On the final Friday of a parched and quarrelsome October, Florida Democrats were bumping around a hallway in Disney's faux-elegant Yacht and Beach Club Resort on the opening night of their state convention, perusing campaign items for sale (three Hillary buttons for $5!), sussing out the evening's schedule ("The progressives are supposed to be having a party, but where are they?") and, mostly, grousing about the conspicuous absence of presidential candidates.
"This whole thing here is a joke," said John Taylor, a hulking schoolteacher from Jacksonville wearing the tallest, most bodacious Chef Boyardee-style, star-spangled red-white-and-blue hat you ever saw. "How stupid the Democrats are--we're shooting ourselves in the foot!" Taylor angrily recalled some of the Republicans' tactics for suppressing the Democratic vote in 2000 and 2004. "They stole two elections, and now we've been working six years to make sure that don't happen again. And the Democrats screw us!"
"Forget that," his friend said. "You're beating a dead horse. I blame the candidates. You've got, what, ten or eleven of them? And not one of them shows up here?"
It's rumored that Mike Gravel will be in town tomorrow, I note (and he did appear, at the convention and an antiwar rally). "If he's here, that's where my vote is going," said the friend.
Not Taylor's. "I'm going to have to resign from the Duval [County] Democratic Party"--he serves on its executive committee--"just so that I can vote for somebody else. I'm going to vote Libertarian, probably. Or I might cross over and vote for Huckabee. My wife will kill me. She's the treasurer of the Duval Democratic Party! She retired from her job to work full time, for no money, for the Democrats. And I'm the man in the hat! But why not? What difference does it make? The Democrats don't care about us in Florida."
"I think it sucks," says Bob Matherne, a bearded middle-aged fellow in a Kucinich shirt. Matherne's been registering LGBT voters in Sarasota for months now, but daily headlines featuring the war between national and Florida Democrats have made it tough. "People don't understand the situation--and neither do I, really. They're asking for clarification: 'What's going on? The Republicans aren't being penalized for the early primary. Why are we being penalized? Why would Democrats do this, already knowing about Florida's problems with voting?'"
Florida Democrats can surely be excused for feeling a wee bit put-upon--and confused. Across town just the weekend before, 5,000 Florida Republicans had been dined, wined and wooed by their presidential candidates at a lavish event culminating in a debate aired on Fox. Meanwhile, Florida Democrats--who'd planned to trump the Republican weekend with their own presidential extravaganza--found themselves in the bizarre position of being boycotted by their candidates.
This strange saga began innocuously enough. Fearing likely attempts by big states like Michigan and Florida to disrupt the parties' primary calendars with early dates in 2008, Republicans and Democrats ruled at their 2004 conventions that states trying to butt in before Iowa and New Hampshire would lose half their delegates. The Republicans left it there. The Democrats decided to try and fix things. The Democratic National Committee's rules committee was tasked with bringing order to the chaotic primaries. Twelve states applied for two additional early primary slots, which were awarded earlier this year to South Carolina and Nevada. Democrats in other states could not vote before February 5.
That created a sticky situation for Florida Democrats when, to nobody's surprise, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law in May scheduling the state's primary for January 29. (In most states, primary dates are set by the parties.) The primary date was wrapped up in a bill mandating a paper trail for the 2008 election--a popular measure the minority Democrats could not afford to oppose. Besides, the loss of delegates was largely a toothless penalty, since according to precedent the Democrats' eventual presidential nominee controls the seating of delegates--and surely wouldn't alienate folks from the nation's largest swing state by turning them away.
But the DNC did not leave it there. In August the rules committee voted to strip all the state's delegates unless Florida came up with an alternative to the January 29 voting. "I understand Florida's dilemma," DNC rules committee member Donna Brazile told me later. "But this is not about states' rights; this is about a process we're trying to keep some control over." Two weeks after the DNC vote, Democratic chairs in the "First Four" primary states jacked up the ante with their notorious "four-state pledge" demanding the candidates focus exclusively on them. The signees--including John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton--agreed to do no campaigning in Florida or any other state that might try to jump the gun. And under party rules, "campaigning" means just about everything: e-mail messages; calls to voters; TV, radio or newspaper ads; rallies; hiring campaign workers; holding press conferences. The only thing Democrats are allowed to do in Florida--where folks have been complaining for years, with some justification, about being used as an ATM for the party--is fundraise.
As Florida Democrats bayed in protest, DNC chair Howard Dean salted their wounds by opining that their votes "essentially won't count." Almost overnight, the unsavory reputation Florida Republicans had earned during the riotous Gore v. Bush 2000 recount battle was relegated to ancient history, and the Republicans' sagging hopes of carrying Florida--where Democrats scored big in the 2006 midterms--were suddenly sky-high. "The Democrats like to talk about Republicans disenfranchising black voters in Florida," state GOP chair Jim Greer shouted happily at a Black Republicans soiree. "How many delegates will the Democrats be sending from Florida to their national convention? Zero!"
Not exactly music to Democratic ears. "Leave it to Democrats to create a distraction born out of a nuanced disagreement over some arcane party rule," fumed Florida House minority leader Dan Gelber in a letter to Dean, as the rhetorical fur flew between Washington and Tallahassee. The options for Florida Democrats were hardly attractive--"a lose-lose situation," said Steve Geller, the State Senate minority leader. While there was no way to change the January 29 primary date, the DNC said Florida could come into compliance by effectively declaring that vote meaningless--a dubious move, to say the least, in the "state of disenfranchisement"--and either holding subsequent caucuses, a state convention to choose delegates or a pricey vote-by-mail campaign. "Why would we have the presidential candidates' names on a ballot, have people go to the polls and vote and then find out that we're not counting their votes?" asked former state chair Terrie Brady. "We don't want to confuse Florida voters more than they're already confused." Even so, the Florida Democrats were seriously pondering the vote-by-mail option when Governor Charlie Crist and GOP legislators placed a regressive property tax referendum on the January 29 ballot. A strong Democratic turnout would be essential to defeating it.
In late September Florida's Democratic leaders voted to stick with the early primary. The four-state pledge kicked in, transforming the campaign into a running farce. When Obama emerged from a Tampa fundraiser and answered a few reporters' questions, his no-no made outraged headlines in Iowa. In an absurd episode later that day, the chastened candidate left another fundraiser with St. Petersburg Times reporter Adam Smith in hot pursuit. In response to a series of questions about Florida issues, Obama finally said, "I'm not allowed to talk to the press, guys!" Smith persisted: "Isn't it up to you?" Obama: "Nope!" Smith: "Aren't you the guy trying to lead the country?" Obama: "I signed a pledge!"
Meanwhile, the Republican candidates continued to roam the state freely, crowing about "Democratic disenfranchisement" and about how, in the words of disgusted Democrat Mark Esche, "the Democrats want our money but don't give a damn about our votes." (And the money had been flowing: by the end of September, Democrats had raised more than $10 million in Florida, triple the amount of the First Four states combined.) Esche, like many of the 2,600 who showed up for the Democratic convention, wore two buttons expressing most party members' sentiments: No Vote, No Money, read one. The other was stamped with the name of the DNC chair, with a screw superimposed: Screw Howard Dean. (Ironically, Dean's candidacy for DNC chair was enthusiastically backed by Florida delegates in 2005.) Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Alcee Hastings filed suit against Dean and the DNC for violating Florida Democrats' voting rights and "impairing minority voter participation" in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; a federal hearing is scheduled for December 5.
"Every time the DNC calls me up I say, My wallet is closed," said Esche. "If they're going to treat us like dirt, I don't see any reason to give them any help. Because, really: Iowa? New Hampshire? South Carolina? They're sideshows. The Democrats are punishing themselves. And isn't that stupid?"