Sunday, April 22, 2018
Politics

Recalling the heyday at the Florida Capitol

An astute observer of Florida politics passed away this month.

Alan Rosenthal, 81, was a respected political scientist at Rutgers University.

Rosenthal's academic pursuit was the study of state legislatures. He spent a lot of time in state capitols, including Florida's, where he observed what he called the "noblest and basest impulses of human nature."

There's never been a lack of either one in Tallahassee.

"A humorist once suggested that states were so ashamed of their legislatures that they hid their lawmakers in backwater towns like Albany, Sacramento and Tallahassee," Rosenthal wrote in an article for the Florida State University Law Review in 1986.

He had spent part of that year's session here. His decades-old insights are still enlightening as to how much has changed and how much is the same.

Rosenthal was impressed by the professionalism of the legislative staff and dedication of many of its part-time members; he helped give rise to the term "golden age" to describe the period from about 1967 to 1974. By the mid 1980s, he wrote that Florida's Legislature was still one of the nation's best, while conceding that "perhaps the quality of legislative membership is diminishing in Florida and many other states."

He noted that lawmakers procrastinate and defer major decisions to the final few days of a session.

That actually did not happen as much in 2013 as lawmakers ran a more businesslike session than usual, advancing bills on ethics, elections and other issues from the first day.

In his article, Rosenthal noted that the Florida Legislature of the mid 1980s was increasingly diverse. By 1984, he wrote, African-Americans made up 5.3 percent of the 160 members, up from 3 percent from a decade earlier.

Blacks compose 17.5 percent of today's Legislature.

Florida's newest lawmaker, Mike Hill, a House Republican elected in a June special election, will be the Legislature's only black Republican and the first since Jennifer Carroll.

Increasing diversity is partly the result of legislative redistricting and the shift to single-member districts in 1982 when legislators began representing smaller and in many cases more homogenous constituencies.

Women made up 19.3 percent of the 1984 Legislature; today the figure is 25 percent.

Contrary to perception, the Florida Legislature is not dominated by lawyers, then or now. In Tallahassee today, one of four lawmakers is a lawyer.

For shock value, read Rosenthal's observation of the 1986 Legislature: "The Florida Legislature is not really a partisan place, at least not yet. … For the most part, bipartisan cooperation prevails."

Since he wrote those words, Tallahassee has been overrun by the effects of term limits, greater partisanship and an obsessive fundraising culture.

Things often look much better in hindsight, and the scholar from Rutgers saw Florida's Legislature during some of its better times.

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

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