It’s a shame the Democrats didn’t have Tom Slade working for them

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The strengths of Tom Slade, the former Florida Republican chairman who died Oct. 20, included a talent for recruiting good candidates for offices the party had not won before.

Comptroller Bob Milligan and Education Commissioner Frank Brogan were two of them.

But this story, untold until now, is about a big one that got away.

In January 1998, making his second campaign for governor, Jeb Bush needed to replace his running mate, Sandra Mortham. She quit the ticket, or was forced off, because of newspaper attacks on her ethics as secretary of state.

Slade, who appeared with Bush and Mortham for that announcement, was searching for a successor. Bush, who had narrowly lost to Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles in 1994, couldn’t afford another stumble.

Slade had in mind a Democrat, State Sen. Rick Dantzler, who was respected in the Legislature and by the capital press, but was largely unknown outside of Tallahassee and his Polk County home.

Dantzler was running for governor himself. Slade didn’t have to be reminded that a similar straight-arrow but obscure young legislator, Reubin Askew, had defeated three better-known Democratic primary opponents and an incumbent Republican governor in 1970.

Slade admitted to a journalist that he fretted some over the thought that Dantzler might repeat that history.

“But then I roll over and go back to sleep,” he said, “because I know the Democrats wouldn’t be smart enough to nominate him.”

Upon Mortham’s departure, Slade made an overture to Dantzler to replace her as Bush’s candidate for lieutenant governor.

But he didn’t do it directly. He asked two friends of Dantzler’s to carry the message.

One was Carl Carpenter, a former Hillsborough County legislator serving as deputy secretary of agriculture. The other was Prentiss Mitchell, a lobbyist for insurance and agriculture interests.

“Tom said Jeb absolutely would take him on,” Mitchell recalled last week. “He was dead serious.”

It was Carpenter who took the message to Dantzler. As he described the conversation, he urged the senator to accept. Carpenter, a Democrat at the time, said it didn’t bother him that Dantzler would have to change parties.

It did bother Dantzler.

“I remember wondering what people would think if I switched parties, joined Jeb’s ticket and began touting a brand new message,” Dantzler said in an e-mail to me last week. “I’d worked hard to be principled in my public life, and I feared that such a move would smack of pure opportunism and to the extent that I’d gained anybody’s respect I’d lose it.

“Part of my thinking in refusing was it seemed a bit far-fetched, and at the time I still thought I had a chance of winning the (Democratic) nomination,” Dantzler said. “I even wondered if it could have been a trick. Tom told me long after the election that he wished I had known him better than to have thought that.”

It was Brogan, the education commissioner, who succeeded Mortham on what proved to be the winning ticket.

Dantzler continued his underdog campaign for the Democratic nomination but gained no traction against Buddy MacKay, Lawton Chiles’ lieutenant governor, who had been on four statewide ballots and was much better known. They were appealing to the same constituency. In June, Dantzler agreed to be MacKay’s running mate, seeking the same office with which Slade had tried to lure him.

After their loss to Bush-Brogan, MacKay became governor for three weeks upon Chiles’ death from a heart attack. Dantzler has not sought another office.

With Slade dead, and Bush not responding to my e-mail inquiry, it’s impossible to know whether the chairman actually had Bush’s authority to recruit Dantzler or had additional candidates in mind.

My hunch is that Slade was serious and that he would not have made the overture without Bush’s express OK. But what if he had made the offer in person, rather than through an emissary? Would Dantzler be completing hissecond term as governor this year?

Under Slade’s chairmanship, Republicans captured the Legislature, gerrymandered the Democrats into near-irrelevance, and dominated the executive branch.

The worst thing that ever happened to the Democrats was that they didn’t have Slade and the Republicans did.

That was largely their own fault.

Slade began his political career in 1962 as a Democratic House member from Jacksonville. But the Democratic-dominated Legislature enacted a candidate-loyalty oath that would have barred Slade from endorsing Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. He left the Legislature, returning two years later as a Republican senator. History marched on.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.