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Florida...Again? | The Nation

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Florida...Again?

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Additional reporting by Cissy Rebich.

2004: The Sanctified Seven

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

All of which brings us back to this coming November. On March 7, the same progressive coalition of unions, civil rights groups and black politicians--led again by Kendrick Meek--was to formally kick off the 2004 anti-Bush push, trying to reprise the march on Tallahassee. Meek is now a US Congressman and also serves as chief of John Kerry's Florida campaign.

But the Democratic establishment still seems AWOL. "I haven't heard anything yet from the Democratic Party," says Bishop Victor Curry, pastor of the New Birth Baptist Church and former head of the Miami NAACP. One of the more outspoken leaders during the 2000 vote-count confrontation, Curry is already criss-crossing the state, meeting with scores of black clergy and enrolling them in the new voter mobilization program he calls the Sanctified Seven--a pledge to bring yourself and a half-dozen others out to vote. "I have heard from the unions, from the People for the American Way, from the NAACP and others," says Bishop Curry. So regardless of what the Democratic Party does, he says, "we're all gearing up to vote against Bush."

That sort of energy and optimism is infectious. Canvassers are already walking precincts, phone banks are already buzzing. "This is really the first time there's an early plan," says Cynthia Hall, leader of the Florida state labor federation. "What usually happens in September or October is beginning to happen now. We've divided up the state into five zones and already have staff operating in each one." Still, Florida is a "right to work" state, and with only about 7 percent of the work force members of unions (about half the national average), labor is relatively weak. "Labor can't do jack shit on its own," admits a prominent statewide union leader. "We need help. A lot of help."

Some of the assistance might come from a passel of supposedly independent satellite fundraising and voter turnout groups busily moving into the state. Called 527s after the section of the IRS code that regulates them, these committees--mostly with Democratic ties--can raise unlimited amounts of money and then spend it on voter "education" and registration as long as they don't endorse a specific candidate. Established to circumvent the soft-money restrictions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and having already received funding from labor, environmental and women's groups (and a generous handout from billionaire George Soros), the 527 committees aim to be important--if unofficial--allies of the Democrats this year.

One of the more prominent 527s, America Coming Together, founded by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, has already set up shop in Florida. Its rented storefront space in Orlando pulsated with activity as the first batch of canvassers pored over their "walking maps" downloaded onto Palm Pilots. "What works best is old-fashioned face-to-face contact," says ACT's Florida director Karin Johanson. "I know from my Washington experience just how far we have drifted from that principle. This is a return to our roots."

Local activists are grateful for the 527 support, but some are also concerned about just how useful these outside groups will prove to be. "This is still the South, you know," says a prominent Miami progressive activist, arguing that the November election will be a face-off between the economic populism of the Democrats and the cultural populism of the GOP [see "Among the NASCAR Dads," page 18]. "What the Republican Party understands deeply and what the Democrats don't quite get is that down here you have to touch people directly. Among us Southerners you can't transfer relationships, you have to build them. The other side is really good at it. Much better than we are."

O.B.T.: Overcome by Turnout?

What will happen in Florida in November depends not only on grassroots organizing but also on a couple of factors beyond the direct control of either state party organization. While post-2000 election and vote-counting reform has been extensive, it is nevertheless underfunded and incomplete. "The whole mess is still not fully resolved," says Bradford Brown, president of the Miami/Dade NAACP.

Thousands of mostly black voters were improperly purged from the rolls before the 2000 vote when they were incorrectly identified as ex-felons, and while all those affected were to have been notified, notification has not been verified and re-registration has not been addressed. Concerns also still surround voting procedures. Many counties have switched to electronic voting machine systems, but the state government refuses to insist that a verifiable paper trail be required. "Jeb Bush is plain not interested in that idea," says Brown. Recounts are rendered impossible without a paper back-up. And already in one recent by-election, conducted with electronic machines, almost 100 votes were unaccounted for. "I think monitors even from the Ashcroft Justice Department would be preferable to letting this whole thing be overseen by George Bush's brother," says Bishop Curry. "I'm not joking."

The one worry no one seems to have about the Florida vote is turnout. If there's any concern, it might be that there's going to be so much going on in voters' heads and on the state ballot that the voting will remain wildly volatile and unpredictable right up to the last minute. Apart from the presidential match, Floridians will also be choosing a new US senator in a race that's already overheated within both parties. State ballot measures are likely to include legalized gambling, a minimum wage and two opposing legal reform propositions, among others--clashing initiatives from both the right and the left. Voters in populous and strategic Miami/Dade County are also likely to be deciding a mayoral run-off on the same day--possibly between two Democrats. Then there's the added layer of lobbying and get-out-the-vote efforts that will come from interest groups and 527s. And now, maybe even Ralph Nader redux.

"Florida voters are going to be so inundated that they will need giant mailboxes and backup caller-ID machines on their phones," laughs Krog, the former Democratic strategist and now a lobbyist. With voters confronted by so many mixed messages and tugged in so many contradictory directions, the tipping factor could be provided by the national presidential campaigns. Whichever of them is on a roll in the last few days might nudge Florida into either the red or blue column regardless of all the spadework of the previous months. "The military has this phrase: OBE--Overcome by Events," says Krog, suggesting that a variation on that phrase might be in order. "That's the safest prediction for Florida: OBT--Overcome by Turnout."

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