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Ex-senator: Florida politics needs more courage

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Published:   |   Updated: April 19, 2013 at 10:27 PM
TAMPA -

Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, unsuccessful Democratic candidate for attorney general in 2010 and a potential future candidate, told a Tiger Bay Club of Tampa audience Friday that the “simple desire to do what is right” and “the courage to act upon your conscience” are what’s missing in Florida politics.

In his speech and an interview, Gelber said he’s not inclined to run for attorney general again and that he and other lesser-known candidates will have to wait on those he called “the big three” — Sen. Bill Nelson, former Gov. Charlie Crist and former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink of Tampa — before deciding whether to run for governor.

“Those candidates freeze the field,” he said, because no others have equal name recognition. “Your ticket to entry in a statewide race is name ID … . I’m on the bench with everybody else.”

Asked about the attorney general’s race, he said, “I don’t know if I want to run down-ticket. It’s a real slog.”

In his speech, Gelber cited a little-known Florida state House member in the 1950s, Jack Orr of Miami, as “the most courageous public official in Florida history.”

In a 1956 special legislative session called to enact laws to thwart the U.S. Supreme Court’s school desegregation order, the newly elected Orr was the sole legislator to vote no and speak against the bills. That made him a political pariah until he was elected Miami Dade County mayor in 1972, and he lived only two more years.

“Imagine what the gun debate in the U.S. Senate would have looked like if people had just a little bit of Jack Orr in them … if people didn’t just respond to that narrow swath of voters in their base,” he said.

Gelber said most Florida Republicans are unwilling to antagonize their party’s base, citing as exceptions former state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, state Rep. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Crist, a former Republican.

Gelber said the party has fallen victim to “a litmus test.”

“If you are a fiscal conservative and socially moderate person, you’re not really welcome there as a candidate.”

He advocated opening Democratic primaries to no-party voters to prevent the same from happening to Democrats.

A Miami lawyer and former state and U.S. prosecutor and congressional investigator, Gelber lost to Republican Pam Bondi for attorney general in 2010.

He is still widely respected in his party for his qualifications and knowledge of issues, however, and some party activists want him to run again, either for attorney general or governor.

He’s maintaining a schedule of public appearances to keep himself in Democrats’ minds, including a gathering Thursday night at the home of Tampa backer Rochelle Reback.

At the Tiger Bay Club meeting, East Hillsborough writer Doris Weatherford, a fan of Sink for governor, said she hopes Gelber will run for attorney general, while former City Council member John Dingfelder said he’d like to see Gelber run for governor.


wmarch@tampatrib.com

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