Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

Amid redistricting, many former Florida lawmakers seek return to office

TALLAHASSEE — A lot of former Florida lawmakers want their old jobs back.

With the 2012 political map reshaped by redistricting, at least 17 termed-out, retired or former legislators are on the comeback trail, seeking to extend their political careers. Most are Republicans.

"It's a natural cycle caused by term limits," says former Rep. Randy Johnson, who's running for an open House seat in Highlands County six years after being forced out by the clock. "We've seen a decline in the institution. We've seen a lot of bad ideas become law, and I think the Legislature could use a little old-school advice."

This year marks the 20th anniversary of voter-approved eight-year term limits on legislators and the latest trend suggests that more politicians have decided eight years in the Legislature isn't enough.

Johnson and others say they want to rectify what they see as a downward trend in the House, where term limits have led to a system where members have a short-term historical perspective and are less likely to challenge a leadership-driven agenda.

The latest to seek a return to Tallahassee is Tom Lee of Brandon, a former Senate president who announced on Friday he will run for the Senate seat being vacated by Ronda Storms. She's running for Hillsborough County property appraiser.

Other former legislators seeking comebacks include former Sen. Nancy Argenziano of Homosassa and former Reps. Gus Barreiro of Miami, Carl Domino of Jupiter, Michael Grant of Bonita Springs, Bob Brooks of Orlando and Jamey Westbrook of Port St. Joe. Former Rep. Frank Farkas of St. Petersburg, who was termed out of office in 2006, says he will run for the House if, as expected, Rep. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg seeks a redrawn Pinellas Senate seat.

Former Reps. Bill Galvano of Bradenton and Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach have been campaigning for Senate seats since their House terms expired.

Then there's Mike Fasano, the venerable Republican from New Port Richey.

Termed out of the House in 2002, he switched to the Senate. As term limits catch him a second time, he's running for his old job of state representative.

"I can only offer myself to the voters and ask them to allow us to serve once again. It will be up to the voters," Fasano said. "I love what I do."

Fasano and other would-be returning lawmakers are older and have much more political experience than the incoming speaker, 32-year-old Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, who said the final decision rests with voters.

"There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a public servant beyond eight years," Weatherford said. "The voters will ultimately determine that."

The trend is not entirely new.

Republican Sens. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, Joe Negron of Stuart and John Thrasher of St. Augustine have all returned to Tallahassee in recent years after an extended hiatus. Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, a self-described "retread," is one of several House members to come and go and come back.

A seat in the Legislature pays $29,697 a year. House members serve two-year terms and senators four years.

Barreiro, 53, who served in the House from 1998 to 2006, said he sees a Capitol where non-elected bureaucrats have too much power and control.

"What I hear is, nobody is willing to take a stand against leadership," Barreiro said of today's House. "So we have to have a balance here. Having some members come back to the Legislature who have institutional knowledge will go a long way."

Argenziano, 57, was a House member, senator and member of the Public Service Commission. She filed as an independent candidate against first-term Rep. Jimme Smith, R-Lecanto, after a court ruled that the former GOP lawmaker changed her party affiliation too late to run as a Democrat for Congress.

She said she's running against the "extremism" of Tallahassee and a "follow the leader" mind-set in which inexperienced lawmakers are afraid to challenge Republican orthodoxy.

"It's the party line all the time, except for a few," Argenziano said. "Let's shake the tree, and maybe we'll get other legislators to say it's okay to say no."

Johnson, a Republican who at times was a partisan bomb-thrower, says the House needs more members with experience, but he has heard criticism of comeback efforts, too.

"One reaction is 'a typical damn politician who can't find anything else to do,' " Johnson said. "But six years (out of office) was enough for me. I get it. That's why I'm coming back."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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