When first-term U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D, Tallahassee, looked at how the boundaries of her 2nd Congressional District had been redrawn, she decided 2016 was the time for her to take the first steps towards a run for the governorship in 2018.
The sprawling 14-county district in the eastern Panhandle had lost a huge chunk of Leon County Democrats on its eastern edge, and gained a lot of Republicans to the west as that boundary shifted.
It was a reconfiguration that would make it difficult for her to repeat her 2014 win over Republican Steve Southerland.
For a time it looked like no Democrat would step forward and try to defeat the Republican opponent, who could be Panama City surgeon Neal Dunn, Tallahassee attorney Mary Thomas, or former U.S. attorney Ken Sukhia, depending on how that Aug. 30 primary turns out.
But now there are two Dems competing for the nomination, Lake City tree farmer Steve Crapps and Tallahassee attorney Walter Dartland, both of whom were in attendance at the county Democrats’ candidate forum at the Crooked River Grille earlier this month.
“I had no intention of running, we were going to go visit grandkids in California,” said Dartland, in an extended interview last week. “The whole thing is the Democratic Party came looking. They said ‘We have to have someone run,” and I said ‘I’m willing to.’
“I believe you should have an opponent even if you think it’s a Republican district. Gwen Graham pulled it out, even though she felt it was a losing district,” he said.
He notes that the district is about 45 percent Democrat, 40 percent Republican and 15 percent independent. “The problem seems to be that the Republicans come out in greater numbers to vote,” he said. “Therefore, by default, Republicans win.”
An amiable man, still looking trim at age 81, Dartland displays the cheerful wisdom that comes with the golden years, joking by reference to his initials that “I’m twice as good as WD 40.”
But there’s a toughness and sharpness in his background, a native of Detroit, Michigan, who trained as an engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and went through Navy ROTC as well as service in the Marine Corps from 1959 to 1962.
He had planned on a career as an engineer, but after the Marines, he decided to broaden his education and spent a year studying philosophy in Belgium, entirely in French.
After that it was a law degree from the University of Michigan, and while he considered offers to do patent law work for General Motors, he instead opted for private practice in the beautiful woodlands of the state’s Upper Peninsula.
There, in his first brush with politics, he served a four-year term as a district attorney but in time, the Sunshine State lured him away and he moved to Palm Beach County in 1972, when he was in his early 40s.
He worked for a small firm in Palm Beach, but in time his personal philosophy blended with his ambition and he was appointed the Metro Dade consumer advocate in 1975, a post he held for 11 years.
During that time he honed his environmental protection axe on matter ranging from taking on Florida Power and Light for its burning of high sulfur fuel, to a Miami water company providing rusty water (while getting a rate increase, even securing a $60 million settlement with Ford Motor Company because its care were prematurely rusting.
His success prompted him to run for Florida Attorney General in 1986, but he lost the Democratic nod to Bob Butterworth, who went on to win the office, as well as to appoint Dartland his deputy.
He became Butterworth’s right-hand man, helping him expand the office’s reach when it came to the environment and consumer protection. Dartland helped champion the state’s “lemon law,” proudly driving around the state a 1976 Dodge Dart with 225,000 miles on it.
“As a strong environmentalist I formed what I called the ‘sludge busters,’ a crack team to go anywhere, to file any lawsuit, against anything that impacted the environment negatively,” he said.
Dartland said he promises a spirited fight, even though “state and national Democrats have written us off.”
In terms of his politics, he said “Initially I would have been a Bernie Sanders supporter and now I am a Hillary supporter. I’m the only Democrat in the race that is supporting Hillary. My opponent said he’s not making any commitment.
“This election is more about electing a president than it is a congressman,” Dartland said. “I think what bothers me about Mr. Trump is he’s so unpredictable, and I don’t know what a person like that is going to do when the stress factor comes up. I just cannot see him as a commander-in-chief. A lot of his policy pronouncements are not even understandable.”
Among the local issues Dartland has a stand on are bear hunting. “I think there are better ways to handle the situation than shooting bears at random,” he said. “Neighborhoods and people have to be able to better plan about having proper disposal. They need bear-proof containers, for example. That would help a lot.”
As for gun control, he said “I think I agree with the majority of Republican citizens and Democratic citizens based on surveys that everybody should be checked out, everybody should be made to find out their backgrounds.
“I am certainly against armor-piercing bullets, and no big magazines. Do you really need 20-shot magazines?” he said.
He supports the Affordable Care Act, but said it needs tweaking. “The problem’s not being able to negotiate the prices with drug companies, and we don’t have enough funding to stop fraud in Florida. Fraud is a multi hundred billion dollar situation,” he said.
“We really need to talk about a single-payer system and the current system needs more power to negotiate the drug prices,” he said. “Those things have hampered the program substantially.”
Dartland is not a big proponent of military intervention in other countries, especially the Middle East. “It’s a quagmire there; I don’t think we need to be handling their issues.
“It’s religious based and I don’t see any end to it,” he said. “I do not see us expending our assets, our wealth, our blood. We can assist them, we can advise them, but it’s up to them. I don’t think we should have 100,000 troops fighting on the front lines.”
Dartland said he’d like to see an expansion of post-secondary education opportunities as well. “Things are going to change. The science and kind of jobs that exist now are going to be phased out. We have to have people prepare to be qualified.
“He said he is a strong supporter of adding free junior college or trade school options. “A lot of people still can’t afford to go to junior colleges.”
An avid environmentalist, eh said one of his proposals is to push to replace septic tanks in coastal areas. “If we need new septic tanks, we arrange to finance them for the owners,” Dartland said.
And as for the so-called water wars, he said what most all the candidates have said. “It’s in the court, it’s a critical problem it’s going to have very aggressive litigation to get that straightened out. Or we can settle on a reasonable plan with Georgia.”