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Florida City A Laboratory for Multi-Party Politics?
October 27th 2005

Florida City A Laboratory for Multi-Party Politics?

Florida Politics

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.

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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 campaigns.

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 elections.

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.



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 laboratory.

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."

By Mike Davis
Mike is a freelance writer

Libertarian Books

Keywords and Misspellings:  Libartarian Libertarian Democrat Greens Floreda 

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Copyright 2005 Best Syndication                                            Last Updated Saturday, July 10, 2010 09:38 PM