A lot has changed in Florida over the past 20 years. The state has 5.8 million more residents. There are dozens of new municipalities. And our state budget has ballooned from $42.3 billion in 1998 to $89.3 billion this year.
What hasn’t changed is Republican Party occupation of the Governor’s Mansion, where Democrats have been locked out for two decades. The low point coming with two consecutive losses to former health care CEO Rick Scott, one of the least popular governors in the state’s modern history.
Today, despite its impressive rebound from the Great Recession, Florida still faces big issues: from an environmental disaster plaguing both southern coasts due to toxic algae blooms to an economy producing a lackluster amount of good-paying jobs to a K-12 public education system mired in the bottom 10th in the nation.
With this backdrop, Democrats are hoping — once again — to finally take back the governorship in the November election. But that means bringing the best candidate forward who can win. To that end, the Aug. 28 primary features the party’s most impressive group of gubernatorial hopefuls in more than a decade. The Palm Beach Post, along with the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald collaborated to interview, separately, the top five Democratic primary candidates: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine, Winter Park businessman Chris King, Palm Beach County real estate investor Jeff Greene and former Congresswoman Gwen Graham.
The Republican candidates — Florida Agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis — were also invited to meet with editors but declined to be interviewed.
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For the Democrats, the Post endorses Graham for her principled, pragmatic approach that will be indispensable in working with a Republican-dominated Legislature to produce laws and policy that work for all Floridians. But as Graham, 55, proved during her term as a North Florida congresswoman, she is no shrinking violet. We have no doubt that, if need be, she will push back not only against GOP lawmakers too used to getting their way but also her own party apparatus.
As important, however, for Democrats in November is the fact that Graham can win.
It’s difficult to say that about King, who, despite a compassionate message highlighting affordable housing and wage inequality has struggled garnering enough name recognition to move up in the polls. The more dynamic Gillum, with the help of big money out-of-state donors, has at least been in double-digits in most polls. But we believe his rhetoric, bolstered by an endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is perceived to be too far left to win in November. And unfortunately, perception is nine-tenths of politics.
Levine has a proven track record as mayor of Miami Beach, and as a fighter. As he likes to say, he “got things done” dealing with issues like sea level rise. But Floridians don’t need another governor to rule by executive fiat. A Democratic takeover of the Senate in November would help, but that’s a very long shot. A Democratic governor must be prepared to work with a GOP legislature that doesn’t need any more incentive to be unfriendly.
To his credit, Greene says he will work to elect a Democratic Senate. We presume by spending some of his vast fortune to bring them along with his campaign. If unsuccessful in flipping the Senate, Greene says he would “call every Republican member” in an effort to work with them. But other than his willingness to spend “up to $200 million to win” the governorship, voters really don’t know much about the billionaire developer. He has spent a lot recently attacking Graham over the proposed American Dream Miami mega-mall and her vote on the Keystone Pipeline project.
Graham has admittedly stumbled on the mall project, something she thought would never be an issue given her stepping down from the Graham Companies board in 2015. We are confident, given her Florida pedigree, that Graham will remain strong on the environment. The same regarding her vote on the Keystone Pipeline, which was more about “pragmatism over towing the party line” than support of Big Oil. And just last week, Greene himself unloaded $16.5 million in oil and energy stocks the same day Graham accused him of “profiting off of Gulf oil drilling.”
All five Democratic candidates will carry the progressive torch into battle on the protecting the environment, spending more on public education, repealing the “Stand Your Ground” law, a $15 minimum wage, expanding Medicaid with federal dollars and pushing for tighter gun control.
But for the best chance to win in November, they should place that torch in Graham’s hand.
Read all of The Post’s endorsements online at www.MyPalmBeachPost.com/2018-endorsements.
Democrats are hoping — once again — to finally take back the governorship in the November election.