There's nothing better than a Congressional cocaine bust to remind us that politics is back in full swing in the state of Florida! Here is a roundup of this week's winners and losers as we start barreling toward the 2014 campaign season.
Let's start by contrasting two races that most of the state will be watching: the governor's race and the special election to fill late Congressman Bill Young's seat.
CONGRESSIONAL SEAT 13
Alex Sink, who served as Florida's CFO and ran for governor against Gov. Rick Scott, has had a good week as she began launching her bid for Young's seat. Prior to Sink entering the race, the idea of a Democrat being a front-runner for a seat that was Republican-held since Nixon was president sounded far-fetched. However, in a matter of weeks, Sink put together an ad-hoc exploratory team, put some feelers out to the Donors-That-Be and firmly planted her flag in the ground as the presumptive Democratic nominee.
On the other hand, Congressman Young's passing sent the GOP into a bit of a scramble mode in a search for a candidate. Three competitors have filed their papers on the "R" side so far: Mark Bircher ( who hasn't received much press), Kathleen Peters (a State Representative) and David Jolly (a former Congressional Aide and lobbyist). This is the best scenario Sink could have hoped for.
While Peters and Jolly are vying for endorsements and splitting the party, Sink is running exactly the type of campaign she enjoys, where she can remain fairly quiet and raise money while her opponents tear each other to pieces. Sink does not like throwing mud and she certainly doesn't need to enter the primary fray simply to get more name recognition. With the special election scheduled for early March, Republicans just made this her race to lose.
On the other hand, Florida Democrats have their own problems. Their candidate of choice, Former Governor and Former Republican Charlie Crist, isn't being welcomed into the flock as widely as they had anticipated. At best, fundraising and enthusiasm for this race is stalled. At worst, the party is risking a replay of the same bad strategy they adopted in 2010, which can be summarized as, "No need to make adjustments to our campaign. Who else are they going to vote for? Rick Scott?!?"
Crist is being criticized on all sides. Republicans are calling him a "traitor" and are vowing to turn out in droves if his name is on the ballot for the general election. Cautious Democrats are worried that his newly-donned blue jersey will be ripped off the second he gets back into the Governor's mansion. Die-hard Progressives are angry that State Senator Nan Rich's campaign was not given full support by the Democratic Party and are vowing to organize against him or sit this one out.
All of that could be overcome or overshadowed in time if Crist were able to energize average voters and enter the race with positive momentum. Unfortunately, so far it appears that all he has galvanized is a larger group of Monday morning quarterbacks. When he makes a strong statement, such as when he compared Rick Scott to Al Capone, he is told he is out of character and shouldn't throw punches. When he plays the role of likeable Floridian, he is labeled as weak (or as one op-ed scathingly put it, "...it's just not in his DNA to fight for anything beyond his own political destiny." No matter what he says or does, someone is there to pounce, and that will wear both him and his donor base out quickly.
Now Crist is in a corner. He has to formulate a strategy that says, "I'm here and I'm going to do the right thing for Florida no matter what you say...now please like me and vote for me." His race just became an uphill battle.
And of course I promised to address the utter disaster that is...
CONGRESSIONAL SEAT 19: The Cocaine Congressman
Ah, Rep. Trey Radel. You certainly threw a grenade into your own camp this week, didn't you?
To summarize this debacle, a Congressman was arrested and charged for cocaine possession. He was sentenced to a year of probation and a couple of hundred bucks for a fine...you know, the same exact punishment that you or I or any other regular person would have received in this situation!
He then announced that he would be taking a "leave of absence" and entering a treatment facility. Why? Because according to a statement he released via the somber medium of Facebook, he "struggles with the disease of alcoholism." Ummm...yeah.
Let's just breeze right past the very critical conversations that this has started about unfair sentencing practices, the ineffectiveness of the drug war and just what a big fat hypocrite Radel is for voting for drug testing on food stamp recipients. Instead let's focus on the conundrum of whether or not Republicans will stand by their man since the ball is firmly in their court.
First, Congressional Republicans will have to decide in less than 30 days whether or not to investigate Radel for ethics violations. One would think that being charged successfully for cocaine possession would be a no-brainer in the ethics department, but not so fast! Some members of the GOP are already saying that this is a "private and personal matter" -- unlike, say, investigating whether or not a President had an affair and lied about it.
At the same time, State Republicans will need to decide whether or not to field a challenger against Radel if he somehow keeps his job. (The possibility of which makes my head hurt.)
Radel's district is rated as R+12 by the Cook Partisan Voting Index, making it one of the top five most Republican-y Republican districts in the entire state. If the GOP doesn't try to oust him, realistically nobody can. Most likely they will take the "nothing to see here" approach to this problem unless or until it seems like Radel is hurting other people on the ticket, but maybe we can hope for more. Will they practice what we all preach and insist on a leader people can respect and be proud of? Or is that too much like effort?
Speaking of effort, that's enough of a summary for this week. Whew! Tune in next time for more stuff I couldn't make up if I tried in Florida politics.
Shawna Vercher is the Executive Director of Move Florida Forward, a political organization working to engage people in their government and elections. She is a political pundit and media strategist and welcomes your discussion on social media and in the comments below.