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Democrats lose clout in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Democrats lost more than the governor's office and all three Cabinet posts on Tuesday. They also lost their last leadership position in Tallahassee and their last bit of legislative clout.

Democrat Alex Sink, the lone Democrat in the Cabinet, will be replaced as chief financial officer by outgoing state Sen. Jeff Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican. The other two Cabinet posts also went to Republicans when Adam Putnam defeated Scott Maddox and Pam Bondi defeated state Sen. Dan Gelber.

In the Legislature, only 51 Democrats remain — 12 in the 40-member Senate and 39 in the 120-member House. That's not enough to defeat legislation, block attempts to waive the rules or reject proposed constitutional amendments.

"It's the first time the Democrats are in super minorities," said Gelber of Miami Beach. "When you lose numerical relevance, all you have is your voice."

Because Democrats can't stop legislation, "your voice becomes your currency and your weapon," he said.

Speaking with a unified voice has not always been the Democrats' strength in the Florida Legislature.

"At this moment, we don't have one voice," said Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, who will be the Democrats' Senate leader for the next two years. "There is no question we have to sit down and figure out a strategy."

Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, have made it clear they want the Legislature to move more to the right, a shift in direction that Rich hopes will not lead them to controversial social issues, such as abortion and school prayer.

Gelber predicts that if Gov.-elect Rick Scott acts as conservative as he promises to be, the next two years will be the most ideologically extreme the state has ever seen.

''This is a group that is going to want to really press their vision of Florida," he said. "The Legislature and Cabinet will be more to the right than it has been."

He and Rich predicted that Scott, Haridopolos and Cannon will attempt to dramatically change education policy, open the door to extreme health care reforms (such as giving people vouchers for Medicaid) and introduce new restrictions on abortion — such as the ultrasound bill passed but vetoed last session.

Only U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a two-term senator from Melbourne, remains as the lone Democrat standing on the statewide stage. And he may have a target on his back.

U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fort Lauderdale, ends his appointed term in January, with the swearing in of Republican Marco Rubio. LeMieux is widely believed to be looking at running against Nelson in 2012.

"The reverberations of people's discontent with the direction of the Democratic Congress and this president is not going to end," LeMieux said Wednesday. "It's not going to end in two years. I think this is going to be several years.""

Staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Democrats lose clout in Tallahassee 11/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 4:25pm]
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