Loser of the Week: Florida Press Association’s Dean Ridings

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A friend who owns properties in Tallahassee told me he had no interest in buying the The Florida Press Center because there would be less turnover in a halfway house than in a building where newspaper, television, radio and wire services reporters work.

That Dean Wormer, err, Ridings, president and CEO of the FPA, was able to unload this halfway house of media organization on a buyer demonstrates that Ridings is a capable executive when it comes to real estate deals.

But he fell short in administering a statewide debate between two candidates locked in a brutal race for governor and broadcast by 11 television stations. How Ridings botched Wednesday’s debate makes him the clear-cut Loser of the Week in Florida politics.

His troubles with this debate began long before #Fangate and should have been a warning that, despite some smart people working for the organizations sponsoring this debate, there was no adult in the room to keep Scott and Crist from acting like children.

In August, the FPA and Leadership Florida announced the details about this debate, including the choice of moderators. The Crist campaign made it known that it had agreed only in principle to the date of the event, not any of the specifics.

One of the issues the Crist campaign had was the inclusion of Matt Walsh, editor and CEO of Observer Media Group, as a moderator. There was concern about Walsh having contributed to Mitt Romney in 2012, as well as his criticism of Crist policies as “the caricature of a hack.”

Walsh would later withdraw his participation.

A smaller issue that raised eyebrows was the plan to feature a social media panel “offering real time reaction.”

The panel included Naples Daily News editor Manny Garcia, Bob Gabordi, executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, and Jeremy Wallace, political writer with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. None of these journos, well, except for maybe Gabordi, is considered much of a presence on social media, but that did not appear to be a concern to debate organizers.

Just as long as “there is the Twitters.”

As the date of the debate got closer, Ridings and Co. were forced to deal with a challenge by Libertarian Adrian Wyllie that he be included. The debate organizers said that unless Wyllie tracked at 15 percent support in September in a Mason-Dixon poll, he could not participate.

Wyllie’s campaign fought to be included and noted the same groups used to set 10 percent support in a poll as the qualifying number. That was raised after a Reform Party candidate nearly won a court battle to participate in a 2006 gubernatorial debate.

Rules being rules, at least when it applies to Wyllie, kept the Libertarian out of the debate. The irony is that old-world newspapers bend over backwards to include Libertarians and other third-party candidates in their news coverage when it suits their purposes (how many campaign profiles of races featuring a major party candidate versus a no-chance-in-hell Libertarian are we being forced to read this month?)

Ridings would later say that he was unable to keep order at Wednesday’s debate because he had been distracted by Wyllie’s challenge.

“All of us were extremely focused on the Wyllie lawsuit,” Ridings said. “Frankly, calling our legal team to discuss a fan issue at that point seemed pretty trivial from my perspective.”

Pretty trivial, huh? Perhaps Ridings should Google “Fangate” and see what a mountain has been made out of this molehill.

In case you haven’t see TV, read a paper or gone online since Wednesday night, here’s what happened: Scott waited seven minutes, an eternity on live television, before appearing onstage — all because Crist insisted on having his portable pal plugged in below his lectern.

Just before the debate was about to start, Crist’s handlers placed a fan beneath his lectern near his feet. Scott’s handlers demanded that the moderators do something. But by then they were on live TV, facing an empty stage. Crist soon appeared, and CBS4 anchor Eliott Rodriguez turned to the audience.

“The rules of the debate that I was shown by the Scott campaign say that there should be no fan,” Rodriguez said. “Somehow there is a fan there. And for that reason, ladies and gentlemen, I am being told that Gov. Scott will not join us for this debate.”

“Are we really going to debate about a fan or are we going to talk about education and the environment and the future of our state? I mean, really,” Crist said.

That was apparently enough for Scott, who came out and joined the debate.

Fifty-one minutes later, the debate was over and, some say, the race.

If Scott does end up losing, he has just a handful of people to blame. His staff, for drawing a line in the sand over such a trivial issue. And Ridings, the traffic cop whose poor direction caused such a monumental pile-up.

The day after the debate, its organizers released a statement saying the Crist campaign broke the rules.

The funniest paragraph is this gem:

“At 6 p.m. Wednesday night, the temperature was checked on the stage under the lights, and was determined to be 67 degrees. Ridings then informed the Crist Campaign that there was no temperature issue, and no fan would be needed, or permitted.”

Ridings said there was no temperature issue, huh? So now he’s a walking thermostat.

“Between 6 and 6:20 p.m.,” (Wednesday), the sponsors’ statement said, “someone from the Crist campaign placed a fan under Charlie Crist’s podium and they were again told that no fans would be permitted. Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association did not anticipate or plan for the possibility that a candidate would not honor the debate rules. In retrospect, the debate partners should have been better prepared.”

There is the understatement of the year in Florida politics.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this column.

 

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.