Florida House minority leader Lois Frankel is waging an impossible campaign for governor

But whatever green the Democratic Party gives Frankel, it's mere pennies compared to what the group will spend by next October's primary. Although the Dems have never shelled out more than $10 million on a state race, party chairman Bob Poe says they will spend at least $20 million by the time voters cast their ballots next fall.

"Republicans outspent us four to one in the presidential election, and they thought they had everything going for them, which they obviously didn't," he says. "If Republicans feel they have this election, then that's a false sense of security that will play into our hands. We're going to match or exceed what they spend."

In terms of registered voters, Democrats have a slight edge this year. Statewide, they outnumber Republicans 44 to 40 percent. Frankel's grassroots, cross-state, road-trip campaign (her schedule shows her visiting as many as seven towns a week until January 2002) is designed to appeal to the remaining independents.

Sherri Cohen
Faithful Frankel contributor and lobbyist Ron Book thinks 2002 might not be the minority Speaker's year
Sherri Cohen
Faithful Frankel contributor and lobbyist Ron Book thinks 2002 might not be the minority Speaker's year

Fine-tuning this strategy are Washington consultants Mark Putnam and David Murphy, the political witch doctors behind Ruth Anne Minner's unexpected 2000 Delaware gubernatorial win and Gov. Bob Holdin's victory last year in Missouri. Putnam and Murphy will go head-to-head with Clinton consultants Frank Greer and James Carville, who are helping Reno. "Lois is dedicated to this campaign," says Murphy. "We're sending out mailings now, but it's up to her to really get out there and meet people. The Frankel for Governor campaign is an investment we're proud of." Before September 11, it might have taken Frankel less than five seconds to give a sound bite that took a chunk out of Jeb Bush. Not anymore.

"I'm not about to say anything... that, uh... might be perceived as unsupportive... name-calling isn't cool right now," she says carefully. "I wouldn't want anyone to get the impression that I am... that I was anything other than supportive right now."

A minute of silence goes by. "He's making some good speeches right now, and the person who's writing them is doing a really good job," she says. "Let's just say there are greater evils than the Republican party out there right now."

Aw, what happened to the old Lois Frankel, who appeared on CNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews September 5? On the show, Republican House Speaker Tom Feeney, Frankel's legislative nemesis, predicted that the governor's race would entertain like the Super Bowl. Frankel gave a preview that confirmed his prediction by spending most of her air-time slamming Bush.

Matthews: You call Jeb Bush a "bum."

Frankel: He's taken with his tax cuts for corporate interests and for the wealthy. He's taken our budget to near-bankruptcy. Our school boards are having to cut services, cut transportation, school supplies; they put a freeze on hiring. He's set up this private-school slush fund, moving the tax dollars into the private schools. He's... he stole money.

Matthews: Did he steal the election for his brother?

Frankel: He should have stood up for the voters of Florida and demanded that our votes be counted. We felt like he... he hid behind the skirts of [Secretary of State] Katherine Harris.

By the time Frankel passes Yeehaw Junction while driving south on Florida's Turnpike, she has yawned twice. It's almost midnight. The two hard-shell tacos she bought at a Taco Bell outside Lakeland didn't really pick her up. Her face, animated all day, is now deflating. The skin under her eyes, which do not stray from the neon yellow line leading her car home, is a little puffy. Her cell-phone earpiece is still tucked into her ear, even long after her aides have finished telling her about a fundraiser that Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth hosted at his home the previous night. "Who was there? Uh-huh, uh-huh. Well, yeah, of course," she replies. Frankel has five voice-mail messages waiting. She tells New Times to write the numbers down and dial them when she's ready. "You're my personal assistant today, because I usually have someone with me," she says.

By the time a sign to West Palm is visible, Frankel has stopped talking politics. She says she would never go back to practicing divorce law because it's too depressing. Marriage is hard, she believes. Hillary Clinton? "If you call yourself a feminist," she says, "you can't say anything bad about Hillary for staying with Bill. She got more done with him than without him."

Pulling into her driveway, she offers one of the last sticks of Juicy Fruit. She has chewed almost the entire pack. It will be nice to sleep in her own bed, she says. She might have some time tomorrow to paint or watch an old movie, activities she spent an entire day doing during the week of the attacks to escape 24-hour news coverage. She parks and throws open the door.

"I hope you had fun," she mumbles, gathering her bag and the Lakeland ladies' complimentary fern from her back seat. "Let's try it again. I'll be doing this a lot."

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