Alex Sink seeks to awaken Florida's moderate sleeping giant
Alex Sink is the anti-Sarah Palin.
Where the former half-term Alaska governor is flashy and aggressive, firing up her "mama grizzlies" and bashing the president, but never articulating a coherent policy narrative, Sink is quiet and careful. In fact she's very careful. She even pauses to think before she speaks. Long considered a bright prospect for state Democrats, Sink -- already the state's highest ranking female elected official as CFO -- hopes to join the small club of 32 women, Palin included, who have served as their state's chief executives.
So far, polls show her holding her own, if not bringing down the house. A recent Ipsos/Reuters poll found Sink leading hapless Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum within the margin of error, 31 to 30, and down 34 to 31 (also within the MOE) to millionaire astroturfer Rick Scott. Mostly, polls show that relatively few Floridians know who Sink is, even though she's held statewide office for nearly four years. (In her defense, CFO is hardly a high-visibility post.)
The upshot of the name ID deficit is that some voters aren't even aware that Ms. Sink, real name Adelaide, is a woman. That's in part because, unlike the marauding "pink elephants" of the GOP, Sink up to now has been running on pragmatism and good government (her big media release this year was a business plan for the state,) rather than her gender.
That will begin to change as the campaign heads into late summer, when the frugal Sink campaign plans to launch into its second phase.
"People are just now getting focused on the campaign," she said when I interviewed her on Thursday, adding that the campaign is now fully staffed up and planning a "week of action" during the second week of August "in which we're going to be engaging women particularly all across the state."
As for activists (and pundits, this one included) who have complained that Sink has lacked intensity and failed to generate grassroots excitement (and who fear the ghosts of her husband Bill McBride's lackluster run against Jeb Bush in 2002 -- back when more than a few Democrats wondered why he didn't step aside and let Alex run instead...) the candidate doesn't seem worried.
"I'm actually very excited and enthusiastic about where we are right now," Sink said. "We're exactly in the right place at the right time."
She may be onto something. The more radical the national and state Republican Party have become, and the more glaring the scandals in the Florida GOP, the better Sink is starting to look. It's quite possible, in this age of hyperbolic, histrionic, angry politics, that Sink might just be the right mild-tempered moderate at the right time. The consensus of political watchers is that the emergence of Scott, whose fortune was built on massive Medicare Fraud, as the front runner in the Republican primary, forcing McCollum to the far right on issues like immigration and abortion, has been a gift to the Sink campaign.
Once she starts barnstorming the state in earnest, Floridians will notice some differences between Sink and the men who have run the state, starting with her accent, which after eight years of Jeb Bush's Brahman, Kennebunkport delivery and Charlie Crist's mild croon, stands out for its striking, genuinely southern twang (especially in the New York boroughs of Broward County. Just my take: she should lose the voice coaches and just let it ride.) But in some ways, Sink represents a continuation of the moderate, fiscally disciplined administration she's hoping to succeed. The former bank executive is noted, and sometimes mocked by her opponents, for penny pinching.
"I am a fiscal conservative and I wanted to conserve my resources," Sink said of her modest campaign spending to date (despite strong fundraising), and touting the "hundreds of millions of dollars" in savings she's scoured the state budget for on behalf of the cash-starved state. "That's how I ran as CFO. That's how I've been managing myself and my office."
Sink has done some things that go outside the box. In June, she became the first statewide candidate to campaign in Miami's black enclave of Liberty City, even getting there before Senate candidate Kendrick Meek, who's from the neighborhood (he's holding a rally there on Sunday.) Often, black voters complain that Democratic campaigns wait until the eleventh hour to engage their communities. And if Sink is unfamiliar to most Floridians, she's a total unknown to a majority of black voters, who Democrats hope to coax back to the polls for even a close approximation of the Obama turnout from 2008.
She has been an aggressive advocate for small businesspeople in Northwest Florida and the Panhandle who have been hit hardest by the Gulf oil spill (she opposes drilling near the Florida coast), calling for an upcoming special legislative session on a possible offshore drilling ban to also include discussion of tax breaks for those businesses.
And while she was relatively quiet during the rancorous national debates on the stimulus and healthcare, Sink has been very vocal on issues that play to her profile of fiscal restraint, including the Republican Party of Florida credit card and Jim Greer scandals. On those, Sink faults her opponent, Bill McCollum, for not recognizing his conflicts of interest. She said her early, vehement calls for McCollum to recuse himself from any investigation of his party by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) had nothing to do with politics, and "everything to do with ethics and integrity and common sense."
"With all the controversy around Jim Greer and the executive director (Delmar Johnson) and also the many public officials from (incoming House Speaker Dean) Cannon to (Senate President Jeff) Atwater to (Marco) Rubio who were using their credit cards for a very persoal use... to me, from a common sense point of view it meant it should be investigated," Sink said. "Even looking for possible criminal violations."
"That's the attorney general's responsibility," she added. "However our A.G. happens to be a high ranking Republican officeholder himself with a clear, close relationship with Chairman Greer. When the attorney general announced his candidacy, Chairman Greer was standing right there alongside him. And everyone knew that Chairman Greer was very aggressive about getting other people including the agriculture commissioner (Charles) Bronson not to run to clear the field for McCollum. So the very fact that A.G. McCollum didn't see that he shouldn't be the one to call for his own investigation..."
"In January, he said, 'well let's wait and see' -- he says 'wait and see' a lot -- he says 'let's wait and see what they come up with on their own.'"
Sink added that when, months later, McCollum directed the FDLE to conduct an investigation, "well, the FDLE is an agency of the cabinet that reports, among others, to the attorney general. It's just a clear conflict of interest and it should have never been handled that way."
Sink seemed a bit reluctant to go after Crist, though she did call him "lax" in not taking complaints about his hand-picked party chairman seriously. "He was blinded by loyalty to a friend who it turns out is very close to going to jail."
However, Sink was unsparing in her criticism of the the way things are run in the place where she works, the State Capitol in Tallahassee.
"I've been here just long enough to see how the place works," she said. "They're out of control and they're out of touch with the people of Florida."
As evidence, Sink cited several pieces of legislation she said put Republican leaders in Tallahassee outside the Florida mainstream. She called the teacher tenure bill, SB6, a "bureaucratic state takeover of local school decision making process," that would have "hamstrung" the ability of local school boards to administer their workforces.
She said a bill that would have required women seeking an abortion to view and pay for an invasive ultrasound, which like SB6 was vetoed by Crist, represented state intrusion into the personal lives of Floridians, just like the Terri Schiavo case.
"We don't need government to get involved in personal decisions between and individual and their physician," she said.
And she slammed the Republican Party for "this culture of corruption; carrying (donor-funded) credit cards around and charging $1,000 a night (hotel) rooms and big meals at fancy places."
"What were they thinking?" she added. "That's why we need a new governor. We need a governor that's going to stand up and call these people out for these misdeeds."
To ensure that she becomes that governor, Sink is counting on a resurgence of the forces who rose up against the teacher tenure bill, an uprising of the state's teachers and school administrators, but also of students and parents, that was credited with bringing about both the Crist veto, and his ultimate exit from the Republican Party.
"I think the thing that really encouraged me was when I saw the reaction to that Senate Bill Six," she said. "When I put out a call on my website (that) if you're against this, sign this petition, and within a few days we had 13,000 people sign, I thought, well maybe the sleeping giant is waking up, and that's what has to happen this fall."
Sink could yet be derailed by a former fellow Democrat. Lawton "Bud" Chiles, son of the late governor, Lawton Chiles, has filed to run "no party affiliated," like Crist. Polls show him taking up to 13 percent of the vote, which most analysts believe comes directly from Sink's support. Democrats have been putting increasing pressure on Chiles to drop out, lest his quixotic run elect a Republican, but so far, the appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
Sink said Chiles "is just like any other citizen," and "has a right to put his name on the ballot," though her campaign apparently tried, and failed, to talk him out of running. (In all, there are 14 candidates running for governor.)
Despite the challenges, Sink stressed that her strategy will be to reach out to the people who mobilized against SB6, to try and recapture the momentum of that victory for her campaign.
"I've said we have got to re-mobilize that group of parents and administrators and teachers once again, because if they don't go to the polls and vote, this right wing agenda is going to be back in January, and they will have their way, and they'll have a governor that will go along with it."
Well if that isn't enough to generate excitement, I don't know what is.
Cross-posted at The Reid Report
Author's note: the article originally stated that 16,000 petitions were signed by anti-SB6 Floridians. The number has been corrected to 13,000.