Below the Beltway

By now (July 2019) you’ve probably not seen The Front Runner, the movie about Gary Hart’s political rise and fall.(If so, you’re not alone.) Nonetheless, I thought I’d share a somewhat Gary Hart-related anecdote you might find amusing.

A couple of years ago my friend Harvey was running for a city commission seat here and sought my advice on campaign strategy. In the course of the conversation I mentioned to him that in politics there are no small decisions, a case in point being that had it not been for something he’d done nearly 40 years earlier, Gary Hart might well have been elected president in 1988 and the Clintons might never have occupied the White House, to be succeed by George W, the war in Iraq, etc., etc. All of American history since the 1990’s would have been radically different because of him.

As expected, he looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. So I explained. In 1978 he was one of three candidates in a race for an open seat in the Florida House. He was a relative unknown, but the other two candidates were well known local politicos: Maryanne Sherman, a long-time liberal activist, and Jon Mills, a UF law professor and good-government advocate. All three were barely 30 years old. In the primary election, Maryanne (my candidate, one of my first paid consulting jobs) came within a hair of winning outright, while Harvey was a distant third with 15% and Mills took the remainder.

For the runoff election, Harvey endorsed Mills, who went on to win by a razor-thin margin. And this is where the Gary Hart connection begins to take shape.

Mills quickly began a meteoric rise in Florida politics, becoming House Speaker after just two terms, a position that usually went to the most senior alpha male in the chamber. This also attracted the attention of the national Democratic party, who saw Mills as a rising star on the national stage. From this position, and still keeping his day job at the law school, Mills became an early supporter of Hart’s campaign, and through these roles was able to do Hart a huge favor by procuring a “guest lectureship” for him for the Spring 1987 semester at the UF law school while he mapped out his campaign strategy, and where he could escape the intense scrutiny of the national media. (Mills was widely believed to be in line for a major cabinet post if Hart were to eventually succeed Reagan.)

As it turned out, it became an open secret among the locals that Hart was rarely seen at the law school, but could generally be found hanging out at fraternity houses, conspicuously chasing sorority girl skirts. This didn’t merely fuel rumors of Hart’s dallying, it brazenly confirmed them.

And we now know how that turned out. (Hint: they made a movie about it.)

So, as I told Harvey, if he had instead endorsed Maryanne in that race long ago, it would surely have swung enough votes her way to give her the victory she came so close to in the primary. Jon Mills’s political career would have been sidelined if not aborted, Gary Hart would never have resided in Florida, and rumors of his womanizing tendencies might have remained within the Beltway. And the movie about his life would have a totally different script.

BTW Harvey went on to win the city commission seat, where he proceeded to make a series of small decisions with repercussions that ultimately cost him reelection.

Oh well…

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