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Newcomers start as insiders

To illustrate a point, let's consider the vote cast last year to adopt the current state budget of Florida. • That vote in our state House was 77-43 — with every single Republican voting yes, along with one stray Democrat. • Every remaining Democrat voted "no." • A fairly routine outcome. • And yet, to an outsider, to the cliched visitor from Mars here to learn about democracy … • Isn't this kind of … weird?

How can a state of 18 million people from Pensacola to Key West, as richly diverse as the range between Calle Ocho and Palatka, produce such an oddly rigid state Legislature?

How can it be that 120 House districts around the state, each with its own geography, culture, population mix and distinctive characteristics, can send 120 people to Tallahassee who — by an astonishing coincidence — end up thinking exactly alike, according to the "D" or "R" label on his or her forehead?

Not one Republican in the entire House disagreed with anything in a $70 billion state budget to vote no?

Only one Democrat in the entire House thought it was reasonable enough to support?

Well. No sense beating the horse. The point is that the Legislature, and especially the House, is not an open-ended democratic organ.

It is a top-down, tightly controlled machine that consists of a handful of Leaders and a flock of Sheep.

The few in the majority party who are lucky or ambitious enough, to be chosen as Leaders — a process that starts even before their first election — embark on a course to power than ends with their selection as speaker of the House or at least to one of its most powerful posts.

This hierarchy is locked down, and these matters are decided years in advance. Our current speaker just got started on his two years, but we know who the next speaker will be after him, and the one after that — and just a couple of weeks ago, the majority Republicans in the House even decided who is going to be speaker of the House for the years 2017-18.

Of course, this assumes (1) the party in power will stay in power and (2) everybody will get re-elected time after time. It's kind of like booking the Yankees for the World Series five years in advance.

As for the Sheep, relieved of the pressure (or the threat) of too much responsibility, they serve out their eight-year term limit as happy followers, largely assured of re-election, as long as they go with the flow. (Despite all the Legislature's scandals and misdeeds of recent years, the re-election rate in November was nearly 100 percent locally, except for a couple of Democratic incumbents who got knocked off by aggressive challengers.)

The Sheep will be able to pass a bill now and then and proudly announce it in their district newsletters. Some of them will dutifully serve as a committee or subcommittee chairman, part of the "leadership team." As long as they go along. (Now and then a member rebels and is stripped of any authority.)

The minority party, which for some years has been the Democrats, cannot offer its members actual power as a reward, but the minority tends to be more coherent anyway — a government in exile, a not-so-loyal opposition. The pressure on Democrats to stick with the team is just as intense. (Ask Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, the lone Democrat to vote for last year's budget, precisely because he wanted to be reasonable instead of doctrinaire.)

One day I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant on Adams Street in Tallahassee, a block down from the Capitol, when a local elected official from Pinellas County came walking by. We said hello and I asked what he was doing up there.

"I'm running for the Legislature," he said, "and they're having a fundraiser for me." It was a routine thing to say; we exchanged pleasant goodbyes.

And yet, think about the implications. A citizen decides to run for the Florida Legislature, seeking to represent one of the 120 "grass roots" House districts.

So, naturally, he heads right off to Tallahassee, to raise money from interest groups that breed and cultivate legislators!

The most natural thing in the world, too. To suggest anything wrong with it is to risk being told the most patronizing, sneering thing that you can be told in Tallahassee — the terrible accusation that You Don't Understand The Way Things Work Up Here.

Therefore, by the time first-time legislators arrive in the Capitol, they are not outsiders. They were elected with the assistance of their state party, funded by interest groups. Many have been to Tallahassee to be paraded at fund-raisers. They have undergone indoctrination from their party leaders on where each party stands on the issues. They have been designated as Leaders or consigned to be Sheep.

And human nature being what it is, who can possibly stand against this? Who, whether a raw and overconfident 25 year old or a sober 60, can resist an entire system, an entire city, that rewards you for going along, reassures you at every step that you are doing the right thing, and treats you like a pariah if you step out of line?

What would happen if a newcomer announced from the get-go that he or she was not going to be told what to do, was not going to follow any party line, was going to listen to his and her constituents only? Good question. But it's a safe bet nobody would hold a parade for him or her. It's a likely bet that he or she would find himself with a Tallahassee-financed opponent.

The Senate is less like this.

The Senate is trying to be more like the House these days, more rigid and doctrinaire, but the nature of its membership works against it.

The 40 senators tend to be older, more experienced, more cussed. They, too, have Leaders and Sheep, but there are more of the first and fewer of the second. Any individual senator can go rogue.

Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey, often rebels on consumer issues. Paula Dockery, a Republican from Lakeland and briefly a candidate for governor last year, often breaks the party line. Ronda Storms, a Republican from Brandon, digs into an issue and stubbornly refuses to let go. Jack Latvala, a veteran former legislator from Pinellas County, was just sent back to the Senate after a few years off — with the nearly universally expressed sentiment of relief that an old dog who can't be steamrolled is going back.

Can things ever be different? Can we move toward a Legislature that is driven less by Tallahassee and more by the interests of grass roots districts?

The "fair districts" amendments just passed by Florida voters might make future elections a little more competitive, meaning that the Sheep might be a little more answerable to their district than to their leadership.

But as long as interest groups can pour unlimited funds into party coffers in Tallahassee to be funneled back into district elections — not to mention the no-limit "committees" that many legislators themselves operate (which ought to be as illegal as bribery), the Leaders will have the money to keep electing Sheep, and the system will perpetuate itself. This is The Way Things Work Up There.

Newcomers start as insiders 03/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 4:33pm]
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