The gerrymandered map taped to a painting in Nancy Soderberg’s oceanfront condo depicts a State Senate district drawn for one candidate — her opponent in the upcoming election, former State Rep. Aaron Bean.
Republican leaders drew the map to help ensure that Bean, who has been waiting in the wings to return to Tallahassee after a reputed deal several years ago with Sen. John Thrasher, would have the best chance to win the race so he could give his support to the leadership cabal in the State Senate.
However, Bean’s spokesperson, Sarah Bascom, who earlier worked for Thrasher, said Bean withdrew from a race to replace the late Sen. Jim King, who died in 2009, and there was no deal with Thrasher for later support, even though the heavily Republican district includes Bean’s hometown.
The district map resembles a kindergartener’s drawing of a jellyfish, with all of Nassau County at the top, a tentacle of voters on Jacksonville’s Westside and another tentacle dangling into the cities of Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach.
In the Aug. 14 Republican primary, Bean annihilated Jacksonville’s Mike Weinstein in a name-calling war saturating TV airwaves. When the smoke cleared after a fight over who was the most conservative, Bean had pulled in 31,269 votes, or 64.18 percent of the vote, to Weinstein’s 17,451 votes, or 35.82 percent.
Campaign finance reports show the candidates and their electioneering committees spent about $4.5 million to win the Republican nomination for a Senate seat that pays less than $30,000 a year. For Republicans, the seat was about control of the Florida Senate leadership.
“The election was not about two candidates. It was about who had the most power and access to money out of Tallahassee,” Weinstein said in his concession speech.
Watching from above the fray was Nancy Soderberg, the Democratic candidate. She said she was amazed at the vicious and seemingly endless television attack ads between the two Republican hopefuls.
She launched into campaign mode as the final votes of the GOP primary showed Bean the decisive winner.
“I speak for a lot of folks in saying that we are very glad to see one of the most bitter, partisan primary seasons ever in Northeast Florida come to an end,” she said in a statement on election night. “My two opponents have fought tooth-and-nail to see not who had better ideas for Florida, but rather to see who could be the most extreme. We deserve better.”
After years on the national and international stage, Soderberg is making her first run at public office as a Democrat, running in a district that’s 47 percent Republican and 32 percent Democrat.
Soderberg, a professor at the University of North Florida, teaches classes called “Global Issues” and “The Real World“ and heads the Public Service Leadership Program, which places students in internships in Washington, D.C., and several foreign countries.
Soderberg held the third-highest-ranking office on the United Nations Security Council from 1993-’97 and served as U.S. Representative for Special Political Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, holding the rank of ambassador. She was a key adviser to President Bill Clinton during the negotiations in the Northern Ireland peace process. She is the author of two books on foreign policy, president of her own international trade company and chairperson of the Public Interest Declassification Board, a panel appointed in January by President Barack Obama to declassify documents.
She counts Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as personal friends and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright as a friend and mentor. Mr. Clinton and Albright hosted fundraisers for her campaign.
“Nancy Soderberg has a big brain, great instincts, a sack full of courage, and the willingness to do things that are unpredictable in a good way,” Bill Clinton said in his endorsement. “We need more public officials like that. Nancy will stand up against what’s wrong, and work for what’s right. She will work with the Democrats, the Republicans and the independents to try to build a consensus that I saw her build for the American position that eventually unified Republicans and Democrats in making peace possible in Northern Ireland. I’m honored to endorse her.”
Soderberg, in an interview at her 10th-story Jax Beach condo, said she believes she can appeal to Republican moderates who were turned off by the bitter campaign. “I think Aaron Bean is more conservative than Jacksonville,” she said.
“I’m not naïve and I know it’s a tough district,” said Soderberg. She said she believes her background and skills as a diplomat could translate into effectiveness in the Legislature.
“I do not like partisan politics. I am not a politician,” she said. “I am just someone who brings strong negotiation, leadership, common sense and understanding what this state needs.”
“I want to try to use my leadership skills to improve this area,” said Soderberg, a native of Nantucket, Mass., who graduated from Vanderbilt University and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Serve at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Recent polls have her trailing Bean by a huge margin, 57 to 34 percent, with 8 percent undecided. Bean turned down a request from Soderberg for a series of five debates. Bean’s campaign said there are enough joint appearances and forums and there is no need for more in a State Senate race.
“This is clearly a blatant political ploy designed to get more free press for a lesser-known candidate,” said Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for Bean’s campaign.
So why is Soderberg running against a popular Republican politician despite the demographics of the district?
“I decided to run because I am fed up with Tallahassee, and I want to address the issues that are important to North Florida, such as jobs, education and health care,” she said.
“They are failing on making health care affordable, failing on education. As a UNF professor, I see students coming in from the public school system who are not prepared for college. They can get a great education from UNF, but they can’t get a job when they get out of here,” she said.
“If you are going to attract first-class businesses here, you need a first-class education system,” she said.
Her background, she said, will allow her to take on the Tallahassee establishment.
“I don’t think it matters if you are conservative or a liberal, if a solution makes sense,” she said. “Negotiating with tough dictators around the world has prepared me well for the challenges of Tallahassee.”
Another of her concerns is women’s issues. She has been endorsed by the Jacksonville Area National Organization for Women.
Many of her former students, who participated in a program helping students find internships around the world, are among her biggest supporters and campaign workers.
Brett Waite, 25, a former student who graduated last year with a degree in political science, is helping with her campaign.
“She was an amazing teacher. She was the best I have ever had,” said Waite, who took a class dealing with real-world problem-solving. “It was energizing to solve problems and then discuss them with people in Washington.”
Soderberg continues to raise money for what could be a costly campaign against a well-financed opponent. Her campaign finance reports from July 17 to the middle of September show she has collected about $100,500. That includes $15,000 of her own and $25,000 from the Florida Democratic Party. Her Florida committee of continuous existence, Principled Leadership of Florida, which can accept donations greater than the $500 individual limit, has collected $32,500, mostly from New York and Washington, D.C.-area donors.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given a $10,000 check to her fundraising group, The Florida Times-Union reported. In 2008, Soderberg served as a foreign policy adviser to Bloomberg. The group also received a $1,000 donation from 2000 Democrat presidential candidate Al Gore, who was Clinton’s vice president.
Soderberg understands that Northeast Florida is under a political spotlight, especially in the upcoming presidential election. Obama came close to winning Duval County in 2008, and last year, Jacksonville elected Democrat Alvin Brown as mayor.
“There is a lot of interest in this district, because Florida is a large part of who will be the next president of the United States,” she said.
Political consultant John Daigle, who’s run local campaigns for more than two decades, said despite her intelligence and high-powered friends, she could face insurmountable odds.
“It’s going to be a hard sell. She’s a Democrat running in Duval County,” Daigle said.
“She definitely cannot win Nassau County,” Daigle said. “She’s got a huge challenge.”
Nassau County is Bean country. It’s where he lives, owns an insurance business and a miniature golf course and where he was mayor of Fernandina Beach. It’s the area he represented in the Florida House from 2002-’10.
Attorney Wayne Hogan, a Democrat who lost an election to U.S. Rep. John Mica in 2002, buys Soderberg’s argument that Senate District 4 voters, fed up by the vicious campaign between Bean and Weinstein, could turn to her.
“The millions of dollars they spent turned people off,” Hogan said.
The assumption is that if Obama carries Duval County, other Democrats could ride to office on his coattails.
“We need some kind of change. She can make a difference in the state Senate,” said Hogan, noting Soderberg’s contacts in Washington could be used to improve the port and bring jobs to Northeast Florida.
Marcella Washington, a political science professor at FSCJ, believes Soderberg needs to do whatever she can to raise her visibility. She believes Soderberg should have been hitting the campaign trail hard while the two Republicans were fighting for the nomination.
“He [Bean] is a conservative candidate, that’s all he has to offer,” she said, noting there are so many other issues Northeast Floridians are concerned about, such as unemployment, crime and development.