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Ten moments when politics in modern Florida changed forever

Gov. Charlie Crist may or may not be the next U.S. senator from Florida, but this much is certain: Florida will never be the same.

Crist's decision to forgo a second term as governor and instead seek an open Senate seat in Washington has unleashed a torrent of political ambition that could mark the 2010 election cycle as a turning point in the state's modern evolution.

For the first time, the governorship and all three Cabinet seats will change hands — an unprecedented level of turnover, even in the term-limits era. Florida could get its first woman governor or woman attorney general.

Crist's move could cause a seismic shift in power and become a turning point in the state's evolution, on par with the adoption of term limits by voters in 1992 or the upheaval that followed a Supreme Court decision that invalidated the 1966 legislative elections because of malapportioned Senate and House districts.

"This is going to mean an immense shift in power," said Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a longtime student of Florida politics who served as a legislator, American Bar Association president and Florida State University president. "It's going to bring about some of the biggest changes we've ever seen."

Two Cabinet members, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum, are leaving their jobs to run for governor. The third, Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, is term limited.

Had Crist run for re-election as governor, he would have been considered the clear favorite, and Sink and McCollum likely would have run for new terms in their current jobs, largely maintaining the status quo for four more years.

Now, Florida could get its first woman governor (Sink, a Democrat who would end the Republicans' 12-year hold on the office) or its first woman attorney general (two Republican candidates are women, Holly Benson and Pam Bondi).

The intense jockeying will occur in a turbulent political time, with voters restless over the economic crisis and incumbent politicians seen as particularly vulnerable.

As with other game-changing developments, the full impact won't be evident for several years. Historians likely will dissect the effects of Crist's decision to be the first governor to not seek a second term since 1968, when the state Constitution was changed to allow it.

Crist is leaving the governor's office, and leaving behind a blueprint for big change.

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

1967 Changing political boundaries. Dating to its origins in 1845, Florida was one of the most unrepresentative legislatures in the country, with political power tightly held by rural North Florida politicians known as the "Pork Chop Gang." In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's system violated the "one man, one vote" principle and invalidated the 1966 legislative elections. University of Florida political scientist Manning Dauer crafted a reapportionment plan that passed court muster, eroding pork-chop rule and opening a door to more progressive and urban legislators, such as Bob Graham (a future governor) and Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte (a future American Bar Association president and Florida State University president).

1967 Opens records law. Florida has had a public records law since 1909, but this was the year the Legislature passed the most significant open government laws — one to require that most government meetings be held in public and the other expanding access to public records. Since then, "Government in the Sunshine" has been a vital instrument for Floridians to maintain a watchful eye on official behavior. A fundamental principle of the law is that a record is assumed to be public unless a specific exemption makes it confidential. In 1992, voters amended the state Constitution to include an open government provision.

1968 New Constitution. Voters adopted a state Constitution that greatly modernized state government, reorganized the executive branch, allowed the governor to run for two terms, created a post of lieutenant governor and added a "declaration of rights" clause to protect citizens from racial or religious discrimination. The new Constitution also established home rule for Florida counties and added a limit, or cap, of 10 mills on local taxation.

1970 The Askew era. Reubin Askew was a little-known state senator from Pensacola who ran for governor in 1970 on a platform highlighted by tax reform and ethics reform. His victory brought Florida its first corporate income tax and a period of racial tolerance on matters such as desegregation of schools. Askew also delivered on a promise of cleaner government, and had to personally lead a petition drive to require public officials to disclose their finances as a check against potential conflicts of interest.

1982 Single-member districts. The Legislature dramatically changed how its members are elected. Under the old multimember district system, multiple legislators were elected from entire counties or swaths of counties, with several members representing the same areas. The new single-member district system assigned every voter one representative and one senator. The most obvious result: a more diverse Legislature with more Hispanics, African-Americans and women winning seats. But over time legislators became more parochial, with a preoccupation with "my district" rather than "my state," and monolithic voting blocs such as condo-dwelling retirees becoming more powerful in deciding election outcomes.

1987 Services tax in, then out. Dec. 10, 1987, stands as a day of tax infamy in Florida — the day the Legislature repealed a sales tax on services that had been in effect for six months. Gov. Bob Martinez, once a services tax supporter, buckled under political pressure from opponents, including media companies opposed to paying the tax. Instead, legislators increased Florida's reliance on the sales tax on goods, by increasing it from 5 to 6 cents. At the time, former Senate President Harry Johnston said the state had blown a "once in a lifetime chance" to reform its tax system. Subsequent efforts to tax services or broaden the tax base have failed miserably, with politicians often recalling the debacle of 1987.

1992 Term limits. A string of scandals in Congress spurred a national movement known as term limits aimed at driving career politicians from office. The Florida campaign is known as "Eight is Enough" and limits Cabinet members and legislators to eight years in office; it passed with a whopping 77 percent in favor. (Ironically, it does not apply to members of Congress.) The full effect wouldn't be clear until eight years later, when the eight-year clock kicked in and the state House saw rampant turnover — 63 of its 120 members were freshmen. Term limits are blamed today for an assortment of ills, from myopia among legislators to the exaggerated influence of special interest money, lobbyists and even the media.

1992 Reapportionment strengthens black and Republican districts. Republicans join with African-American Democrats to serve their mutual self-interests in a redrawing of legislative and congressional districts. With support from the Democratic majority, the coalition added three majority-black congressional seats, giving Florida its first black representatives on Capitol Hill since Reconstruction (Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings and Carrie Meek). The court-approved map also "bleached" legislative districts, consolidating more black voters in majority-black districts, which hastened a Republican takeover of the Florida Senate in 1994 and the state House two years later. Carefully drawn Republican districts in 2002 further cemented GOP control on legislative power.

1998 The Jeb Bush era. Four years after narrowly losing his first bid for governor, Republican Jeb Bush easily defeated Democrat Buddy MacKay. An obedient Legislature helped Bush advance an ambitious first-year agenda highlighted by a school grading system, school vouchers and broad tax cuts, while strengthening the powers of governor, such as by exerting greater control over how judges are selected. "Jeb!" (the exclamation point was on his campaign signs) also redefined public expectations of governing by showing forceful leadership during hurricanes and other emergencies.

2000 The recount and reform. For more than five weeks, Florida became the center of the political universe as presidential election returns showed a virtual dead heat between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The world was transfixed by the protracted legal battle and manual recounts of votes, and terms like "dimpled chad" and "butterfly ballot" became part of the political lexicon. A closely divided Supreme Court declared Bush the winner by 537 votes and a messy recount process exposed disturbing flaws in Florida's voting mechanism. Punch-card ballots were banned and the state switched to electronic touch-screen voting, which was also junked in favor of paper ballots. The word "recount" still sends shivers down the spines of voters — and election supervisors.

Sources: Times files; interviews; The Florida Handbook; Florida Office of Attorney General; The White Paper: A Narrative History of Open Government in Florida, by Pete Weitzel; The Florida State Constitution: A Reference Guide, by Talbot D'Alemberte.

Ten moments when politics in modern Florida changed forever 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 3:30am]
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