2002. A Constitutional Amendment passed by voters in 1998 which consolidated the cabinet to the Governor and just three elected cabinet positions.
In the 2000 election, I was busy working for the Palm Beach County Democratic Party (which famously found me in the middle of the recount for a month) among other entities, but I was also volunteering on George Sheldon’s campaign.
The Republicans had just pushed the “A+” plan through the legislature which featured school vouchers, the FCAT and school grading. Florida was becoming a laboratory for the right-wing education agenda and when the office became open thanks to Tom Gallagher’s flirtation with running for US Senate, Crist and Sheldon both jumped in. State Rep. James Bush (D-Miami) who was term-limited also ran. Sheldon crushed Bush in the primary by a margin similar to Crist’s victory over Nan Rich on Tuesday. Crist was unopposed in the GOP Primary and the General Election campaign began.
Down ballot races for cabinet do not get a whole lot of attention in normal circumstances, but running in a Presidential year in a 50-50 state meant Education Commissioner got less attention than ever. But it was an interesting campaign, as Sheldon put out several well-thought out white papers about educational issues while Crist echoed much of the GOP’s established talking points on education but did it in a more reasoned way then Governor Jeb Bush did.
Crist ended up winning by a comfortable margin by running far ahead of George W. Bush in the I-4 corridor carrying Pinellas, Osceola, Volusia and Orange Counties by comfortable margins though Bush lost all four on the same day. By contrast, Al Gore lost every rural North Florida county except Jefferson and Gadsden, while Sheldon carried every single county in the 2nd Congressional District. Sheldon carried 22 counties statewide, while Gore carried only 14. Yet Gore ran five points ahead Sheldon statewide because he ran so much stronger in the I-4 corridor and racked up much larger margins in Palm and Broward Counties.
This was one of the last races in Florida where ticket-splitting was so obvious. Many in North Florida voted Bush/Sheldon and many in Central and South voted Gore/Crist. By 2004, straight-ticket voting was more or less the norm in the state and elections became turnout wars.
The race may have been irrelevant in some ways. This is because Crist, who was already beginning to make moves away from the GOP orthodoxy in 2001 was largely marginalized from July of that year onward by the governance legislation that was passed during the 2001 session. Jim Horne, a conservative State Senator from Jacksonville resigned from the Senate and was appointed to a position by Governor Bush to a position created by the legislation that was more or less analogous to Crist’s role. As a Bush appointee and loyalist with the elected position being phased out, Horne and his deputies eventually assumed most of the power in the Department of Education.
Crist instead launched a campaign for Attorney General and was elected in 2002. By the end of Crist’s first year as A.G. it became obvious Republicans did not have the partisan Attorney General they had long craved, but instead a populist, whose political instincts pushed him to the left at critical times. This began setting the stage for where we are now with Crist as the leading Florida Democrat.