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Ben Pollara: Baby got bench: Florida Democrats’ 2018 field

Gwen Graham’s recent semi-surprise, twofer announcement has the Florida chattering classes (temporarily) taking their attention away from 2016 and toward a post-Rick Scott state Capitol.

The year 2018 will mark 20 straight years in which Republicans have monopolized the Governor’s Mansion. Democrats are understandably terrified about that continued dominance, particularly when they consider the judicial appointments the next governor will make.

At the moment, the Florida Supreme Court is the only true check on absolute Republican hegemony in Florida.

But Florida Democrats should take comfort in the knowledge that:

  1. a) their next opponent, while sure to be well funded, is not likely to be anywhere in the ballpark of Rick Scott-monied, and
  2. b) Democrats have a deep bench from which to select their nominee and he or she doesn’t have to be named Graham — though that may well be – and almost certainly won’t be named Charlie Crist.

Let’s take a look at the prospects:

(For the record, with virtually everyone on this list I have either a personal friendship, political connection, or donor relationship. In many cases, I have all of those connections. So take my assessments with the appropriate grains of salt.)

The Bigs

Gwen Graham

The case: Duh. The names Graham and Chiles are legendary among Florida Democrats as a reminder of the bygone days when our party used to win, win, win. Her congressional campaign fund isn’t easily transferable to a state committee, but she’s nevertheless both sitting on some gold and more than capable of raising it.

The fact that she could narrow the traditionally huge margins Republicans rack up in the Jacksonville-to-Panhandle stretch of Florida likewise makes her attractive to Democrats.

The Questions: Does bailing on an almost certainly no-win re-election hurt her? Does she have the experience? And does her moderate record make it difficult for her to fire up the South Florida-heavy base?

Philip Levine

The Case: Re-elected last fall in a landslide, the wealthy, telegenic Mayor of Miami Beach could be the Democrats’ answer to Scott.

Levine made a boatload of money when he sold his company, OnBoard Media, a few years back and hasn’t exactly been in retirement since. He’s invested in real estate and, oh yeah, gotten elected and then re-elected Miami Beach Mayor. He spent over $1 million of his own money in the process.

His tenure as mayor has been marked by his commitment to put Miami Beach on the forefront of combatting sea-level rise. That has gotten him national attention. What other Florida mayor has gotten interviews in Vanity Fair?

Levine also has stepped up as a big time surrogate for his longtime friend, Hillary Clinton, working local and national cable news non-stop on her behalf.

The Questions: How much of his own money is he prepared to spend? Is Florida prepared to elect a Jewish lifelong bachelor as its governor?

Will the sausage-making of local government tarnish a potential run? Where are all the Democratic heavies in his political orbit?

Buddy Dyer

The Case: Dyer has the title of Orlando’s “Mayor for Life” if he wants it. He’s on his 12th year in the job and has overseen a transformational era of redevelopment and revitalization of his city. He’s got a smart, loyal, political team, informally led by the brilliant Kelly Cohen, and a reservoir of goodwill that, if tapped, could raise big dollars for a statewide run.

He also heroically saved a woman and her dog from a pit bull attack in an episode straight out of Hollywood.

The Questions: Does Dyer want any other title than Orlando’s “Mayor for Life”? Can he parlay Orlando’s economic growth into a statewide war chest?

Bob Buckhorn

The Case: Buckhorn, like Dyer and Levine, recently sailed into re-election and has been openly musing about a run for governor since 2014. Buckhorn is likewise overseeing a relative boom in his city’s redevelopment, capped by the arrival of a billionaire who’s cut a deal to build out a huge chunk of downtown Tampa.

He’s a broadly popular, charming guy, and an all-Democratic city council has allowed him to govern effectively.

The Questions: Does Buckhorn have the fire in his belly to do this? Can he raise the money to make a statewide run viable? What compelling rationale would drive his candidacy?

Everyone Else

Jeremy Ring

The Case: Served a dozen years in the Legislature, was an early employee at Yahoo and has some money in the bank as a result. He’s moderate. Ring recently announced he was considering a run.

The Questions: Why him? Seriously, why?

Alvin Brown

The Case: Brown was Jacksonville’s first Democratic mayor in years and first black mayor ever. He lost his re-election last year in a race where he was outspent dramatically.

The Questions: Can he put together the money and the coalition to pull off a race like this? Can he salvage a relationship with the LGBT community and liberal base that suffered as a result of the fight over Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance?

Alex Sink

The Case: Never count out Alex Sink. She may be one for three after losing the special election that put David Jolly in Congress, but her one win was statewide and she’s the only Democrat not named Nelson or Obama to win statewide since the turn of the century.

She has stayed politically involved and has a vast network of business people and pro-choice women who remain loyal to her.

The Question: Does she have any interest at all? Not in the job, but in the campaign it would require? What would Emily’s List do in a Sink v. Graham primary?

Oscar Braynon

The Case: Braynon is young, handsome, charismatic and universally recognized as an effective and well-liked senator by members of both parties. He scored a big win this session passing his longtime priority, a needle-exchange program in Miami-Dade. He scored an even bigger victory over Scott, almost singlehandedly torpedoing his nominee for Surgeon General.

Braynon is likely to pick up some seats this fall and become the most powerful Democratic leader the Florida Senate has seen for a long time.

The Questions: Does he have any interest in the job? And if he does, would he be willing to give up leading the Democrats in a Florida Senate where he already wields real power?

Lauren Book

The Case: Super lobbyist Ron Book’s daughter is almost certainly in the next class of the Florida Senate. She’s already demonstrated her capacity to raise gigantic dollars and she’s got a national profile from her work on behalf of victims of sexual abuse with her charity, Lauren’s Kids.

She’s also built a Walkin’ Lawton-like profile through those efforts, walking the state on behalf of abused children.

The Questions: Too soon? That’s really it. Her candidacy for statewide office is a question of when, not if.


Ben Pollara is a political consultant and a founding partner of LSN Partners, a Miami Beach-based government and public affairs firm. He runs United for Care, the Florida medical marijuana campaign and is a self-described “hyper-partisan” Democrat. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Written By

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist, editor and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing, reporting and management experience, Phil produced content for both print and online, in addition to founding several specialty websites, including His broad range included covering news, local government and entertainment reviews for, technical articles, and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine as well as advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as editor and production manager for Extensive Enterprises Media since 2013 and lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul. He can be reached at

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