Bringing Guns to a Knife Fight
by Derek Newton
In late 1997, Tampa area Rep. Elvin Martinez was appointed to a judgeship by then Governor Lawton Chiles. Martinez was a Democrat who had established himself as a leader on criminal justice and was a fine choice.
The appointment created a vacancy in the House to be filled by Special Election. Martinez's district was, and still is, mostly Democratic. Today it's represented by a fine Democrat - "Coach" Bob Henriquez.
But that October, voters chose Republican Deborah Tamargo over bright, young, talented Democratic lawyer Kathy Martinez. The race really wasn't that close.
Lobbyists and strategists dismissed the Republican upset win as further proof of a rising Republican tide in Florida. A tide that a year earlier delivered the state House and a year later would wash Jeb into the Governor's mansion.
But at the time, I watched and learned a valuable lesson about the way in which Republicans win elections.
Before the polls opened, Republicans sent a piece of direct mail to voters that in bold, red letters had the following cover: "Kathy Martinez. Lawyer. Liberal. Liar."
The lawyer part was true enough. And the liberal part was, in fairness, an opinion. Fine. But the liar part struck me then and I remember it now as excessive. But it was not unusual.
Republicans know they are wrong on most issues but they don't care about being wrong because they don't campaign on issues anymore. They campaign and win by destroying us.
Specifically, Republicans attack the character of our candidates and politicians. Their first objective in every campaign is to destroy our credibility. They say our candidates are liars, will say anything to get elected or can't be trusted.
Because if voters believe a Kathy Martinez or a John Kerry or a Buddy MacKay is a liar, they wonâ€™t believe them when they tell the truth about issues or anything else.
It's an impressively simple formula.
Republicans attack Democrats with a suddenness, clarity and totality that we seem never to anticipate and always unwilling to emulate.
And I have a theory about why.
Democrats are nice people. By and large Democratic candidates, donors and strategists set their feet on the political battlefields to help people. We care about right and wrong.
Republicans may be nice people too. But their candidates, donors and strategists fight not to help but to win. They care about power.
Since Republicans see campaigns as exercises in power, they never hesitate to attack first, attack hardest and kill early. Since Democrats believe campaigns are about people, we continue to tell voters that we agree with them on issues.
Clearly one strategy is working. And it's not ours.
While Republicans continue to run their campaigns like killing fields, Democrats have a choice to make.
We can continue to be the issue lambs being slaughtered by the Republican war machine or we can act like the Republicans did when they were in the minority: We can get mean. We can shed our inhibitions about attacking first. We can learn how to attack their credibility.
In Miami we call it cojones and we need to find ours.
Campaigns arenâ€™t exercises in civil debate anymore. They've become knife fights. And we can't allow our candidates to be surprised when Republicans bring guns to a knife fight.
Like most Democrats I got involved in politics to help people.
But we can't help anyone when we lose. So if winning means we have to attack harder, faster and more often, sign me up.