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Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
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Sen. Rich lags in recognition in race for governor

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TAMPA -

While as many as half a dozen Democrats dither about running against Gov. Rick Scott in 2014, former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston is pounding the campaign trail and has been for a year.

But Rich faces the same problem former state legislators often have when they try to make the move to statewide office.

She’s respected in her party as a leader, particularly as an advocate on health and child-welfare issues, and in her community for a long history of volunteer community and philanthropic work.

But outside her home turf of southeast Florida, she’s barely known.

That makes Rich an underdog in a Democratic primary that could feature a former governor and household name, Charlie Crist; a former statewide officeholder who has run for governor, Alex Sink; and others at least as well known as Rich.

“The challenge for Nan is just a real lack of name recognition to get started,” said Betty Castor, a Tampa area Democratic icon and Sink loyalist. “People just don’t know her. She hasn’t run outside her own district.”

That problem showed up in a Public Policy Polling survey published Tuesday in which Scott trailed Crist 52 percent to 40 percent and trailed Sink and former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio by smaller margins but led Rich 42 percent to 36 percent.

She also faces another problem.

Florida’s Democratic center of gravity is her home turf: the massive Southeast Florida base of Jewish, black and Hispanic voters in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

But then there’s the Central Florida swing area with moderate Democrats and Puerto Ricans, and North Florida, where conservative Dixiecrats dominate the party.

“The key is a candidate that can appeal in all three places,” said Tampa Democratic political consultant Ana Cruz.

That’s not easy.

“A South Florida liberal may excite Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, but underperform elsewhere,” said former state Sen. Steve Geller of Fort Lauderdale.

Democrats have looked for a solution from the center. Their past three nominees for governor were Tampa moderates Bill McBride in 2002, Jim Davis in 2006 and Sink in 2010.

But they all lost, Rich noted: “I think it’s time to try something new.”

Rich said the answer is “a true Democrat with core Democratic principles,” suggesting that a former Republican such as Crist isn’t the solution.

But Geller, a Crist backer, noted that McBride, Davis and Sink all lost in part because they didn’t get the kind of turnout from the Southeast Florida base that President Barack Obama got in November.

“What we need is a moderate from Central Florida who can excite the base voters in the southeast,” which he said means Crist.

Rich has irritated some fellow Democrats — though none would talk about it on the record — with what they described as her impatience at those who disagreed with her on issues she considers crucial.

But her reputation as an advocate for society’s most vulnerable citizens remains unquestioned.

“In a town where everybody’s got an agenda, she was pure at heart, always fighting for the people who most needed it: the poor, the elderly, the sick,” said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, who served with her.

As of the end of 2012, she had raised about $80,000 for her campaign, but said she didn’t start intense fundraising efforts during the year.

Her early campaign start, while better-known potential candidates are still waiting, was an attempt to build the name recognition she needs.

She’s hitting the road, making several appearances a week at local Democratic Party meetings and clubs. She shows up anywhere she can find a couple of dozen Democrats in a room, concentrating on the areas where she most needs to make up ground: central Florida and the Tampa area.

Saturday night, she spoke at a Lakeland Democratic Party fundraising dinner.

“People were fairly excited,” said county party secretary Dina Friedman. “In Polk County we don’t get that much attention; there’s not a lot of Democrats here.”

Rich, who’s close to former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, eventually could get help from them but said she hasn’t received any commitment for support in a primary.

Last week, she “re-launched” her campaign with a fundraising email to supporters under the headline, “Why I’m running for governor.”

“I see a Florida where the interests of children, seniors, and working families are the top priorities,” the email said.

“By making a real commitment to public education, from pre-k to college, and by ensuring quality healthcare is available for all Floridians, we will attract new business and industry to Florida, creating quality jobs across the state.”

Rich doesn’t flatly reject the label “liberal,” but is more likely to say she advocates “progressive” causes, and adds, “I’m not big on labels, I’m really about issues.”

Her website, www.nanrich2014.com/, lists three “issues” sections:

On education, Rich supports well-funded public schools and opposes conservative reform advocates whom she says are “laying the groundwork for a hostile corporate takeover of public schools by large, for-profit management companies.”

On health care, she says Florida is engaged in a “race to the bottom” — 50th of 50 states in uninsured adults and 48th in uninsured children. The state will make things worse, she said, hurting its economy, by rejecting federally funded expansion of Medicaid.

On election law, she faults Republicans for using “sophisticated, partisan, political tactics drawn in the back rooms of right-wing extremists bent on suppressing Democratic votes.”

Rich, 71, served in the state House from 2000-04 and in the Senate from then until her 2012 term limit.

After initially working in her husband’s floor-covering business, she devoted herself to philanthropic work and community organizing, founding or leading several child welfare organizations and winning election as president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

She and her husband, David, have four children and three grandchildren.


wmarch@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7761

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