By George Bennett Eds: For immediate release. c.2012 Cox Newspapers
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Cox Newspapers) — South Florida’s own Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a ubiquitous presence at this week’s Democratic National Convention, and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is generating as much buzz as anyone scheduled to appear at the three-day gathering of Democrats this week.
But speakers from America’s largest swing state are otherwise notably absent on the podium, a reflection of the lack of national star power within the ranks of Florida Democrats.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 400,000 in Florida and Barack Obama carried the state in 2008. But only one Democrat — low-key Sen. Bill Nelson — currently holds statewide office in Florida.
Nelson, never the type to serve the heaping portions of red meat that are popular at conventions, made only a brief appearance on the convention floor Tuesday and had campaign plans in the Florida Panhandle Wednesday.
“My campaign’s down there,” explained Nelson, who faces a re-election challenge this year from Republican Rep. Connie Mack.
Aside from Democratic National Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz and Crist, the only other person with Florida ties who has been announced as part of this week’s convention agenda was former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler.
Wexler, who spoke Tuesday night, represented a Palm Beach-Broward district for 13 years before resigning in 2010 to head the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
A self-described “fire-breathing liberal,” Wexler gave a five-minute speech touting President Obama as a staunch supporter and defender of Israel on a day when Republicans were hammering Obama and Democrats for removing past language from the party platform that said “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.”
The Jewish vote is significant in Florida, and Obama got 78 percent of it in 2008, but Republicans have tried to peel away Jewish support in Florida and elsewhere by saying
the GOP would be a stronger ally of Israel.
Republicans originally scheduled five Floridians in the speakers lineup for last week’s GOP convention in Tampa: Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Mack. Gov. Rick Scott was also scheduled, but cancelled because of Hurricane Isaac.
“The Florida Democratic Party has some serious catching up to do,” said Florida Atlantic University political scientist Kevin Wagner. The convention lineup “shows how remarkably weak the Democratic bench is.”
Many Florida Democrats dispute that characterization.
“We have a deep bench in Florida, a lot of rising stars,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Others acknowledged that the mere mention of Republican-turned-independent Crist as a potential 2014 Democratic candidate for governor indicates a paucity of current Democrats with statewide bases of support and fund raising.
“That is a concern. We’ve got to start promoting Floridians statewide,” said state Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, the incoming Senate minority leader.
“Florida has a problem when it comes to statewide elections of voting for Democrats. It’s a 50-50 state, a state that Obama carried, yet we’ve lost statewide elections. We’re looking to turn that around,” Smith said.
The hope for Democrats may be in city halls around the state, several in the party say.
After Republicans won all five statewide elections in 2010, Democrats took some solace in 2011 with mayoral victories by Alvin Brown in Jacksonville and Bob Buckhorn in Tampa. Those mayors and others are frequently mentioned by Democrats as potential statewide leaders of the future.
“What you’re seeing are local elected officials who are prominent voices in their communities stepping up and taking bigger responsibilities in their states,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic consultant and a convention delegate.
“In Florida we’ve got Alvin Brown, Bob Buckhorn, Buddy Dyer (of Orlando), Jack Seiler (of Fort Lauderdale) -- those are the go-to leaders that are going to be discussed for statewide office runs,” Ulvert said.
Broward County Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar said potential future statewide Democratic stars include Seiler and current Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich of Broward County, who has announced she’s running for governor in 2014.
“I think the bench will grow from a public perception perspective after the presidential election. I think right now it’s just beneath the surface.” Ceasar said. “I think we’ll begin to emerge after the presidential election and I think the width of the field will increase dramatically if Obama wins Florida.”