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Florida House Democrats have choice of two for thankless job

TALLAHASSEE — When the Legislature reconvenes for the 2011 regular session next week, a truly thankless job will be up for grabs.

House Democrats will meet Tuesday to choose between two Broward County lawmakers to lead their caucus for the next two years. The surprise is that more than one person would seek the position.

The candidates are Reps. Perry Thurston, 50, a lawyer from Plantation, and Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach, a public affairs adviser for the Akerman Senterfitt law firm.

The winner — if that's the word — faces the enormously difficult task of raising money and recruiting House candidates for 2012, a reapportionment year.

Thurston, an imposing man with a soft-spoken demeanor, is predicting victory. He says he'll unify the caucus and wants Democrats to offer progressive alternatives to the policies of GOP lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott.

Thurston nearly clinched the minority leader job two years ago but lost to Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West by two votes and has campaigned for it ever since.

"We'll have all the numbers we need — at least 25," Thurston says.

In the badly depleted, 38-member House Democratic caucus, 20 votes will ensure victory.

Gibbons, 62, possesses the gung-ho demeanor and fast-talking style of a born salesman.

A Harlem native and former IBM pitchman, he's Saunders' pro tem or deputy, a role that does not appear to have improved his chances.

Gibbons' wife, Ava Parker, a Jacksonville lawyer, chairs the Board of Governors that oversees state universities.

"I'm more of a business-type Democrat," Gibbons says. "We can't write anybody off, especially in the business community."

Gibbons is a pragmatist, a trait not all of his fellow Democrats necessarily admire. He irked a few of them in November when he said of Republicans: "We're not going to throw rocks at people who can throw boulders at us."

Neither candidate has asked for signed pledges, and the race has been low-key.

Some Democrats are longtime Thurston supporters.

"I supported Perry when he ran the last time," says Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg. "You'll see the caucus come together no matter who's elected."

The election is by secret ballot, and some rank-and-file members won't say how they'll vote.

"I'm still sort of undecided," said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando.

"I'm not ready to say publicly who I'm voting for," said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee.

House Democrats have nowhere to go but up.

After successful election cycles in 2006 and 2008, they faltered badly in 2010, losing five seats, including two in Pinellas County.

By slipping below the magic number of 40, Democrats handed Republicans a veto-proof majority. The only way back to relevance is to win more seats in 2012, and it won't be easy in a redistricting cycle.

"You're recruiting candidates for seats where you don't know where the seat is going to be," Saunders says. "It's a lot more difficult this time because of the uncertainty."

The next leader of the dozen Senate Democrats is expected to be Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, giving Broward County control of both positions in an unusual coincidence.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida House Democrats have choice of two for thankless job 03/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 9:01pm]
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