Florida City A Laboratory for
St. Petersburg, Florida--Nationwide,
political experts--and not just Hurricanes--are turning their eye to
Florida to understand the future of growing US Multi-party Politics.
It's one where voters don't seem to be moving to different parties
but looking to elect someone able to work with their views with all
parties. In St Petersburg, Florida, in particular, expectations are
being quietly changed in an unusual mayoral race, despite claims by
media such as MSNBC that its a sleepy race.
The open secret in Florida is bi-partisan politics is slowly dying,
replaced by a trans-partisan attitude bolstered by a determined
third party movement. In a state where the 1-in-6 who vote
Libertarian are mostly registered in other parties, or Republicans
get elected despite strong Democratic registrations, the old
political handbook is apparently out the window.
The usual explanations fail. It isn't because of
political fusion or candidates who are everything to everybody.
Democrats say they're returning to their roots; Republicans combine
calls for less government with staunch conservatism under the
aggressive leadership of the President's brother, Governor Jeb Bush;
and the Libertarians bluntly term government obsolete want to
dismantle what they call 'coercive government programs' for a
voluntary system, proposing an array of intriguing alternatives
already at work in different States. Meanwhile, party leaders may
huff and puff, but rank and file activists seem to be seeing to it
that co-operation and meetings to promote dialogue among the parties
are at an all time high.
There are other factors at work, one being that smaller parties seem
more determined to be heard than other states. A lot seems to be the
result of a Florida Constitution amendment that, unlike most US
states where ballot regulations favor the Republicans and Democrats,
mandates that all parties be treated equally. Libertarians had a lot
to do with the present situation, joining with Greens, community
groups, and dissident Republicans and Democrats to lead a coalition
that got the change passed against a wall of government opposition
over 3 decades. They then further built their new political
reputation for political will and long-term strategic thinking when
they stunned politicians by actually using the change by running
more House Candidates then the Democrats.
It was an inspired move, not only getting respectable totals, but
deliberately doing so the hard way: intentionally low campaign
budgets while submitting candidates via thousands of petitions
without a single challenge or rejection by opponents, utterly
unheard of in US politics. even more, Libertarian candidates were
under strict instructions not to wage negative campaigns, sticking
neutrally to the issues. 'Brilliant' said Florida Business Insight,
while 'Politics in Florida is changed forever' said another
newspaper. 'Libertarians basically showed both the other parties and
the public that they were able to do things the other parties
wouldn't dare to do, and they knew they could do it whenever they
chose' said Frank Longo, a member of a local government board who
helped lead the effort. 'It woke a lot of people up, and
Libertarians made a lot of friends.'
The result was a frenzy of dialogue. Republicans and Democrats
basically accepted Libertarians as 'A cultural group you didn't want
to mess with, but that also was made of nice people with something
to contribute,' said Longo. Libertarians vowed to work with
Democrats, Democrats met with Republicans, and the Republicans and
Democrats both appointed Libertarians into local government in
record numbers. The process is moving to new areas: Gerrymandering,
which has locked much of Florida into pocket districts, is being
challenged in a statewide petition campaign endorsed by leaders in
all 3 parties.
One thing is certain: While the rest of the country polarizes around
Red and Blue states, Political Choice has opened up in Florida, and
it is likely to drag the country with it.
Apparently, Floridians love it.
In particular, the city of St Petersburg attracts regular interest
from political seers. Observers say that emphasis on non-partisan
positions, and the a mix of political groups that make a virtue of
their differences but unexpectedly emphasize co-operation make an
intriguing model, though it's a matter of debate whether one drives
the other--or they're the result of a growing trend. Local
newspapers such as the 'St Petersburg Post' are calling it a
political testing ground. It certainly blows most academic and
consulting expert assumptions about US politics to smithereens.
The Tampa Bay area, of which St Petersburg is a part, is a political
forecaster's paradise. It reflects every major demographic group,
with large concentrations of opinion leading groups such as
entrepreneurs. It combines city and country. It has large retiree
and student supervoter populations. It has strong Republican,
Democratic, Libertarian and Green parties that more often than not
work in coalition. All of them say they're consciously implementing
leading edge programs one step ahead of the rest of their parties.
It also is a nightmare for political thinkers and strategists.
Leftist Progressive political theorists who write lengthy books
attacking Libertarians must ignore that Progressives in Tampa Bay
not only work closely with Libertarians, but have asked them to
facilitate their meetings. Conservative pundits are dismayed that
many Republican supporters in the area identify themselves as
moderate Democrats. Greens find many sympathizers in ecology
conscious Florida. How this affects old political alliances may be
reflected from a Senate member who reputedly complained there was
too much democracy political freedom in Florida.
Above all, the local political parties serve an area population
larger than nearly half of the states in the US. What they do,
entire State organizations tend to study, follow or adapt--and
conversely, the parties increasingly propose strategies for testing
to the local groups. One has only to look at the St Petersburg
Mayoral race to see these factors at work.
In St Petersburg, while Democrats outnumber Republicans almost
2-to-1, the non-partisan mayor, Republican and Bush crony Rick
Baker, enjoys strong support across the board. The mayor in fact
enjoys a non-partisan position with considerable implementation
authority in what is called a 'strong mayor' system--championed and
in many ways created a few years ago by none other than his present
opponent, Progressive Democrat leader Ed Helm.
Both are happy to talk to local Libertarians. The Libertarians in
turn make no secret of their growing support among Independents, a
call and mailing list of sympathizers and swing voters, several
people in local office, and calling on officials to ideas often
adapted by both contenders and their parties, such as the local
highly privatized emergency system. The Libertarians in turn make a
point of being easy to get along with, refusing to attack opponents
personally even as they dig up embarrassing stories of people mis-served
by the government, instead cheerfully emphasizing principle but also
consensus--a fact not lost on voters weary of bitter attack
Thus Rick Baker stopped by at a non-partisan Libertarian Club
fundraiser for Katrina and got his photo taken with local
Libertarian leaders as part of his inclusive style. Ed Helm, who
worked with Libertarians and Greens on election reforms, is
appearing on the local Libertarian talk show to unveil a tax cut
proposal, a topic always dear to Libertarian hearts.
Meanwhile, the Libertarians startled observers when they declined to
run a mayoral candidate despite proposed backing from many in the
other parties, saying they're focusing modestly on community boards
and coalitions this round.
"It's a brilliant strategic move," said William Sachs, a Democratic
activist who recently switched to the Libertarians. "It emphasizes
their long term focus while they quietly build up local people in
government and keeps encouraging the other parties to work with
them. It has to be, because the Republican and Democratic players
aren't exactly stupid here and are interested in what the
Libertarians have to say. In the end, the voter benefits." The
Libertarian approach may prove all the more interesting as
Libertarian State House candidates have polled over 30% in recent
In fact, leaders from all parties and 14 community organizations
have formed a non-partisan working group that has produced a report
on election improvement that is getting national attention (www.ERCPinellas.org)
and being studied by several government bodies. It has concrete
things to show: it has pried open voting tally rooms to party
observers against initial opposition. After the election, the League
of Women Voters has invited the group to present its latest
findings, led by the Democratic and Libertarian leaders.
Meanwhile, members of the different parties have met with
Independents to discuss a task force to look at cutting tax rates
and addressing zoning and other abuses connected with them.
A NEW TREND?
St. Petersburg and surrounding Pinellas county may hold the key to a
new trend of partisan problem solving in a non-partisan way. Common
wisdom is to dilute the message and make the other party the bad
guy, turning politics away from issues into personalities. Yet
observers feel all of the local parties, while considerably more
radical than their mother parties, but then focus on looking for
common areas and frank exchange. Much of that process is seemingly
driven by grassroots activists. "It's a sort of consensus
extremism," suggests Sachs.
It's certainly improving the campaign rhetoric. The two contenders
are debating crime statistic measurement, something political wisdom
says is too sophisticated for voters, but is meat and potatoes in St
Petersburg. Baker was viewed almost as a fusion candidate until Helm
entered at the last minute in a what will become a bell-weather of
die-hard Democratic support--and also kick-start interest from other
groups. Many people view Helm's bid as laying the groundwork for
action on an array of post-election issues that will determine a
good part of Baker's agenda should he win.
Wayne Garcia, a former national political consultant who writes for
the local 'Weekly Planet' is one of many noting that eyes 'around
the country' are looking at the Helm campaign as a long term
experiment in what is becoming America's most intriguing political
Libertarians, who have been urged to tone down their message by
pundits who say they have an opportunity to rally independent
voters, are also studying the Libertarians in Pinellas County
closely. "The St Petersburg Libertarians are slowly but
systematically reaching out to the Independent center by doing the
exact opposite of what the pundits suggest. They're not trying to be
like the voter but get the voter to start thinking like them, with a
strong Libertarian message that seeks to inform voters first," said
Sachs at a recent community forum. "In fact, a lot of people in the
parties are seemingly defying what experts 'know' that they 'should'
do. What they seem to be trying to do is be clear so they can
understand each other. All this dialogue can better serve the
public. Imagine that."
Mike is a freelance writer
Keywords and Misspellings: Libartarian
Libertarian Democrat Greens Floreda