Flashback Friday: The Democrats who happily handed our state over to the GOP two decades ago – #neverforget

After losing a close election in 1994, Republican Jeb Bush faced Lieutenant Governor Buddy MacKay in the 1998 General Election. MacKay who was one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for Governor in this state suffered from a divided Democratic Party which was full of political opportunists who backed Bush. The election was a landslide with Bush winning 55% of the vote and 61 of Florida’s 67 counties. How exactly did this happen?

As Lieutenant Governor Buddy MacKay was active to the point of being a “co-Governor” with Lawton Chiles. MacKay who had been a Congressman from the Ocala area was moderately liberal politician whose progressive outlook for the entire state was unlike few of his contemporaries.   Having taken on the reactionary conservative bi-partisan coalition led Dempsey Barron (D-Panama City) while in the State Senate, the deficit and his own party’s leadership while in the US House and the pro-Insurance party establishment in the 1988 US Senate Primary, MacKay was a bonafide fighter for what he believed was right. And what MacKay believed was right, almost always was right for the state.

When MacKay sought the Governorship, hoping to succeed Governor Lawton Chiles, Democrats were reading the tea leaves and beginning to jump ship. The GOP had gained control of the State Senate in 1994 and the State House in 1996 (the same day Bill Clinton carried the state on the presidential level by close to six points) and with term limits kicking in for legislators, self-interest kicked in. Since a theme was developing that MacKay was “too weak,” and “too liberal” to win the Governorship in his own right, Democrats motivated by self-interest began in the middle of 1997 to jump ship.

Complicating the atmosphere was that four State House members from flipped parties which coupled with a Special Election loss in Tampa brought the GOP’s House majority from the razor-thin 61-59 during the 1997 session to a comfortable 66-54 by the start of the 1998 session. Those party switchers did not include the three Democratic members who stayed in the party at the time but had voted for Dan Webster to be speaker. The Democratic House Caucus was falling apart and Chiles was a lame-duck Governor dealing with a newly-minted GOP legislature that was feeling its oats.

The Democrats had designated Willie Logan (D-Opa Locka) as the first African-American Speaker Designee in early 1997. Fundraising was slow and the caucus which still had many rural conservative members was divided. The transactional white politicians from Broward County who had exercised effective control over the House for many years usually in coalition with North Florida conservatives were suddenly feeling powerless. Broward County had provided Governor Chiles three times his electoral majority in 1994 – it was the be all and end all of Democratic Party politics in the state at the time.

Logan was having trouble raising money and was also attending graduate school in Gainesville. In the fall of 1997, the caucus replaced Logan with a white women Rep. Anne MacKenzie (D-Fort Lauderdale), who had been a power player for years in the party. By the time the backlash against MacKenzie and other white Democrats who had orchestrated the coup got too hot and the caucus put African-American Rep. Les Miller (D-Tampa) in the top spot (MacKenzie retired from the House in the process) the damage was done. Many African-American leaders endorsed Jeb Bush for Governor and Logan and his supporters cast important votes with the GOP in the House over the next few years beginning with the 1998 session.

When Logan was dumped, power appeared to be against consolidated by white Broward County Democrats, a group that had long exercised a disproportionate amount of influence over the party caucus in the House. At the same time this powerful brand of southeast Florida Democrat was beginning to undercut MacKay’s campaign.

After backing State Senate Rick Dantzler’s (D-Winter Haven) challenge of MacKay  from the right in the primary because “he could win,” many Broward Democrats simply didn’t work very hard for MacKay after Dantzler jumped on the ticket in July and dropped his primary bid. Truth be told Dantzler is one of the most intellectually curious people the Democratic Party has produced in Florida in the last quarter century, so he would have made a good Governor or Lt. Gov, but he was being backed for reasons unrelated to his own qualifications it was sensed at the time.

As it became more and more obvious MacKay would lose in the summer of 1998, especially after he appeared publicly with Bill Clinton who was in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal, Democrats ran for cover. Some were anxious to placate insurance interests following Governor Chiles veto of Tort Reform, something the GOP would make one of its three priorities once gaining complete control of State Government in January 1999.

Others were anxious to remain in the good graces of the Florida PBA, FOP and Firefighters all of whom abandoned MacKay after Chiles vetoed a police and firefighter pension bill the legislature had passed. The League of Cities led at the time by Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox supported the Chiles veto, and since most of the municipal officials that led the organization at the time were Democrats, further divisions became apparent.

Some prominent south Florida Democratic leaders even publicly met with Jeb Bush and touted him.  Others gave him formal campaign endorsements. While many of those who remained in the conservative wing of the Democratic Party like Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, former House Speaker (and future FSU President) T.K. Wetherell, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle and a handful of state legislators from rural areas unsurprisingly endorsed Bush, so did several others.

Willie Logan happily endorsed Bush despite prior to 1998 compiling a 15-year legislative record that was among the most liberal in the State House. Incoming Fort Lauderdale-based Representative Chris Smith, who was tapped for stardom by many in the party endorsed Bush openly – Smith did become a star and his endorsement of Bush seems to have had zero impact on his rise, as a party desperate for savvy pols embraced him. Senator Ron Silver, a North Miami Beach Democrat had a been generally a liberal, but an unprincipled vote at times in legislature endorsed Bush. Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Jack Latona had been active in helping other Democrats in Broward County get elected in the past but he endorsed Bush (and lost his seat to a Republican who more or less had local party support a year and a half later, ironically enough).  African-American Senator James Hargrett of Tampa endorsed Bush and suddenly found himself in an influential position in the minority party the next two years. Former Secretary of State George Firestone endorsed Bush along with a number of other Dade and Broward county luminaries who were registered Democrats. The list of Democratic officeholders that endorsed Bush goes on and on. It would take a full post just to list them all.

In Broward and Palm Beach counties, MacKay’s congressional record on Israel was misrepresented in a strategic way to allow local Jewish leaders to endorse Bush.  In 1988, when MacKay had upset party establishment choice Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter for the US Senate nomination, the same anti-Israel charges had been lobbed at him – that time he survived it and was unfortunate not to be elected to the US Senate (MacKay lost on military absentee ballots). But this time the charges which were being played specifically to give Democrats cover to support Bush stuck in some quarters. Unlike in 1988 when a number of liberal Jewish Congressmen from outside Florida came to MacKay’s defense, in this state-based race few raised their voice.

MacKay lost but of course became Governor anyway when Chiles suddenly passed away weeks before Bush was to be inaugurated. When Bush took office the Florida Democratic Party was in disarray but Democrats had still won three of six cabinet elections in November. Nobody really knew how bad it would get for the party in the next two decades.

The Republicans have now run the legislature for twenty years, held the Governorship for 18, and had full control of the cabinet for 10 of the last 14 years. Few Democrats recall what it was like when the party was in power. Institutional memory has vanished on the Democratic side and many who would normally be loyal to the party have chosen to make money by lobbying for corporate interests and essentially becoming free agents in the process. What has resulted is a party with little in the way values or infrastructure – a disparate coalition of activists, pressure groups, disaffected former Republicans and corporatism using political influence to make money.

This is the legacy of the 1998 campaign, where Democrats became free agents who helped hand the state over the other party and in most cases reaped the benefits.

For those who weren’t involved in Florida politics, you should ask party elders who have gotten rich off the process in the last twenty years, whose side were you really on in 1998?

3 comments

  1. The Observer · · Reply

    As you know I got to know Buddy and thought of him as a solid Democrat. He was a good person but a lousy campaigner. Never got his message out. It also did not help that some local folks and you know who i mean were already cutting deals with Bush. Lawton had made a statement that ” on his watch Bush would not be the next Governor”. He was essentially right in that by passing away in office, Buddy became the next Governor. Sadly not for long. A lot of people got fooled by the thought of getting school vouchers thinking they could use them for private schools. They did not understand there had to be under performing schools in their areas to qualify.

  2. Keep in mind also that Bush had cultivated African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in south Florida.

    It was only after he was in office they regretted it.

    1. If they regretted it at all.

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