Florida’s hotly contested gubernatorial race is becoming one of the first major skirmishes for the 2012 presidential race – and a win by Democratic candidate Alex Sink may give President Obama a second term in the White House.
Republicans are cringing at the prospect, and GOP backers across the country are backing businessman Rick Scott for the state’s top job.
Influential Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, asked last weekend on “Fox News Sunday” which governor’s race Democrats considers most important, said without blinking: Florida.
“I think this has big implications — redistricting later on in the 2012 presidential race,” he said. “Obama would like to carry Florida.
“That’s the one to watch, I think, in terms of a governor’s race. Does a big state like Florida stay in the Republican column or can Alex Sink pick it up?”
Polls show the race appears to be in a dead heat, with Scott carrying a slight lead with the latest Rasmussen poll showing him ahead by 3 points.
But despite the blizzard of TV ads across the state, many Florida voters know little about Democrat Sink, who breezed to an easy win in the state’s Democratic primary.
Her supporters cite the official line that she is a former banker and Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, effectively the state’s treasurer, who they claim has the financial know-how to steer the Sunshine state in difficult economic times.
But a closer examination of her record demonstrates a woeful record of acting as steward over public and private financial institutions.
And despite efforts to distance herself in recent weeks, she has been a staunch supporter of President Obama’s economic program.
Sink’s detractors note that as the state’s leading financial official, she shares the lion’s share of blame for mismanaging the state’s pension funds, which lost a staggering $60 billion in less than a year. Her critics also point to scandals involving a bank where she worked and her approval of former felons as insurance agents.
Sink’s career in banking includes a position as president of Florida operations at Bank of America. She was appointed by Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles to the Commission on Government Accountability to the People.
In 2006, Sink — whose husband is Bill McBride, an unsuccessful nominee for governor in Florida in 2002 — ran as a Democrat for Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and won by a margin of seven percentage points.
In January of this year, Sink, now 62, announced that she would not run for governor and would instead stand for re-election as CFO. But after Gov. Charlie Crist said he would not run for re-election and seek a Senate seat instead, Sink announced on May 13 that she was running for governor.
She won the August primary by a wide margin against little known opposition.
With the election weeks away, attention has focused on Sink’s role as a trustee of the Florida State Board of Administration (SBA), which manages pension funds for 1 million current and retired Florida teachers, public employees, and their families.
Despite audits dating back to 2000 warning of risky, unregulated investments, the SBA lost $61.4 billion — approximately one-third of the fund — between July 2008 and January 2009.
A Palm Beach Post editorial in June 2000 headlined “Who’s Watching the Money?” charged the SBA with “secretive, misleading practices that lost investors millions and stated:
“In late 2007, after the SBA tried to conceal the extent of its bad investments, news broke that more than $2 billion of its assets were at risk. Many of those assets belonged to school boards and local governments that routinely put their cash on hand into short-term, low-risk investments the SBA handles. Liquidity was essential, since the money was used for payroll and other immediate needs.
“But the SBA had put much of that money into risky schemes. Once local governments found out, they started a run on the Local Government Investment Pool.”
A June 2009 report in The St. Petersburg Times disclosed: “Two summers ago, during the subprime mortgage meltdown, the SBA bought risky securities through now-defunct Lehman Brothers and two other big Wall Street firms. The funds were supposed to be ultrasafe . . . The investments plummeted in value. After news broke that the state was holding tainted securities, hundreds of counties, cities and school districts yanked $13 billion from an SBA account.”
The Times also noted that the SBA trustees — including Sink and Gov. Charlie Crist -- “have been the epitome of a hands-off board,” and “they rubber-stamp SBA motions with little or no discussion.”
Sink has also come under fire for authorizing convicted felons to sell insurance in Florida. The agents were convicted of crimes ranging from assaulting a police officer to writing bad checks, the Palm Beach Post disclosed on Wednesday.
The Tampa Tribune reported that Sink’s office made the “false claim” that she was “required” to grant authorization to convicted felons if their civil rights have been restored. But the Scott campaign said Sink could in fact deny the applications.
“It’s amazing that anyone would publicly support CFO Sink as reports are simultaneously emerging about her authorizing felons to work in the insurance field and access the sensitive and personal information of Floridians,” said Joe Kildea, a Scott campaign spokesman.
The Scott campaign has also called attention to a scandal involving NationsBank Florida, where Sink served as president.
“Alex Sink’s former company, NationsBank, was investigated and fined millions of dollars for fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission for ‘deceptive and misleading’ sales tactics that defrauded approximately 13,000 investors, most of them elderly,” Scott’s campaign website states.
“According to news reports dating back to 1998, during the exact time period Sink was president of NationsBank Florida, the company engaged in a ‘systematic pattern of deception and deceit’ to trick customers into pouring their savings into risky investments that were advertised as safe.”
Interesting, Sink’s campaign website states that as Florida CFO, she “puts her business experience and know-how to work as the determined fiscal and consumer watchdog for the people of Florida.”
It also declares that “the time has come for a leader with Alex’s business experience and know-how.”
Sink has supported President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation passed by Congress, a move that will cut Medicare benefits for seniors by at least $500 billion.
Sink also opposes an immigration bill modeled on the tough Arizona law.
On other issues, she is pro-choice on abortion, supports adoptions by gay couples, and opposes drilling for oil in Florida’s waters.
Florida’s governor’s race is not only a prelude to 2012 but will play a key role in shaping a new Congress for the next decade as state houses begin reapportionment following the 2010 census.
A key indication of national GOP interest in the race is the Republican Governor’s Association (RGA) decision to spend heavily in the Florida race.
The RGA led by Gov. Haley Barbour has already spent $2 million helping to elect Scott.
Florida is the nation’s fourth largest state in terms of electoral votes. But No. 1 California and No. 3 New York have been solidly “blue,” and No. 2 Texas is solidly “red,” so swing state Florida is the real prize.
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