TALLAHASSEE — When Mike Haridopolos was elected Senate president, he vowed to make the traditionally moderate chamber more conservative — in his own image.
But the University of Florida history instructor miscalculated one thing: The Senate by its very nature moderates. Haridopolos and Senate leaders attempted to push several controversial conservative issues in the past year only to have the Senate hit the ideological reset button and vote them down.
It happened two weeks ago with the vote to privatize 30 South Florida prison facilities. It happened last year with the tea party-driven proposal to require all employers to use E-Verify to check immigration status, with the proposal to ban state worker unions from collecting dues, with a House measure to split the state Supreme Court in two, and with dozens of bills that appeared as part of the budget on the last night of session.
Haridopolos and his Republican leadership team wanted them; the chamber, dominated 28-12 by Republicans, still said no.
"The Senate's independent streak is what distinguishes it from the House,'' said Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich of Weston. "It's always there under the surface. You never know when it's going to emerge."
The conflict played out again last week, when Haridopolos' top deputies attempted to orchestrate a coup to designate the Senate president for 2014 and 2016.
Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher and Sen. Joe Negron had each pledged to support Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, but they viewed him as being vulnerable to rival Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.
So on Tuesday, a week after Latvala had helped defeat the prison privatization plan, Thrasher and Negron called in Gardiner's supporters and told them Gardiner was dropping out. They presented the senators with two pledge cards and asked them to sign: one to elect Thrasher of St. Augustine Senate president in 2014, and the other to elect Negron of Stuart in 2016.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, politely gathered the pledge cards for "safekeeping" and then sought out Gardiner. When Gardiner told him he had no intention of dropping out, his supporters revolted against Thrasher and Negron, angered by their heavy-handed approach.
"I didn't come here to relive Julius Caesar," recalled Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico. She wouldn't say who played Brutus.
Within two days of the attempted coup, Latvala had seized the opportunity, formed a coalition with Gardiner, and the two agreed to join forces to support a Gardiner candidacy in 2014. Several of Gardiner's supporters returning in 2016 have also pledged to support Latvala for Senate president, as have a handful of House members who are candidates running for Senate posts.
"The arrogance level of some of the people who lead the Senate led them to do what they did this week,'' Latvala said when it was over. "They are so used to being able to tell the body what to do, they thought they could do it in the president's race and it backfired miserably. That's going to be a good lesson."
Many current and former senators told the Times/Herald they have never seen the Senate shift as dramatically as it has in the last two years.
Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, rose to the Senate's top job on the strength of his fundraising prowess and retail politics skills. Once there, he immediately began implementing his conservative platform, starting with the removal of several veteran staff members — a situation that many senators say led to the loss of institutional knowledge.
He gave committee chairmen assignments and routinely controlled their agendas, removing bills he didn't want them to take up and adding bills he wanted addressed.
Haridopolos defended the staff firings as an efficiency move designed to save the taxpayers' money. He said his control over committee agendas was "a very common thing. The president has a right to put some bills on the agenda."
But Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami Democrat who was Senate president in 1990-92 with a 21-19 majority, disagrees. "I never did that, and I've never known a Senate president to do that,'' she said.
As for his conservative record, Haridopolos is proud he has passed 2012 ballot referendums on capping state revenue and the opposing federal health care overhaul. He has ushered in tighter abortion restrictions and Medicaid changes, and cut back state worker pensions. During his term legislators have made deep budget cuts with no new taxes and passed redistricting.
"I hope I'm not judged on missing one shot as opposed to making 18 or 19 shots,'' he said. "Politics is the art of the possible. And I'm a pragmatist."
Rich attributes Haridopolos' misdirected agenda to inexperience, arrogance and the notion that the Republican-led chamber can be run with a top-down approach.
"The leadership wants to push through their agenda and, when members don't agree they say they don't twist arms but that's not what I hear from my members,'' she said. "Plenty of arms get twisted."
The pressure was so intense during the Senate debate on prison privatization that at one point Democrats and Republicans had to shield Miami Democratic Sen. Larcenia Bullard, who was still recovering from a hospital stay, from being lobbied by Senate leaders.
"They do it because they think they can get away with it,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who lost his Senate committee chairmanship when he didn't vote for the prison privatization plan. "They don't respect, in my opinion, enough of the Senate and the process.''
Several Republican senators echo Rich and Fasano's criticisms but won't do it openly. Many believe last week's drama has sent a message, not only to Thrasher and Negron but Haridopolos and his successor, Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville, who is believed to have supported the coup attempt.
"They underestimated the power of people coming together,'' said Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, one of Gardiner's supporters called in by Thrasher and Negron.
Thrasher and Negron both said it's an internal Senate fight, and neither has conceded the race for president.
Haridopolos, 41, served in the House for three years before he was elected to the Senate in 2003. Thrasher served in the House for eight years, two as House speaker.
"The leadership is very steeped in the traditions of the House — where the speaker decides what the polices are and everybody is supposed to follow along,'' Latvala said. "The problem is, House members look forward to being in the Senate where they're not told what to do anymore. It takes a smaller number of senators to slow the train down."
The 40-member Senate was designed to be the more deliberative and moderating influence, said Lance deHaven-Smith, political science professor at the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University. When the House was controlled by liberal Democrats 20 years ago, the Senate was more conservative. With the House controlled by conservative Republicans today, the Senate has moved more to the middle.
"The House tends to run over people,'' deHaven-Smith said. "The Senate listens." Even the name, Senate, connotes deliberation, derived from the Latin senex, meaning old man, or sage.
It's a lesson Haridopolos teaches his undergraduate class in Florida politics, which comes to Tallahassee to study with him during session. The assigned reading is a 1,232-page book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 3: Master of the Senate.
Johnson was cunning, ambitious and sometimes relentless, Haridopolos told the students during a class discussion last week. He helped shape a U.S. Senate that was known as the "cooling saucer," because of its older, more deliberative approach to tackling hot topics.
Because members have longer terms, and larger constituencies, they are empowered to take a more independent stance on issues — "the armor of the Senate," Haridopolos said.
For Haridopolos, it is also a lesson learned.