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  •   Gore Visits Florida to Patch Party Rift

    By Terry M. Neal
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, August 8, 1998; Page A8

    FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Aug. 7 — Vice President Gore ventured to Florida today in an effort to bring together squabbling factions of the Democratic Party and boost the election hopes of gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay.

    Gore's presence at a meeting of some of the state's leading Democrats underscored the depth of the division and signified the level of concern in the party nationally that the bickering could complicate the already difficult task Democrats have of retaining the governorship of the nation's fourth-largest state.

    MacKay faces an uphill battle against Republican Jeb Bush, and his prospects have been hurt by months of infighting and racial tension among Democrats that exploded after white state lawmakers in January ousted Rep. Willie Logan, who is black, from a prominent leadership position in the state House of Representatives.

    Today, nearly two dozen of the state's top black leaders and Democratic politicians, including MacKay, Gov. Lawton Chiles and U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, joined Gore at an airport hotel to discuss the problem and emerged saying the hour-long meeting had done much to heal the bad feelings.

    "Let me say to the Democrats of Florida, we must be a united party in 1998," Gore said afterward at a $200,000 fund-raiser attended by hundreds of whooping Democrats. "We will be a united party in 1998."

    Miami businessman Bush, a son of former president George Bush, has a commanding lead in the polls and has capitalized on the fissure among Democrats by aggressively wooing black voters he admittedly ignored in the 1994 gubernatorial election, which he lost to Chiles in a close race.

    For several weeks, Hastings and other Democrats had urged the White House to get involved. The meeting was organized primarily by Hastings, who had been particularly vocal in denouncing the removal of Logan as the state House speaker-designate.

    House Democrats had elected Logan to the position in January 1997, shortly after the party lost control of the chamber to Republicans. He would have become the state's first black House speaker if Democrats regained control in elections this November. His ouster infuriated blacks around the state, who accused the Democratic Party of taking them for granted.

    Since then, Logan has declared himself a "free agent," allowed himself to be courted by the GOP and, along with Hastings, started a political action committee-funded primarily by Republicans-to promote black political causes. Logan was invited to the meeting but declined to come, several participants said.

    Hastings said today that Logan would "isolate himself" by continuing to feud with Democrats. And at the fund-raiser, Hastings announced his endorsement of MacKay and his running mate, former state senator Rick Dantzler.

    "We moved the ball forward," Hastings told the cheering crowd. "There is no great need for high drama. There is no great need to look to the past."

    The rift here has received national attention for a number of reasons, primarily for its potential to affect the governor's race. Common thought in Florida is that MacKay needs virtually all of the black vote to have a chance against Bush. In 1994, Chiles captured 95 percent of the black vote and barely won. But in recent polls, Bush has been supported by 15 percent to 18 percent of black voters-an extraordinary showing in Florida.

    The situation had become more complicated in recent weeks, as several black lawmakers who shared Hastings's outrage at what happened to Logan began to accuse him of political big-footing by trying to dictate the terms for settling the dispute. On Air Force Two on the way to Florida, Hastings said state and national Democrats had done much to make amends.

    Gore and his staff have been attempting to mediate the dispute. A majority of the 31 white lawmakers who voted to oust Logan have apologized. And Hastings and others said they received promises from state Democratic Party officials to be more inclusive. Some of those who attended the meeting praised Gore's efforts but said the tension was eased by state Democrats coming together.

    Gore and others acknowledged that problems still exist. Several black state lawmakers skipped the meeting and said Gore's visit would do little to mend the rift.

    At the meeting, some of the lawmakers directly involved in Logan's ouster apologized. Chiles said he regretted that it happened. And MacKay delivered an emotional speech in which "he acknowledged how difficult this has been for him," said a Gore official who attended the event. Gore urged the others not to let their differences divide and doom the party.

    "What the vice president did was show that this was a concern not only in Florida but on a national level," said Roosevelt Walters, president of the Florida branch of the NAACP. "But ultimately, this was a Florida issue, and it was what the Florida people said that did it for me."

    Privately, some Washington politicians worried that Gore was getting himself into an untenable situation in Florida. And even White House officials told reporters not to expect too much from today's session. But Gore seemed elated afterward, calling the meeting a "step forward for unity."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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