When union activist Fred Frost was helping to painstakingly count hanging and dimpled chads under the glare of TV cameras in Palm Beach and Broward counties during those tumultuous thirty-seven days in the fall of 2000, he remembers clearly muttering to himself at one point, "I don't ever want to have to do this again in my life."
He made a decision right there and then to do something about it. Already a political rep for a local baggage handlers union, he decided that Step One was to run for President of the Southern Florida AFL-CIO. Four years later, now 48 and having already achieved that first goal--twice, to be exact--he's embarked on Step Two: to do everything in his power and that of his 150,000 members to defeat George W. Bush--and by a whole lot more than a contested 537 votes.
As staffers bustle around outside his office, rushing to get out the federation's first round of targeted political mailers (six months earlier than usual), Frost brims with confidence. President Bush has had a pleasingly lousy month, battered in the polls by missing WMDs, missing National Guard records and missing jobs. "I'm more optimistic as each day goes by," Frost says, slapping his desk. "I've never felt so much enthusiasm coming from the unions." And not just from the unions. Liberal and progressive activists, civil rights groups and community organizers are eagerly girding for yet another Battle Royal in Florida this November. "This is going to be a fierce, fierce fight," says former Democratic state chair Bob Poe, "just like it was in 2000."
Florida remains, by all accounts, the most evenly divided state in a deeply polarized America. "Florida is 40/40--40 percent Democratic, 40 percent Republican, with that 20 percent swing vote in the middle, and most of that in the middle of the state just full of registered Independents and ticket-splitters," says Congressman Alcee Hastings, who describes his home state as the New Peoria. "We now so closely mirror America that national marketers use our central corridor for consumer testing. In November it's going to come down again to every single vote."
With its trove of twenty-seven electoral votes (a full 10 percent of the total needed for the White House) and governed by the President's brother, who passionately wants to deliver, yet the Southern state where Democrats have the best chance to win, Florida is regarded by partisans on both sides as likely once again to be the hardest-fought among the fifteen or so battleground or swing states. Here we go again.
Progressives and liberal Democrats are remarkably upbeat in predicting victory, despite having been trounced two years ago in Jeb Bush's re-election campaign. The statewide March 9 primary, in fact, is passing with little notice, as most attention is riveted on November. "We have nothing to fear except our own failure to follow through on everything we say we are going to do," says Mark Neimeiser, political director of AFSCME, the public employees union. "This ain't no dress rehearsal."
It's not just bravado, wishful thinking and the lust to avenge Hurricane Chad that the Florida Democrats are counting on. There's also demographics. Beyond the traditional massive and liberal seniors vote in the southern tier of the state and the fiercely loyal and active African-American vote, which has significantly grown as an overall portion of the state vote, Florida, in general, is rapidly becoming more urban and more ethnic, moderating its Southern traditions. Waves of transplants from liberal urban centers around America (settling mostly in the swing central portion of the state), and new migrations of non-Cuban Latinos (most notably Puerto Ricans who, as US citizens, can vote), all make Florida increasingly fertile territory for Democrats.
In the ill-starred 2000 election, for example, Orange County--home to Orlando's theme parks and once the wellspring of Florida Republicanism--fell to the Democrats, nudged into the blue column by the budding Puerto Rican vote. "This trend is consistently in our direction, says Fort Lauderdale Congressman Peter Deutsch, one of the three leading Democrats seeking to replace retiring Senator Bob Graham. "We've won statewide three out of the four cycles," says Deutsch. "We certainly should do it again."