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Fourth Democrat in a week's time bids House goodbye

The Democratic exodus from the state House continued Wednesday with an announcement from Rep. Scott Clemons, D-Panama City, that he will not seek re-election.

Clemons, 38, an insurance attorney, said he is leaving public office to spend more time with his children. He has been in the House since 1990.

Clemons is the fourth Democrat in the past week to announce his retirement, which is likely to further strengthen the GOP majority in the Legislature. A fifth Democrat, Rep. Harry Goode of Melbourne, switched to the Republican Party but plans to seek re-election.

In November 1996, when Republicans gained a majority for the first time in 122 years, there were 61 Republicans and 59 Democrats in the House and 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats in the Senate. Special elections and party switches have since pushed the GOP majority to 66 in the House and 24 in the Senate. Democrats are likely to lose more seats in November in heavily GOP districts such as Clemons'.

Earlier this week, Rep. Jack Tobin, D-Margate, one of the most colorful lawmakers in the House, said he will retire to get a head start on his lobbying business. Rep. Debbie Horan, D-Key West, announced plans to retire so she can spend more time with her children. And Rep. Fred Lippman, D-Hollywood, announced his departure on April 23.

Minority Leader Buzz Ritchie of Pensacola is also leaving the House this year. His estranged wife, DeDee Ritchie, is running for the seat.

Reps. Mary Brennan, D-Pinellas Park; John Cosgrove, D-Miami; Kendrick Meek, D-Miami; and Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, are all leaving the House this year to seek Senate seats.

All of them are leaving two years ahead of the deadline that will see 83 legislators forced out of office because of term limits.

Tobin plans to begin lobbying the governor and Cabinet next year and is seeking an ethics Commission opinion on whether he can lobby the legislature for pro bono clients right away. The Florida Constitution prohibits legislators from lobbying for pay for two years after they leave office.

Tobin said he expects to lobby for several Broward County charitable organizations, including the Alzheimer's Family Center, the Area Agency on Aging and Family Central, a child care organization.

Tobin has been known as "Lobster Boy" since 1995 when he got telecommunications lobbyists to throw a lobster dinner for members of his committee on the night before an important vote.

Now Tobin says he can buy the lobster dinners himself. "But not to influence votes," he added hastily. "Just to have a good time with old friends."

Tobin said four Democrats have already stepped forward to run for his seat, which is almost certain to remain in Democratic hands, as is Lippman's.

Lippman, 63, a member of the House since 1978, is leaving to spend more time in his job at Nova Southeastern University.

Ritchie and Clemons say they won't lobby. Ritchie insists he's not joking when he says he wants to "cover the Legislature for a major newspaper."