Minority Report

Open Seat

The Race to Succeed Senator Bob Graham

At this point in time, Governor Jeb Bush is the alpha male of Florida politics, but it was not long ago that Bob Graham had that role. He doesn’t need it anymore. He has entered a phase in his career where he doesn’t have to worry about competition. The senior Senator from Florida has been near the nexus of power for over 20 years, first as a two-term Governor. His run for the Democratic nomination last year proved that. All he did was show up for a few debates and articulate the mainstream Democratic position on the occupation of Iraq, record a CD and step off.

He dropped out of the race before the primary season began– an odd, truncated process that some observers (including this writer) have argued leaves the party seriously disadvantaged against an established incumbent with record amounts of money and a well-entrenched political machine. This was true even before the recent rumors that John Kerry, the “presumptive nominee,” favored delaying his acceptance of the nomination in order to generate more useable capital.

Bob Graham, meanwhile, remains on the short-list as a possible Vice-Presidential candidate, especially so if the Democrats want a shot at Florida. His stock was perceived as having dropped after a lackluster primary campaign. He has stated his intention not to seek reelection again, so he may be in the last year of his political career.

If true, this would be a shame for the state of Florida, which has enjoyed pretty good representation in Congress over the past couple of decades. The harsh light of national media has shone brightest on Florida since the 2000 Presidential election, but there has been remarkably little coverage of the race to replace Graham– perhaps because any such coverage would necessarily entail covering the dramatic attrition that has occurred within the state’s Democratic Party. This is the 500-pound elephant in the room: that Florida voters, having absorbed four years of Democratic slanders against the ethics and intelligence of their peers, are now inclined to reject outright any new attempts to secure Democratic placement in government, and that national Democrats have already written the state off and left their candidates in the lurch.

The name “Katherine Harris” is perhaps the only one that could generate any serious energy within a Florida Democratic party that has been utterly decimated in the years since Jeb Bush’s first, barely failed, run for Governor against Lawton Chiles in 1994. By the time he ran again, against an underfunded and outclassed Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay, the attritionist trend within the party was well-established. All the same, both of Florida’s Senate seats are held by Democrats Graham and Bill Nelson, and will remain so unless Harris goes after them herself.

Harris’ ambition is part of the public record, having spun her notoriety into a cake-walk victory in the US House in 2002, after which the rumors of her advancement kicked in immediately. They were not discouraged by Harris who, refreshingly, appeared comfortable with the hatred so many feel for her. Hers would not be a candidacy of the fake consensus; rather, it would have been a rhetorical blood-letting.

At almost the last possible moment, the Katherine Harris for Senate push dissipated. Folio Weekly (Jacksonville) columnist Anthony Gancarski was first to float the meme that a White House intervention halted Harris’ run this year, because she would prove a divisive figure and encourage stronger Democratic activity in Florida, harming President Bush’s reelection effort. The Internet’s Matt Drudge soon followed up.

Finally, the NY Times reported in January that Harris had chosen to stick with her “original plan” of running against Senator Nelson in 2006. It would appear to be a much harder sell for Harris in ‘06, against a former astronaut who succeeded Connie Mack, as opposed to ‘04, with an open seat and charisma-deficient candidates. There is, however, a certain logic to it: a Bush reelection in 2004, which her absence would presumably help, would likely lead to another GOP sweep in the 2006 midterms. Nelson would be very much weakened if Graham’s seat went Republican, but still unbeatable except maybe by someone on the level of Harris.

In this speculative light, Katherine Harris emerges as someone who has opted out of an almost sure thing now, in order to go after a stronger opponent later. Both Florida Senate seats could go GOP by January 2007, or they could not. If any Democrat wins this year, it will probably be Castor, who has the stronger record and more extensive contacts going farther back into the state party’s history. This is important, since the only viable component of the state party now is that part which existed prior to the 1994 Bush-Chiles race, which marked the last successful Democratic stand against a “New Republican” challenge. (Chiles eventually died two days before his term was to end, a demise some whispered was expedited by the stress of beating Jeb.)

Former Bush Housing Sec. Mel Martinez entered the fray, as did Rep. Bill McCollum and Johnnie Byrd. Democrats include former Secretary of State Betty Castor, Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas and Rep. Peter Deutsch. Castor remains the person to beat, though all indications are that the race is too close to call; this is more a function of the candidates’ lackadaisical attitudes than any serious competition between them. Not only did all the candidates refuse comment for this article, they have done an awful job getting their messages out to the voters. Do they have messages? Impossible to say.

If this reporter were made to wager on the outcome, he would bet that, for one reason or another, Graham remains in place for one more term, especially if something unspeakable happens domestically. But this is an outcome that can’t be spoken of, however logical it may seem. For Bob Graham to abandon his seat in 2004 would be a colossal tragedy for Florida and our nation’s security structure, in general. (June 15, 2004)

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