Scott Maxwell: GOP needs grit — not Bill McCollum

Republican PartyElectionsDemocratic PartyCrime, Law and JusticePoliticsJustice System

As Florida's top Republicans begin convening in Orlando today for two days of socializing and strategizing, they should give serious thought to how badly they want to hold on to the governor's mansion.

If they do, they may want to rethink their decision to pin all their chances on two-time loser Bill McCollum.

This is, after all, a time when residents are sick of the status quo, career politicians and toe-the-line partisanship. McCollum epitomizes all three.

He wants to fix rotten big government — and wants even more for you to ignore the fact that he has been part of said government for 30 years.

Republicans have other options. State Sen. Paula Dockery is a no-nonsense leader who commands respect from both sides of the aisle and makes Democrats nervous.

Or, if the GOP kingmakers are hell-bent on McCollum, they should persuade him at least to act like he gives a flip about good government, transparency, social justice — heck, just about anything other than his 15th campaign for public office.

Most recently, McCollum has come under fire in his current job as attorney general for showing no interest in investigating the credit-card scandals in the Republican Party of Florida.

Basically, public officials are prohibited from taking gifts from special interests. Yet, now it looks as if multiple legislators had Florida GOP-issued American Express cards that special interests were helping pay off.

So where's our trusty attorney general? MIA.

McCollum said last week he wants to let the party — the one helping raise money for his campaign — do its own investigation first.

Good idea. Let's get that fox an auditing ledger before dispatching him to henhouse.

Then there are your power rates. Last year, we learned that the state officials who help approve rate increases were swapping secret text messages with power-company execs.

It looked like a potential violation of "Government in the Sunshine" laws. Yet McCollum took a pass on investigating that one too, opting instead for a study group and some beefed-up interoffice policies for his own staff.

How courageous.

These aren't just public-policy criticisms; they are ready-made attack ads for his leading opponent, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, and the Democrats.

But McCollum's most callous disregard for justice has been his unwillingness to look into the string of wrongfully convicted people in Brevard County — men who spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn't commit.

Advocates say more innocent people may still be behind bars. But McCollum hasn't lifted a finger to look into the matter, saying it isn't really his concern.

Those are just the messes that McCollum has refused to clean up — to say nothing of the ones he actually made.

Last year, McCollum decided to spend $1.4 million on TV ads under the guise of promoting child safety — when he seemed to be primarily promoting himself. He was featured for most of the 30-second spot.

Even the parents of some child victims were appalled. The mother of a molested 12-year-old told the Miami Herald: "I can't imagine spending that kind of money on an ad that doesn't get anything across except Bill McCollum's face."

It got worse. To produce the commercial, McCollum hired one of his own campaign consultants … through a no-bid contract.

An attorney general should be investigating such things — not perpetrating them.

I don't believe McCollum is corrupt. In fact, he seems mostly strait-laced. I just think he puts staying in office ahead of most everything else.

Dockery, on the other hand, has been eager to shake things up and take on the establishment — be it Central Florida's rail boosters or the good ol' boys in her own party. Even those who can't stand what she was doing acknowledge that she had clout and knew how to use it.

Voters crave grit.

This also would be Dockery's first statewide campaign. And she's a moderate, capable of siphoning away the independent voters who are so crucial to winning elections in this divided state.

Compare that with McCollum, whom voters rejected twice in statewide bids for the U.S. Senate until he lucked into running against an unknown Democrat in the A.G.'s race.

None of this is to say that McCollum can't beat Sink. In fact, the latest polls say he has a nice lead, thanks largely to a campaign from Sink that has been so unimpressive that her biggest critics have been her supporters.

Sink has dodged questions, refused to take stands and basically spent most of her time raising money and playing defense.

But the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Dems realize their weakness. They publicly chastised Sink and urged her to shape up. Sink then had a retreat with senior advisers and vowed to do better.

Basically, Democrats realized they had a flawed campaign going and made improvements.

Republicans should consider doing the same.

Scott Maxwell can be reached at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6141.

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