Florida 500: 1992 – Central Florida’s “craziest” election?

1991In many ways, 1992 could be considered the birth of Democratic Party politics in Central Florida. Up until that time, Republicans were in complete control of the political landscape in Central Florida. But in 1992, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and his running mate Al Gore thought that the I-4 Corridor was important enough that both made a few trips to the region in the weeks before Election Day.

Not only had some demographic shifts started to take place, the influx of more moderate, Democratic northerners started to make up the political landscape. Up until then, Orlando was mostly native Floridians, conservative retirees and people that worked in the high tech sector, for companies like Martin Marietta (which eventually became Lockheed Martin), who tended to vote Republican. But the new middle class suburbanites who came from all over the north were more Democratic. This migration really stated to show in the voting patterns in 1992.

Even though this can be considered a defining year in Central Florida Democratic politics, it was also a defining moment in Republican politics as well. Even though conservatives like Dan Webster and Bill McCollum controlled the Republican Party, other moderates like Toni Jennings started to overshadow the conservatives.

Still, Republican voters in the region started to vote for moderates over their conservative counterparts. Conservative real estate agent Carlene Julian was defeated by moderate (almost left-of-center) attorney Bill Sublette in the Republican primary for House District 40, which included most of southwest Orange County. In the same region, Democrat-turn-Republican moderate Gary Siegel defeated conservative Senator and car dealer legend Artie Grindle in Senate District 12. In Seminole County, moderate Lee Constantine defeated conservative Wes Pennington. Therefore, the entire region started to become a little more moderate and started to reject the conservatives they had previously supported.

Even though the landscape was becoming more Democratic, the actual Democratic Party itself was still going through some growing pains. In the race for Orange County Sheriff, former Republican and right-winger Wayne Bird won the Democratic nomination over true Democrat Roger Clark. Bird outspent Clark, which more than likely led to his victory. Still, in 1992 many of the people who voted were new to the region and didn’t know any of the candidates. These growing pains would eventually be hammered out, but in 1992 they still existed.

While the primaries might not have gone the way the Democrats wanted, the general election was a different story. Attorney Buddy Dyer defeated Steve DeMino by a respectable margin in a new Senate district in Orange and Seminole Counties. Kim Shepard defeated powerful incumbent Bruce McEwan in House District 36, centered around Winter Park. And many active Democrats rejected Wayne Bird in the race for Sheriff and jumped ship to Kevin Beary, giving him the win with 69% of the vote. Even Bill Clinton increased the vote margin for the Democrats in Orange County, bettering Michael Dukakis’ performance by 5%. But with the emergence of Ross Perot, George Bush saw a loss of 23% between 1988 and 1992. From this point on, Democrats would only get stronger in Central Florida.

Even with the impact that 1992 had on Central Florida Democratic politics, as well as being the birth of moderate Republicans in the region (which quickly died off), there is another story that is long forgotten from the 1992 elections. That is the story of Eric Kaplan.

Eric Kaplan was the Democratic opponent of Republican Miami-turned-Central Florida House Member Bob Starks. In this election, Starks, a Delta airline pilot, was projected to win the race easily. Even though this was the case, the Kaplan campaign came up with a unique way of trying to defeat Starks…by shooting him.

On the night of September 27th, Kaplan approached the Starks house and fired five shots into the home. While Rep. Starks was uninjured, his wife Judy was shot in the leg. Of course, this didn’t help his campaign any. Not only did he withdraw from the race, but he was charged with attempted murder, aggravated battery, shooting into an occupied dwelling and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He would eventually be sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Therefore, one could say that 1992 was quite an “active” year in Central Florida politics. Democrats on the rise, conservative Republicans losing to moderates, even a candidate trying to kill his opponent. What else can someone ask for in a crazy election year?

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