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Renegade legislators seem to be a dying breed

If ever there was an example of autocratic leadership in the Florida Legislature, Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander provided it last week, using the public purse to take out his resentment of the University of South Florida for not embracing his plans for a new university in Polk County.

Democrats are irrelevant in Tallahassee, so what passes for the loyal opposition these days is a few Republican legislators occasionally willing to buck their leadership. Tampa Bay has long produced legislators with strong backbones and independent streaks — Sens. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, Ronda Storms, R-Valrico — come to mind in the Senate, but these days they look like an endangered breed.

Term limits will knock Dockery, Fasano and Jones out of office next year. Combined, they have nearly 70 years of legislative experience — the kind of institutional knowledge to give legislators the confidence and savvy to stand up for their principles even under intense pressure from legislative leaders.

"I only hope that people who run for office will run for office thinking that their job is to represent the constituents that elected them and not to be a robot vote for leadership,'' Dockery said in a Political Connections interview airing today on Bay News 9 at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

"I wouldn't identify any of the three of us (Dockery, Jones and Fasano) as more independent-minded when we started in the process," Dockery said. "I think we were all solid, conservative Republicans, and it's the fact that the leadership has made this a top-down driven approach and that the Republican Party has moved to the right that we may seem independent. But we're actually very accurately voicing the concerns of our constituents, and our constituents are saying we want you to be good fiscal conservatives with our tax dollars."

St. Pete money man

St. Petersburg health insurance executive Akshay "A.K." Desai, a veteran Republican fundraiser who most recently focused on Rick Perry's campaign, is the new finance chairman of the state GOP, succeeding Jacksonville real estate developer John Rood.

Desai is chairman and CEO of Universal Health Care Group, which he founded in 2002 along with American Managed Care. He has been a member of the Florida State Board of Education since 2007 and has served on the Florida Council of 100 since 2010.

"A.K. is a tireless advocate for Florida and for our Republican Party," said Gov. Rick Scott. "RPOF will be well served by his dedication and experience."

Sink adviser out

This is not a good sign for Alex Sink's potential to challenge Scott again for governor in 2016: Jim Cassady, Sink's longtime right-hand man, is leaving her recently created nonprofit policy foundation, Florida Next, where he had served as president and CEO.

Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and Democratic gubernatorial nominee, told Buzz that Cassady helped get the think tank set up and on "sound footing," but much of the fundraising duties fell to her.

"I'm just anxious to transition to a more traditional nonprofit role" for the executive director, Sink said, unsure about what's next for her former chief of staff and top campaign aide. Also, it was hard for Cassady to regularly commute from his home in Tallahassee to Tampa, where Florida Next is based.

"He's going to still be involved in the foundation, but I really want to have an executive director who can be here at our headquarters here in Tampa," Sink said, brushing off chatter that the organization has faced financial problems. At least one fundraising staffer has left since she formally kicked it off in September.

Sink, who lost the 2010 governor's race to Scott by 1 percent of the votes, voiced disgust with the Legislature, particularly Florida Senate budget chief Alexander, for a proposal to cut University of South Florida's funding by nearly 60 percent.

"It makes us look like a bunch of …fools," she said. "In some respects a lot of damage has already been done because it's a branding issue for the state. That doesn't send a good message to companies that want to expand here or relocate here or grow their business here."

Romney most popular

Eight states have weighed in so far in the Republican presidential race, but more than six in 10 of the votes cast so far have come from Florida Republicans. Popular votes don't determine the nominee, of course, but Mitt Romney is sitting pretty if you look simply at the number of votes cast.

The four major candidates have received about 2.7 million votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Nevada, Minnesota, Colorado and Maine. Florida accounted for 1.65 million of those votes. According to the RealClearPolitics tally, Romney has won 42 percent of the votes cast, Newt Gingrich 31 percent, Rick Santorum 16 percent, and Ron Paul 11 percent.

The significance of this? Not a whole lot. So far, Romney's big win in Florida has failed to translate into momentum in subsequent states, while Santorum started surging after a relatively weak Florida showing.

RNC boss in town

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus will be headlining a fundraising luncheon Tuesday at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club along with U.S. Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores.

Hotel envy

Eat your heart out, Florida GOP delegates to the national convention in Tampa. The Republican National Committee has promised to give delegates from Florida lousy hotel accommodations at the Aug. 27-30 national convention as an additional penalty for holding a Jan. 31 primary in violation of the national party's sanctioned primary schedule.

But it looks like Florida's Democratic delegates will be sitting pretty in Charlotte, N.C. Newly released hotel assignments for the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 3-6 have Florida's delegates staying at the Marriott City Center, a five-minute walk from the Time Warner Cable Arena where most of the convention will be held. The home state delegation from North Carolina is assigned to the Crowne Plaza Uptown, a 12-minute walk from the arena.

Team goes north

Having shown they know a thing or two about decisively winning primaries in America's most important battleground states, Romney's Florida campaign team is now working to deliver Ohio's 43 GOP delegates on March 6, Super Tuesday. Senior Florida Romney advisers Brett Doster and Molly Donlin are already working in Ohio, and Albert Martinez will focus on the Buckeye State shortly.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

Winner of the week

Florida correctional officers. Plans for a massive expansion of private prisons that would have displaced 3,500 officers in 18 counties, a top priority of the governor and legislative leaders, failed by a narrow margin in the Florida Senate last week.

Loser of the week

Mike Haridopolos. Can anyone think of a signature priority the Florida Senate president has accomplished? Not prison privatization. Not expanded casinos. Not the E-Verify anti-illegal immigration system he promised in 2011 (before his U.S. Senate bid flopped) and then promised to resurrect this year, but never did. He says he doesn't strong-arm colleagues, but banishes uncooperative GOP colleagues such as Paula Dockery and Mike Fasano to legislative purgatory. Meanwhile, he sits back while JD Alexander hijacks the budget to attack the University of South Florida and makes the Senate leadership look like vindictive, ego-driven thugs.

Renegade legislators seem to be a dying breed 02/18/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 18, 2012 9:09pm]
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