Fall Guy

by Jason Zengerle | September 30, 2002

> For more than a year Bill McBride touted himself as the man who could fulfill Florida Democrats' wildest dream: He could beat Jeb Bush. "I've sized him up," McBride would say in his folksy drawl as he stumped for votes in the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary. "I can take him." A combat-decorated Marine veteran and former managing partner of Florida's largest law firm, McBride didn't lack for confidence--he believed it when he said he could beat the Republican incumbent and presidential brother. The problem was, his fellow Democrats didn't. Despite his impressive accomplishments in the military and the law, McBride was a political novice: He had never even run for dogcatcher. And while Florida Democrats didn't think Janet Reno--McBride's chief opponent in the three-way primary--had a prayer of beating Bush either, they seemed inclined to vote for her anyway as a reward for her years of public service both in the state and in the Clinton administration. Last January, seven months into McBride's campaign, a poll found Reno leading him by 43 points. Undaunted, McBride plugged away, refusing to say anything negative about Reno but repeating his mantra that he was the Democrat most capable of beating Bush. Over time he succeeded in making this case to the Florida Education Association (FEA), the AFL-CIO, and much of the state Democratic establishment. Still, even with endorsements from the teachers and the unions and support from the party, it didn't look as though McBride had any hope of beating Reno and getting his shot at Bush: Three months before last week's primary vote, he was still trailing her by nearly 30 points. Then Bush butted in. In August the Florida Republican Party started running attack ads against McBride. One accused him of violating campaign finance laws; another charged that he was guilty of "reckless mismanagement" at his old law firm. "Corporate lawyer Bill McBride," the narrator of the latter ad intoned in a sinister voice. "His mismanagement hurt working people." Bush had evidently calculated that McBride would be a tougher opponent than Reno in November and launched the ads in the hope of ensuring Reno's victory in the primary. It was a play straight out of the book of California's Democratic Governor Gray Davis, who earlier this year launched a series of attack ads against Richard Riordan, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who was thought to pose the biggest threat to him in the general election; thanks in part to Davis's ads, Riordan lost the GOP primary to Bill Simon, who is expected to lose badly to Davis in November. But Bush's attack ads had exactly the opposite effect. They served to confirm for Florida Democrats what McBride had been telling them all along: He could beat Bush. "If you think McBride makes Jeb Bush nervous now," declared a McBride ad responding to Bush's attacks, "wait until November." With the inadvertent push from Bush, McBride--who had already been gaining on Reno thanks to his own $3.5 million advertising blitz over the summer--surged into the final week of the campaign. By primary day the opinion polls showed McBride in the lead. Last Thursday evening McBride burst into a Tampa hotel ballroom filled with his supporters to declare victory. It had been nearly 48 hours since the polls had closed, but this being Florida--land of election debacles--there had been so many voting irregularities that Florida's secretary of state had not been able to unofficially declare McBride the winner of the Democratic primary until that afternoon. (Indeed, the uncertainty about the results would linger into the next week, until the state's election canvassing board officially certified McBride's victory by fewer than 5,000 votes and Reno conceded.) Still, the delay hadn't dampened the enthusiasm in the room that night. "Bill! Bill! Bill!" his supporters shouted before segueing into an even more boisterous chant: "No more Jeb! No more Jeb!" McBride is a large man--he stands six feet three inches and weighs 245 pounds--with rough-hewn features; and as he leaned heavily on a podium, sweat dripping down his very red face, he had the look of someone who had just finished a long race. But when he spoke, he made it clear he wasn't finished yet. "I say to the governor that your negative campaigns against me during the primary did not work," McBride said, "and they won't work in the general election, either." Still addressing Bush, McBride continued: "Let's don't hide behind thirty-second television ads. ... Let's not worry about who has the best blow-dried hair. Let's not have people speak for you. Come out and speak for yourself! ... Let's pick it up, let's raise the level, and let's ... go toe to toe!" It wasn't long before the crowd was once again chanting, "No more Jeb! No more Jeb!" Florida Democrats, of course, have been swearing vengeance against Jeb Bush ever since his brother was awarded the contested state in the 2000 presidential election. And now that, after months of despair, they believe they have a candidate who can beat Bush--a poll just out from the Florida Democratic Party shows McBride trailing Jeb by only five points--that anger has not just bubbled to the surface; it has boiled over. What's more, the anger isn't limited to Florida. Democrats across the country are salivating at the prospect of knocking off Bush, and money and advice from national Democrats are already pouring into McBride's campaign. A mere three months ago McBride was a political afterthought even in Florida, a man whose fledgling political career was expected to come to an abrupt and humiliating end only months after it began. But now, as he tries to ride the wave of anti-Bush sentiment to the Florida governor's mansion, McBride is poised to become this campaign season's most important Democrat. Although the 57-year-old McBride is a newcomer to politics, he has the kind of life story campaign consultants dream of. He grew up the son of a TV repairman in Leesburg, a town of 10,000 in Central Florida. A football star in high school, he won an athletic scholarship to the University of Florida. But during his freshman year he blew out his knee in practice, ending his football career. The football coach told McBride he could keep his scholarship, but McBride turned him down, instead taking a series of jobs to put himself through school and eventually graduating with honors. After one year at the University of Florida law school, in 1968 McBride enlisted in the Marines. He led a combat platoon in Vietnam and was awarded a Bronze Star. "Lieutenant McBride is a rare blend of natural leadership, intelligence, and physical stamina," his 1970 fitness report stated. After Vietnam, McBride went back to law school, and upon graduation he joined Florida's largest law firm, Holland %amp% Knight, where he primarily practiced banking law in Tampa. In the early '90s he became the firm's managing partner, and under his leadership Holland %amp% Knight went national, opening up offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities outside of Florida; by the time McBride stepped down as managing partner two years ago, the firm had grown from 300 lawyers to 1,400. McBride also made sure the firm stood for more than just making money: He placed a heavy emphasis on pro bono work--something that kept Holland %amp% Knight lawyers' salaries lower than those of their counterparts at other large firms--while at the same time instituting "living wages" for the firm's clerical staff, which boosted their hourly pay by as much as 50 percent. He even extended health insurance and other benefits to domestic partners of firm employees. Together with his wife, Alex Sink--a former president of Bank of America's Florida operations--McBride became a fixture on the Tampa civic and charity circuit, leading United Way fund-raising drives and personally endowing college scholarships for Little League baseball players he coached. All of which makes McBride a formidable candidate. His position at Holland %amp% Knight gave him strong ties to the state's deep-pocketed business and legal communities. Thanks to the progressive policies he implemented at the firm, he enjoys good relations with the state's liberal groups. And then, of course, there's his biography--particularly his small-town roots and military record--which Democrats think will help him draw votes in parts of the state that tend to favor Republicans. In the primary, McBride more or less conceded to Reno the heavily Democratic areas of South Florida--like Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach Counties--and focused instead on more conservative Central and North Florida. He wound up taking 59 of Florida's 67 counties and rolling up large margins in the booming I-4 corridor (which runs across Central Florida from Tampa to Daytona Beach) and the Panhandle (home to many veterans). Democrats expect McBride will do similarly well along the I-4 corridor in the general election; and while they acknowledge that he won't be able to beat Bush in North Florida, they hope he'll still be able to steal some votes there. "He reminds me of a cross between Reuben Askew and Bob Graham," says Orlando Democratic consultant Dick Batchelor, invoking the names of two former Democratic governors who drew well outside of the Democrats' traditional South Florida base. "He's a smart, level-headed, moderate Democrat. I think there are a lot of traditional Democratic voters in Central and North Florida who have been voting for Republicans but who want to come back home. And McBride offers them the opportunity to do just that." But the key for McBride will be exciting the party's base of liberal voters-- blacks, non-Cuban Hispanics, seniors, Jews, and South Florida whites--who favored Reno in the primary and who may harbor some bitterness over the botched vote count. With that in mind, McBride tapped as his running mate State Senator Tom Rossin, who represents West Palm Beach, and has begun trying to redirect ill will over the election mess toward Bush. "The governor promised that there would be resources given to the supervisors of elections so we wouldn't have a problem like we had in 2000," McBride said last week as reporters barraged him with questions about voting problems in Miami-Dade County and Broward County. "Again, he made a promise that he didn't deliver on." Reno may help with this, too: In her concession speech, she pledged to campaign for McBride this fall and to focus on election reform "to [figure] out how we assure the people of Florida just, fair, timely, and accurate elections. The present governor of Florida has had two shots at it now, and he's not met either opportunity." The 2000 election fiasco is just one reason Democrats across the country are eager to see Jeb Bush lose. There's also the fact that a Bush defeat would be terribly embarrassing to the White House, which, as Ryan Lizza recently pointed out in these pages, has done everything it possibly can--from awarding Florida a disproportionate number of federal grants to tinkering with federal environmental policy--to give Jeb a leg up in his reelection campaign (see "He Ain't Heavy," July 29, 2002). Then, of course, there's the other reason--aside from brotherly love--why the White House has been pulling out all the stops for Jeb: Florida, the nation's largest swing state and the one that granted George W. Bush his hair-thin 2000 victory, is key to the president's reelection strategy in 2004. "Taking Jeb Bush out would do more to mess up President Bush's reelection plans than any other one race this fall," says a Democratic National Committee (DNC) official. "It would put the White House in a huge box. Traditionally, if something like that happens, the White House punishes the state and ignores it: Phone calls don't get returned, grants don't get given. But how do you run there in two years if you do that? How do you win the state that your brother just lost?" Which is why Democrats from all over the country are lining up to help McBride in any way that they can, beginning with campaign contributions. McBride raised more than $3 million for his primary campaign (he also funneled millions in soft-money contributions through the state party and through a teachers' union political action committee); but he is completely broke going into the general election, in which he estimates he'll need to spend more than $800,000 per week for TV ads. That shouldn't be a problem. "There's a lot of excitement among the donor base for McBride," says Mitchell Berger, the finance chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, which will again help McBride with soft-money contributions this fall. "Donors are like stock market watchers. They read polls. And the polling indicates a dead heat between Bush and McBride. " Making things even better for McBride on the campaign finance front is the fact that his chief money man, Richard Swann, is the father-in-law of fund- raiser extraordinaire and DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "I think we'll be fine with money," McBride told me. Then there's the kind of national support that may be even more important than fund-raising: getting high-profile Democrats to help McBride troll for votes. This should be especially easy when it comes to those Democrats who are thinking about running for president in two years. Indeed, according to Swann, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Al Gore have all had discussions with the McBride campaign about appearing in Florida on McBride's behalf. And they likely won't be the only presidential hopefuls stumping for him. "I'm sure Dick Gephardt and John Edwards would come if we asked them, and I intend to ask them, " says Swann. "I'm sure anybody interested in 2004 would be delighted to help." As the DNC official puts it, "Florida clearly has a special place in every Democrat's heart." McBride, of course, can't run on a platform of pure, unadulterated Bush hatred, so he has tried to channel the anti-Bush sentiment into an actual issue: education. Bush ran for governor four years ago on a promise to improve Florida's public schools, and after he was elected the legislature swiftly passed his "A-Plus" education plan, which mandates annual testing of students and assigns each school in Florida a grade based on the results. Schools that get A's get more money; students at schools that get repeated F's are given state-funded tuition vouchers to attend private schools. But Florida schools remain near the bottom in most school rankings of the 50 states, and the public appears to be getting frustrated: A statewide survey of voters in June found that only 34 percent thought Bush's plan had improved education in Florida; 46 percent felt it hadn't. So it's not surprising that McBride has made education the overriding issue of his campaign. He has blasted Bush's A-Plus program as a "mirage" and has flayed the governor for not spending enough on schools (Florida ranks fortieth among the states in K-12 per-pupil spending). McBride has put forth his own detailed education program, which calls for ending the grading of schools and using testing only to measure individual student performance. The centerpiece of McBride's program, though, is a 50-cent-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes that will help generate an additional $1 billion to spend on education. "This election is about children and public schools," McBride told me. "Public schools are the reason I got into this race." The potent synergy of public dissatisfaction with state education and Democratic animus toward Bush was on display when McBride addressed a meeting of the FEA in Orlando two days after declaring his primary victory. The teachers' union, of course, supports McBride--parts of his education program read like they could have been written by the union. But as much as the teachers like McBride, they detest Bush. WE'VE SEEN THE FUTURE, AND IT AIN'T YOU JEB, read one button sported by many of the professional educators in attendance. BUCK FUSH, declared another. One FEA member sported her own homemade pin: "JESUS LOVES YOU, JEB. EVERYONE ELSE THINKS YOU'RE AN ASSHOLE." McBride, sensing the mood in the room, didn't waste much time going into the finer points of his education plan. Instead, he gave the crowd the red meat it clearly craved. "I think that what Jeb Bush should do is quit hiding behind his thirty-second television ads," McBride said to shouts of "That's right!" He then launched into one of his favorite riffs--what he calls his "flatbed-truck idea." "We're gonna get a flatbed truck," McBride told the teachers, his accent becoming even more pronounced, "and we'll drive around, and we'll go from city to city. Just me and him. He can stand up and talk about what his policies are, what he sees as the future of Florida, and then I'll talk. He'll talk, I'll talk. Then we'll take questions and let everybody go at it. The old style of politics where you hide behind handlers, where you have blow-dried hair, where you wear makeup, I don't want that anymore." The teachers rose to their feet and yelled their approval. McBride paused to let the noise die down. "I'm ready, Jeb," he said with a hint of contempt in his voice. "Are you?" The crowd erupted once more. After the speech I rode with McBride for the 90-minute drive back to his home outside of Tampa. He had gotten up at 4:30 that morning when a crew from NBC's "Today" show had arrived at his house to set up for an interview, and the pep he'd had for his speech to the teachers had waned. As he reflected on his campaign, though, some of his verve returned. "We sort of toiled away in obscurity there for a while," he said. "But I think the passion is there now. I mean, like this morning, I don't think you can phony that up." He talked about all the money and advice that was beginning to pour in from Democrats around the country--"My problem right now is I've got about two hundred calls I haven't returned that I need to get around to"--but he acknowledged that he didn't think it had as much to do with him as with the race he was in. "It's a very important state, the fourth largest, almost the third largest in the country, so there's a lot of national attention on Florida anyway," he said. "Then there's more interest in this campaign because the governor is the president's brother. And then because of 2000." Indeed, the more McBride talked, the more he suggested that he knew he was part of a phenomenon a lot bigger than his own candidacy. He said that if he loses to Bush, he doubts that he will run again. "There's a time for everybody to do something, and this might be the right time for me," he explained. "I'm fifty-seven, I'm not a young kid, and I didn't plan on starting a political career, so this is probably the time that I will or that's that." But what if McBride does beat Bush? He didn't want to answer the question much beyond what he would do as governor. But if McBride were to win this November, he wouldn't just be Florida's new governor. He would be the man who beat a Bush, who exorcised the demons of the 2000 presidential campaign, and who gave the Democratic presidential nominee a huge leg up going into the 2004 race. McBride would be a bright, new political star. In other words, Bill McBride would just be getting started.

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