|Bill McBride (Democrat)|
Bill McBride has the kind of resume political operatives dream of. He's a Florida native born to a working class family in rural Leesburg. He grew up attending public schools and, according to his campaign Web site, learned the value of hard work and education from his parents. He was elected governor of Florida's Boys State while in high school in 1962.
McBride was a high school football star and used his talent to win a scholarship to the University of Florida in Gainesville. After a preseason injury ended his football career the university said he could keep the scholarship, but McBride decided to give it back -- so another student athlete would have an opportunity, he said.
After graduating from Florida at the height of the Vietnam War, McBride joined the Marine Corps. In Vietnam, McBride earned a Bronze Star complete with a "V" for excellent service in combat. Upon his return to the states, McBride taught at the Marine Corps officers school in Quantico, Va. and later enrolled in the University of Florida law school.
While studying law he fell under the tutelage of Chesterfield Smith, a powerful and politically-connected Florida attorney and then president of the American Bar Association. McBride left law school for a time to serve as Smith's assistant at the ABA.
After graduation, he joined Smith's Tampa law firm, Holland & Knight, where he rose in the ranks until becoming managing partner in 1992. McBride's tenure at the helm of Holland & Knight has been the source of some controversy. He is credited with expanding the firm's size and power -- by the time he retired it was the seventh largest firm in the country with a staff of "1,400 attorneys and offices across the globe," says his official biography.
But soon after he left, the firm was forced to drastically scale back its operations, laying off 60 attorneys and 170 support staff.
"By the time McBride retired in 2001, the firm ranked seventh in the number of lawyers it employed, and 21st in terms of revenue -- but 98th in terms of profit-per-partner. It became known as a reputable, but flabby, operation, long on underproductive partners and comparatively short on workhorse associates," said a Washington Post report on Oct. 16.
While McBride had been involved in Democratic politics as a donor, fundraiser and a delegate to the national convention in 1984, he was a virtual unknown when he decided to challenge incumbent Jeb Bush for the governorship earlier this year. Standing in his way was a figure no less prominent than former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
The two ran neck and neck in a strange role-reversal campaign where Reno, the better known candidate, traveled the state in her red pickup truck practicing grassroots politics while McBride shored up support from the party and Democratic interest groups -- snatching up many surprise endorsements including the teachers' unions.
McBride won the race by a nose after another Florida election marred by voting system malfunctions and irregularities. The final tally, according to the Florida Department of State, gave McBride 44.4 percent of the vote to Reno's 44.0 percent.
In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, poll workers in some precincts were not able to operate new voting machines that were bought to remedy problems that occurred in the infamous 2000 presidential election. Cases of polls not opening on time and closing early were also reported.
Reno herself was unable to vote for a brief period after arriving at her precinct because workers were struggling to figure out the new machines. Both Democratic candidates lambasted Bush for the problems and Reno in particular vowed a crusade to reform the Florida electoral process before throwing her support to McBride.
Bush responded by saying the reforms his administration put in place after the 2000 election were, for the most part, effective in that 65 of the state's 67 counties conducted smooth elections.
In the campaign for the general election McBride has so far stuck to his claim that Bush has to go for his mismanagement of the state, particularly the education and child welfare systems.
Education is McBride's number-one issue. His biggest backers are the teachers' unions, and he has vowed to increase teacher salaries, reduce class size and do away with Bush's school rating and "accountability" system.
The Bush camp has criticized McBride, claiming he has not sufficiently explained where he would get the money for the reforms he has promised in a state that, like many, faces a gigantic budget shortfall. Bush claims his own programs have been successful, and that McBride has "a plan while we have a record."
The child welfare system in the state has been another point of contention during the campaign. Bush agrees that the Department of Children and Families, the state agency charged with protecting and caring for abused and neglected children, is in dire need of an overhaul after recent much-publicized cases of children under the agency's care being abused, lost and even killed.
Bush had to accept the resignation of his first department head in the controversy, and has chosen a new chief, Jerry Regier, who he says is capable and committed to reform. Regier has recently established a commission charged with recommending changes in the agency. He has also assembled an all-star executive staff that he says will turn the organization around.
McBride has said he would do nearly the same thing, but has also advocated raising the salaries -- and thereby the quality -- of state welfare workers and adding staff to lighten the untenable case loads social workers are asked to handle. Here also, however, he has shied away from the funding question, leaving himself open to Bush's constant complaint: McBride's plans lack specifics.
"With his bobbing and weaving and not saying anything specific, he won't have a chance to lead, in my opinion," Bush has said. McBride, according to the Washington Post, has sought to capture some of the down-home Southern charm of the former self-designated "He-Coon" of Florida politics, Gov. Lawton Chiles.
As an incumbent, Chiles ran an insurgent, grass-roots campaign to score a dramatic come-from-behind victory against a highly favored Bush in 1994. McBride, though once a powerful attorney, affects a country boy image with a soft-spoken twang and easy manner.
Recent polls have McBride pulling close to Bush -- within three percentage points according to a Zogby survey conducted Oct. 8-10. Bush has begun to unload his $37 million war chest to pay for a home stretch ad blitz, a move that has McBride scrambling to out-of-state fundraisers because he has so far sought to make the race local by politely refusing in-state visits from Democratic Party luminaries that could help his campaign, but also bring complications.
--By Jason Manning, Online NewsHour