Who Will Run Against Ros-Lehtinen? (All Politics Is Local)

There’s a Late Byzantine feel to America these days: corrupt leaders stealing what they can, infrastructure crumbling, people dying in the (flooded) street, distant losing wars far away, governmental torture, waste, fraud, internecine disputes among the leadership.

When the levee broke, any illusion one might have of even minimal competence in this administration washed away with it. I lead a privileged life, not least because I have tenure in a law school, which gives me both the time and the obligation to think about how we can organize our society so we live better. But it doesn’t take that luxury to understand just how badly the United States has been abused by the people currently in power. How, I keep wondering, can I most effectively stand up for decency, for a government that makes lives better, that protects the weak, children, the elderly, that stands for something better than torture and cutting taxes on multi-millionaires today so that we can incur more debts that inevitably will become taxes borne by my children tomorrow?

I live far from the centers of power. How then to respond to this mess in Washington from out here in the hinterland? I think it’s primarily a function of temperament. Some people will dream or plot revolution; some will join cults. Many will say it’s hopeless and cultivate their gardens. Others will turn to drink. And some others will do something a little more productive. Me, I’m a pretty moderate and bourgeois guy at heart. The system hasn’t been bad to me, and while I see warts in it, I also see virtue. I especially like American ideals of freedom and justice, of a government of laws, of protection of liberty (and yes, thus of property), of a mutual commitment to live and let live so that each can engage in his or her own pursuit of happiness. It’s our leadership’s colossal failure to live up to those ideals, to be even half of what we could be, to instead be such a lead weight on the nation, that gets me so steamed. I’m not your cultist or revolutionary. I don’t have a green thumb. And I can’t really hold my liquor all that well. That leaves electronic pamphleteering and organizing.

I’m aware that one of the biggest reasons we’re in such a pickle is that we have serious problems with our electoral system. It’s not just that money talks much louder than it should; nor is it simply that most of the major electronic media outlets are owned by radical right-wingers. Several are transparently managed in a politically biased manner which relies on a combination of lies, distraction. and suppression of inconvenient people and facts. Combine all that with the terrible voting system and, perhaps worst of all, serious systematic gerrymandering and you get the Congress we have: a body in which the large majority of members are elected for life, or nearly so, at least so long as they truckle properly to the sources of re-election cash.

But if you persist in caring, and you won’t drown your sorrows in a bottle, nor host clandestine meetings, politics is the only game in town.

The great Saul Alinsky instructed us that if you want to change something you start where you are. Where I am is Florida’s 18th Congressional District–the district once represented by the late great Claude Pepper. And indeed, the situation is especially dire here in Florida. (And I don’t just mean the voting machine problem.) Although we are the classic 50/50 state when it comes to the voting public, we are anything but a 50/50 state in either our congressional delegation or in the state house. No, the district lines are artfully done, and ensure a substantial Republican majority in the statehouse and in Congress (only the US Senate delegation is 50/50 — can’t gerrymander that!). Plus, the Democratic Party in Florida is not as aggressive as it could be: it frequently doesn’t even field a candidate against entrenched incumbents in safe seats.

Under Florida law, if no one files to run against incumbents, they are declared the winner when the filing period closes. That of course means they are free to raise money and campaign for other candidates, and also can save a fortune in election expenses. Not fielding even a sacrificial lamb weakens the rest of the Democratic ticket. Our local incumbent ran unopposed in 1998, and in fact hasn’t had a really serious opponent since 1992.

So I began researching what it takes to run for Congress, just because it would be nice to know, in case I ever ran into a likely candidate.

The short answer as to what is needed — besides, perhaps, taking leave of your senses — is that it takes either about $9,000 to pay the filing fees, or about 5,000 signatures on petitions from voters in this district (1% of 250,000 registered voters = 2,500 times the double you need to make sure enough of the signatures are valid).1 What that gets you here in Florida’s 18th congressional district, is the chance to run in a district that starts in Key West, a long drive south, and runs in a little strip right through my neighborhood in Coral Gables, continuing on to points north of me. Republicans outnumber Democrats among registered voters by about 2:1. Cuban-Americans, traditionally a seriously Republican constituency, predominate politically. Even though we have more than 100,000 social security recipients, even though our Congressperson couldn’t bring herself to criticize Bush’s plans to gut Social Security, this district is not likely to make anyone’s top-ten list of likely Democratic pickups. Indeed, if it’s not on the top-ten list of safe Republican seats, it must surely be close to it.

To ice the cake, incumbent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has about $1.3 million in campaign cash on hand according to the most recent report that I could find online. She is also reputed to be the Representative most favored by the Church of Scientology, an endorsement that presumably ensures a national fund-raising base and a cadre of very highly motivated campaign operatives.

In the last election, one Samuel Martin Sheldon (this one?) ran as the Democratic candidate. He raised $11,883, spent $11,882. (I wonder what happened to that last dollar?) He got 35% of the vote. Ileana raised $876,886 and spent $859,083, leaving her $1.5 million on hand at the time (wonder what she’s done with that $200,000 since then?).

I read that the Democratic establishment wants to make it a race in every congressional district. I think that’s a good idea, a great idea, a necessary idea. I volunteer to help the right candidate. I wonder, though, who if anyone is planning to run? Are the local and national Democratic political establishments working to find a credible candidate to take on the job of sacrificial lamb? What sort of resources the DCCC. and the DNC are offering to bring to the table if we had a good candidate? Howard Dean, are you listening?

Not that we’re going to win — but maybe we could make her spend it all this time.

1. There is an alternate, less expensive, procedure by which you file to be a write-in candidate. Florida has a really bizarre rule that votes for write-in candidates will be ignored unless the candidate has filed by the same deadline as a regular candidate. Write-in candidates who file don’t get on the ballot, but they get votes for them recorded. The major consequence of having a write-in candidate file to run is that it prevents an otherwise unopposed candidate from being declared the winner without the formality of an election. But since the otherwise unopposed candidate is still the only name on the ballot, the election remains little more than a formality.

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13 Responses to Who Will Run Against Ros-Lehtinen? (All Politics Is Local)

  1. scott says:

    Michael, how about you?

  2. Patrick (G) says:

    Or your wife ?

  3. Bob Prior says:

    Well, if you’re not going to run … what about the current President of your University? A female university president who also happens to be a former cabinet secretary sounds good to me.

  4. michael says:

    The ideal candidate would, among other things,

    1. Be a US Citizen. (That lets out my wife)
    2. Be bilingual Spanish-English. (That lets me out)
    3. Not have a job that requires having good relations with Republicans in Tallahassee. (That lets out Donna Shalala; anyway she’d be wasted on this race as opposed to, say, a Senate race.)

  5. BroD says:

    There may be no ‘ideal’ candidate–certainly the opponent isn’t ideal–just get as close to ideal as you can.
    As an incentive, let’s stipulate that it should be you–unless you can find someone better.

  6. michael says:

    So you tell me – how much would a candidate have to raise to be even a semi-credible threat? And where on earth would your putative candidate find that?

  7. William Allen Simpson says:

    Your previous candidate got 35% of the vote raising only 11K. That’s usually considered a threat. It’s not a bad baseline. This also depends on the baseline for the opposition (usually measured by votes for more obscure offices on the same ballot).

    Without knowing the political culture (I’ve never even visited Florida), it’s hard to know what kind of campaign would be credible. But the most important initial feature is not money, it’s bodies. That’s the reason for the signature collection — an initial hurdle that both demonstrates a minimal ability to organize and at least minimal support in the community. I’ve been part of successful campaigns that started with essentially no money, but began with the signature collection phase and built from there.

    Most candidates (particularly issues candidates) hate fundraising. The only way around it is to have a group of people to share the burden. The mere existance of the group also increases credibility.

    There’s probably some kind of county level Party organization. Sometimes they are anemic (especially where they don’t usually win), but going to those meetings (assuming they have them) is a necessary first step. Unfortunately, in my experience, they have a preponderance of “old hands” that look down upon newcomers, but usually the structural base is there for doing initial fundraising, that $5K seed needed to begin the rounds of direct mail and events.

    You are lucky enough to live in a university community, and there are probably student organizations.

    Currently, IMHO, the best place to look is Democracy For America. They are having regular monthly meetings in many places, and are in the midst of a tutorial program on message right now. They have a blog setup for regular communication, and are setting up a replacement system for meet-up.

    Finally, as for the total target of fundraising, it’s important to remember that most of the money of the incumbent is wasted. They already have the name recognition, and already have the organization, and already have the advantages of incumbency and stature with the press. More money won’t help them.

    Locally, we had the most expensive congressional primary in history (roughly $10 million) a few years back (both were redistricted incumbents), and my candidate was outspent more than 2:1. Yet my candidate led among Democratic primary voters right up until the election, which was decided by a large (15-20%) Republican crossover vote organized by the NRA and internal (unreported) spending by the auto companies. More money would have done nothing to help.

  8. Brautigan says:

    Arrrgggghhh . . . the Florida party. This is a topic that really sets me off.

    Anybody that would run Betty Castor for Senate is just . . . dense.

    Anyway, I kinda like Joe Sanchez. He’s every bit as insane as the incumbent, but in a good way.

  9. Randy Paul says:

    How about Joe Garcia? He quit the CANF to work on the Kerry Campaign/ He has street cred with the exile community through his work with CANF and might fit your other criteria.

    Anybody but Alex Penelas.

  10. Joaquim Barbera says:

    I don’t know about the restrictions imposed by your local law or if this has been tried unsuccessfully before – so stop me if I’m saying nonsense – but how about an initiative that would significantly simplify participation in the voting process? Something that would avoid the burden of having to register for every election, in the line of: once you register as a resident in a certain place (as you do for schooling, local taxes and similar purposes), you (US citizen) are automatically and indefinitely entitled to vote in such place on every election, until you register in another town. The majority of democratic nations do it this way, technically it isn’t too complicated, nor expensive, and I can’t think of any serious reason (“tradition” or partisan interest aren’t) to oppose the measure.

  11. Best bet against Ros-Lehtinen is a Latino female. Fire with fire. The race needs at least 100K to be viable. Previous Dem candidate received the base vote of Dems and Ileana haters. Had nothing to do with candidate. At all.

    Most importantly the candidate needs to force Ileana to spend her money on her own race and not give it to Harris in her run for the Senate. There is plenty of fodder against Ileana. One need not even look hard to find it.

  12. I ran against her as a write-in candidate in ’96 and got about 8 votes. I ran as a write-in against Michael Bilirakis in Clearwater in ’94 and got about 150 votes. Last year I ran as a write-in against Ander Crenshaw in Jacksonville and got about 1200 votes. (I have a book out of the campaign diary that I kept at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/candidate.)

    I don’t understand why Democrats don’t give someone the $9,000 or so it takes to get on the ballot so the party is represented on the ballot in every C.D.

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