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Behind the Headlines: As Al Gore’s Chances Dim, Florida Democratic Leader Reflects

December 7, 2000
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Monte Friedkin keeps interesting company. On the walls of his expansive Boca Raton office hang dozens of framed photos of Friedkin with an assortment of familiar political faces, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Dick Gephardt, George Mitchell, Tom Daschle and other leading Democratic Party politicians.

“I could care less about pictures,” says Friedkin, chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. “They were lying in the corners collecting dust until my staff decided to hang them up one day when I was out of town.”

But you know they must mean something, especially the half-dozen or so with President Clinton, all signed with notes expressing thanks and gratitude to “my good friend, Monte.”

“I still call him Bill, never Mr. President,” Friedkin says. “Not long ago, he called to apologize for something someone on his staff said to me, and we talked for 45 minutes. I told him, `You must not have anything to do today,’ and he said, `I just like talking to you.'”

Friedkin is an affable guy who speaks plainly and frankly, doesn’t wear a tie unless he has to and is apt to lean back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk.

Most people, when interviewed, need to be prodded with question after question. Friedkin needs to be asked only one: “So how did you end up here?”

For more than two hours, he explains that he was raised in Youngstown, Ohio, made a fortune with his father in the aluminum business and other ventures, got involved in politics, moved to Boca Raton for the weather and wound up in the eye of the presidential election hurricane that has riveted the country and the world for nearly a month.

“At this point, there’s not much we can do,” he complains. “It’s all in the lawyers’ hands.”

Like most Democrats, Friedkin believes that Gore should easily have taken the state of Florida and, with it, the presidency.

“The butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County cost us more than 20,000 votes,” he explains. “With 20,000 votes, Al Gore walks away with the election.”

But with a booming economy and what he thinks was a less-than-stellar opponent in Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Gore never should have been stuck in such a close election, Friedkin believes. Gore ran a lackluster campaign as compared with Clinton’s drive for the White House in 1992, he says.

“The difference is that in 1992, Clinton had Carville,” he says, referring to James Carville, the president’s outspoken, innovative campaign manager. “Not everyone appreciates what Carville did. He brought a new set of eyes and attitude to the whole process.

“Al Gore went with the old guard, guys who run Senate and House campaigns, and their problem is that they’re living in the past. Gore never energized people, especially young people, the way Clinton did,” Friedkin says. “Because of that, he even lost his own state. How can a state not vote for its favorite son? If he wins Tennessee, he doesn’t even need Florida.”

Of course, Friedkin believes that Gore did win Florida, despite whatever tally ultimately becomes history. He bases his conclusion on the large number of people in Palm Beach County who appear to have voted mistakenly for Pat Buchanan, and the thousands of ballots with questionable votes that Democrats claim show an intention to choose Gore.

That’s why Gore is “arguing about it. He knows what the voters really wanted,” Friedkin says. “But it’s all a public relations game now. Whoever wins will have a tough time because the country is split. They won’t get anything done for four years.”

Friedkin first got interested in politics after working some fund-raising wonders for the Jewish federation in Youngstown. In the early 1970s, he was approached by the chair of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was looking to step up its fund raising in an effort to increase the organization’s power.

“At the first meeting, I pledged $5,000, and the room went dead silent because that was more than the president and chairman had planned to bid,” he says. “They upped their bids and we were on our way. If you’re going to raise money, you have to put your own money where your mouth is.”

That seems to be Friedkin’s mantra. He decided to get more involved with the Democratic Party after former Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis lost the 1988 presidential election. He analyzed what went wrong with that campaign, walked into the office of Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown and laid a check for $100,000 on his desk.

“`What’s that for?’ Brown asked me,” Friedkin reminisces. “`It’s to get your attention,’ I replied. And he said, `You got it.'”

Friedkin told Brown that his analysis revealed that the Democrats hadn’t spent their money in the right places. If they had been better at targeting the swing states, Dukakis might have won, Friedkin says. Then he helped Brown compile a team dedicated to winning the White House in 1992.

At a pivotal meeting in 1991, 35 Democratic Party bigwigs and all the potential presidential candidates gathered at the farm of Pamela Harriman, a socialite who later served as American envoy to France, in Virginia.

“The first thing we decided was that George Bush was the enemy, and not each other,” recalls Friedkin, who went on to chair the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“We laid out a plan of how to win, and I figured it would cost about $3.5 million to carry out that plan. With 35 of us there, that worked out to $100,000 each,” he says. “Everyone came through, Clinton emerged as the candidate and, after the convention, he hit the ground running because we had everything in place.”

With Clinton in the White House, Friedkin eventually turned his attention closer to home and became chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party in late 1998.

“I couldn’t understand how we had 7 to 8 percent more registered Democrats in the county and nothing but Republicans in office,” he says. “The reason turned out to be that the Democrats had no money and no organization here.”

Those weaknesses played into Friedkin’s strengths as an organizer and fund raiser, and it paid off in the most recent election.

“The Democratic Party won every race we played in and got 65 percent of the presidential votes,” he boasts. “And if not for that stupid butterfly ballot, we would have gotten 70 percent or more” in the county, he said.

No matter how the battle for the presidency turns out, the war rages on for Friedkin.

“My goal as chairman is to get every Republican out of office and put Democrats in,” he says. “The only problem is that we” Democrats “are so diversified, we’re pulled in too many directions. The Republicans have a narrower focus and are masters of the spin.”

Clinton knows how to spin with the best of them, Friedkin says, but Gore doesn’t. And as for Friedkin himself?

“I’m just an honest businessman who has no idea how to tell everyone what they want to hear,” he says. “I’m much better working behind the scenes.

“I first got involved in politics because I wanted to protect the interests of Israel. Then, the more I watched those guys in Washington, the more concerned I became about America,” Friedkin says.

“But I really didn’t have much impact in Washington, so I decided to concentrate on where I live. In Palm Beach County, I think I can make a difference.”

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