By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
KISSIMMEE, Fla. Jan. 8, 2011……….Florida Democrats formally handed the keys over to former state Sen. Rod Smith Saturday, elevating their most recent nominee for lieutenant governor to party chairman at a time when there are very few Democrats at the state Capitol.
Smith, 60, in turn, told a boisterous crowd of about 300 gathered at the Gaylord Palms Resort in Kissimmee that it was time to get over the election last fall that diminished their numbers – and wiped them out of the Florida Cabinet.
“Today is the end of our period of mourning,” he said shortly after being elected by acclimation Saturday. “I don’t know about you, but I have pouted long enough. From this day forth, we will not again be dispirited, dissuaded, discouraged in reaching our eventual goal of turning this state around in 2012. We must think anew today, we must act anew today and we must move toward victory.”
Smith takes over a state Democratic Party still reeling from losing a governor’s race it thought it would win – by the narrowest margin in Florida history. The party also lost every race for the Florida Cabinet, as well as enough seats in the state Legislature to give Republicans veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate – though those may not be necessary with the chambers likely to be in ideological lockstep with new Gov. Rick Scott.
Smith told Democrats that the political reality in Tallahassee could give them an opening to mount a comeback, which he said would be centered on protecting the controversial FairDistricts redistricting amendments, re-electing U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and President Barack Obama with the help of Florida’s soon to be 29 electoral votes.
“They’re going to come after him. He is their target,” he said of the two-term senator who is the only Democrat left standing in statewide elected office after last year’s election, which makes him the biggest Republican target for 2012. “But you know whether it’s been crisis in the Gulf, whether it’s been storm (management), whether it’s been the needs of military bases, when there’s been a critical vote, all of us have been able to count on Bill Nelson, and I want to tell you one thing, he can count on this party. We’re going to send him back.”
“I don’t care how many people they line up, Bill Nelson is going to continue the Democratic majority in the United States Senate,” Smith said.
Smith takes over for Karen Thurman, who emerged as a lightning rod following a tenure which saw Obama become the party’s first presidential nominee to win Florida since 1996, but also saw a whole slate of state candidates decimated.
Thurman defended her tenure at the helm of the Democratic Party by noting where the party stood when she took over in 2005.
“We started out with some really tough times, but we came back in 2006 and we kicked butt,” she said during a reception in her honor Friday night. “We won a Cabinet race and we did wonderful jobs in the Legislature.”
Thurman continued her defense just before Smith’s formal election, comparing herself to her counterpart at the Republican Party of Florida from 2007 to early in 2009, embattled former RPOF chairman Jim Greer, now facing criminal charges.
“We didn’t have criminal investigations at the Florida Democratic Party,” she said. “We kept the books in order. Nobody’s been carried out in handcuffs. We’re not in orange (jumpsuits), we’re in blue.”
But for Democrats eager to turn the page on a disastrous election for them, Saturday was all about Smith. With no opposition in sight, his election basically amounted to a pep rally, one for which each of the defeated candidates from 2010 were on hand – and pledging to give Smith a helping hand if he needs one.
“Rod Smith, when you’re looking for a fighter, you count me in,” vanquished Agriculture Commissioner candidate Scott Maddox – a former state party chairman himself – said at the conclusion of a rousing speech.
“Voters in Florida thought they wanted change, but you know what they did? They voted in four more years of business as usual, and it is our job to make sure they know it,” defeated Chief Financial Officer candidate Loranne Ausley added.
Even the party’s 2010 gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink got in on the act, telling the crowd “I’m here to let you know that I’m not going away,” which brought the group to its feet. But Sink told the group that with Smith now in charge, they needed new candidates to change the party’s fortunes.
“We’ve got redistricting, but that’s not going to be the answer,” Sink said. “We’ve got to be recruiting good candidates right now…We’ve got races to run and we’ve got races to win.”
At the top of his remarks, Smith pledged to make that happen.
“I’m going to do my dead-level best to make sure that two years from now we are celebrating an entire turnaround of the Democratic Party in Florida,” he said.
But like the new governor – who bested Smith and Sink by about 67,000 votes last November – did in his inaugural address on Tuesday, Smith closed his first remarks in his new post Saturday with Gov. Scott’s ubiquitous campaign catchphrase: “let’s get to work.”