Dan Gelber offers sharp contrast to Ray Sansom

Jan 30, 2009

By Beth Reinhard

Miami Herald

The hard-boiled reporters at Dan Gelber's press conference announcing his U.S. Senate campaign this week tried hard not to roll their eyes.

Next to the state senator's adoring wife and adorable children -- a heartwarming tableau we've come to expect in political stagecraft -- there stood a struggling young black man and a grateful cancer survivor.

Travis Thomas, 25, met Gelber when he was 6 years old through Big Brothers Big Sisters. He was raised by his aunt in a downtrodden neighborhood in Coconut Grove. With Gelber's help and friendship, Thomas earned his high school equivalency degree and is attending Miami Dade College. He's asked Gelber to be the best man at his wedding.

Noelia Gonzalez, 20, got to know Gelber when she attended a summer program years ago for kids with cancer called Camp Fiesta. Gelber, 48, has been volunteering at the camp, organizing field trips for the kids and raising money for their oncology clinic since he graduated from law school. Gonzalez wants to be a lawyer, just like Gelber.

The only person missing was the sweet little old lady Gelber walked across the street the other day.

But in a week in which Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich lacked the grace to attend his own impeachment trial (is it just me, or is mayor of Crazytown the only office this guy is fit to hold?) and Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom temporarily ceded his leadership post amid a criminal grand jury probe, Gelber's community service reflects what we expect of our public servants.

Democrats knew from the get-go that Blagojevich was a dead duck and smartly called for his resignation. Miscalculating Republicans did the opposite with Sansom, pretending there was nothing wrong in their house as the kitchen fire spread to the foyer and the dining room.

The only Republican with the guts to call Sansom out for steering millions of dollars to a local college that gave him a lucrative, no-bid job, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, had nothing to lose (and everything to gain in added publicity) from his national media perch. With the exception of Attorney General Bill McCollum and Rep. J.C. Planas of Miami, Republicans in Tallahassee were shamefully silent, even though party leaders have preached since the backlash of the 2006 election that the GOP would turn its back on corruption. Gov. Charlie Crist could have shown more leadership and should be asking how Sansom's pet projects got past his veto pen.

Sansom, of course, deserves the most blame for his bad judgment. He refused to confront the allegations and ran away from the press in the hope that the whole thing would go away. Meanwhile, stories dripped out day after day, bringing new and alarming details to light and shredding his credibility at a time when the public is looking to government for relief from the brutal economy.

He really should have gone to Gelber for advice. The former federal prosecutor has assiduously courted reporters for years and kept his nose admirably clean. He became a hero when, during his recent tenure as House Democratic leader, the party reversed two decades of backsliding and picked up nine House seats.

But his political savvy, charm offensive and even his good deeds won't save what many Democrats see as a long shot bid by a guy no one knows outside of his Miami-Dade district and the state's Jewish community. To prove he's a viable candidate, Gelber needs to raise big money and fast.

You know what they say about where nice guys finish.

Beth Reinhard is the political writer for The Miami Herald.

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