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Party is quiet for Florida Democrats

TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Jeff Clemens, a freshman Democrat from Palm Beach County, walks into the state Capitol each day, waits for an elevator to his barren 14th floor office, and over the hum of his minifridge thinks: Who are we sticking it to today?

"The list gets longer every week," he says. Unions, teachers, cops, firefighters, the middle class.

Clemens would love to stop it. Stop something. Slow it down even.

He can't.

Life in the minority party in government is always challenging. But for Democrats in Florida this year, it's oppressive.

Of the 164 people elected to serve in state government, less than one-third — 51 — are Democrats. And one Democrat has missed most of the session because of health issues.

The result is predictable. As the Republican-dominated Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott accelerate through an agenda filled with controversial and sweeping changes to what seems like every crevice of government, Democrats can only sit in the back of the room, watch and shrug.

In the long term, Democrats say the Republicans' aggressive agenda is great for them.

In the here and now, it's a bit like living through Dante's Inferno.

• • •

Senate Democrats call a caucus meeting to form a plan for two days of grueling budget discussions.

Four of the 12 members show up.

Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, the minority leader, sits at the head of a long conference table, running through a list of Republican-led budget proposals.

Ease class-size restrictions. Privatize prisons. Move elderly and disabled patients on Medicaid into managed care. Around the table, the senators' faces are grim.

"I'm just going to start crying, that's all," says Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.

Victories for Democrats are hard to come by. And what passes as success is measured differently depending on your party affiliation.

Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, recently offered an amendment to a bill prohibiting governments from deducting union dues from workers' pay, extending that prohibition to all payroll deductions.

If Republicans believed — as they argued — that government should not collect money that can be used for political purposes, Kriseman said, then they should support removing insurance companies, and even charities who do the same thing.

The bill's Republican sponsor, Rep. Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary, praised Kriseman's Libertarian spirit. And he invited Kriseman to talk to Dorworth about expanding the bill next session.

But this year, Dorworth's bill focused on unions.

Kriseman smiled. "We disproved the reasoning behind his bill," he said.

Point made. Democrat success.

Dorworth's bill passed 73-40. Republican success.

Kriseman, first elected in 2006, told Democratic House members early in the session to understand that "every one of the bills you're filing right now is dead."

"If you go into the session with the understanding that your bills are dead," he said, "you will be free to speak your mind and vote how you feel like you need to vote because they can't do anything to you."

• • •

Democrats hold 39 seats in the House, less than the one-third required to slow down or procedurally influence the process.

Republicans could limit debate to as little as 10 minutes a side with a simple majority vote, and with a two-thirds majority, Republicans can waive House rules and proceed as they wish.

The situation in the Senate isn't as dire, mainly because of the collegial nature of the body.

Still, the Democrats that find success for their bills are the ones who sometimes stand with Republicans.

Sens. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, and Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, joined Republicans in overriding former Gov. Charlie Crist's veto of a bill that created political fundraising funds for state elected leaders.

Siplin also voted for an education reform bill supported by Republicans that ties teacher pay raises to student performance.

Montford joined Republicans in asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would cap the amount of revenues the state could collect.

"I vote on the issue as it regards to my district," Siplin said. "That's my policy. I always vote that way. My people have stood with me. The party didn't elect me."

• • •

Leaving the state a la Wisconsin or Indiana Democrats, for the record, wouldn't make a difference.

Rep. Mark Pafford looked it up to be certain.

So it's day after day of losing amendments and being ruled out of order. Day after day of speaking to members who won't change their vote no matter how good the argument.

Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, tracks the Legislature's progress by what he calls a weekly accountability scorecard.

"Week One: Florida House passes Unemployment Compensation legislation punishing out of work employees by rewarding Wall Street's Corporations . . . Pafford, recorded vote — Against."

The bill passed 81-38.

"Week Three: Florida House approves the slush funds which decreases transparency in the process and revives pay to play politics . . . Pafford, recorded vote — Against."

The bill passed 81-39.

• • •

Not too long ago, the Florida script was flipped. Democrats were running over Republicans, enjoying super majorities.

From 1982 to 1984, which coincided with the start of Bob Graham's second term as governor, Democrats enjoyed an 84-36 majority in the House and a 32-8 majority in the Senate.

The super majorities allowed Democrats to override Graham's vetoes — not that they wanted to — but also limit debate and propose constitutional amendments.

That power now rests with Republicans, who took control of the Senate in 1994 and the House in 1996, and have been building bigger majorities ever since. The Democrats still in Tallahassee mainly live in safe Democratic districts, where residents generally have supported their political stunts and vocal opposition.

"This is the year that I have felt more isolated, because I have not been able to participate," said Rep. Luis Garcia of Miami Beach, first elected in 2006.

To House Democratic leader Ron Saunders, 2011 is not all that different than other recent legislative sessions, except that Democrats have lost the ear of the governor.

Crist certainly was more willing to listen to their arguments than Scott has been, Saunders said.

"As long as we're getting our point across, which we've been doing I think effectively, we'd just as soon have them do what they're doing, because they're going to do it anyway," he said. "The only problem we're having from a message standpoint is there are so many bad bills coming through so quickly that's it hard for us to kind of coordinate our message. It's like putting out a fire in six different houses at one time."

• • •

Saunders arrives at his caucus meeting with promising news.

He is presenting a series of floor amendments to a bill that would deregulate about 20 professions, including commercial interior designers, auctioneers, telemarketers and charitable organizations.

The amendments would strike out each individual profession.

And get this, he says, Republicans might be interested.

"We all know that most of these are going to be defeated," Saunders tells members. "I'm hearing, though, that Republicans may like some of these amendments because they don't want them deregulated either."

"You know if that's going to happen?" asks Rep. Steve Perman of Boca Raton.

"I'm hearing that some of them like these amendments," Saunders says. "Whether they like them and vote for them or speak for them . . ."

Members laugh.

None of the amendments pass, or even come close, though Republican Reps. Charles Van Sant and Marlene O'Toole vote to remove interior designers.

Point made. Democrat success.

The overall deregulation bill passes the House 77-38. Republican success.

• • •

In the House, Democrats call Republicans people in the front rows. Republicans say Democrats are people in the back row.

The front row gets all the attention, so members in the back rows fight for the scraps.

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, reads a nursery rhyme he wrote opposing changes to the Medicaid system.

"There was a young chairman who lived in a shoe / with so many young Medicaid patients he didn't know what to do / So he gave them HMOs and a price tag so fixed / Some will be cared for but some may get nixed."

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, starts a floor speech by saying, "Quack, Quack, Quack." He's trying to make the point that the House's plan to force government employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to their pensions constitutes an income tax.

Saunders, who represents a moderate district in the Keys, attends the first tea party caucus meeting looking for potential political allies.

• • •

The silver lining, Democrats hope, is that Republicans anger enough people to swing the 2012 legislative elections, when all 160 seats will be in contention.

"They are the best (thing for) Democrats right now, because they're going so far, so fast," said Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach. "It's going to be easy for a lot of them to be replaced."

That, and when a small victory goes viral — like saying "uterus" on the House floor.

The story, how Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, said his wife should incorporate "her uterus" to avoid regulation, and how Republicans said he shouldn't say the word "uterus," went all the way to Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show.

Maddow asked Randolph: "After you raised this incorporating one's uterus modest proposal in the Legislature, in order to avoid excessive regulation therein, how did the Republican leadership in the statehouse respond to you?"

"Well, they immediately went to my Democratic leader and my Democratic rules chair and told both of them that I was no longer allowed . . ." Randolph started.

Finally. Someone who wanted to listen.

Times/Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com.

By the numbers

Florida Senate

28 Republicans

12 Democrats

24 votes required to propose amendments to the state Constitution

27 votes required for two-thirds super majority to override a veto, limit debate or expel a member. (Some votes require two-thirds of senators present)

Florida House

80 Republicans

39 Democrats

1 vacant

60 votes required to limit debate

72 votes required to propose a constitutional amendment

80 votes required to create public records exemptions, override a veto, impeach officers.

Party is quiet for Florida Democrats 04/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 10, 2011 2:39pm]
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