1. Florida

Smith, Thurston take charge as Democratic leaders

In separate ceremonies in the historic Old Capitol Monday, Senate and House Democrats elected their leaders for the new term: Sen. Chris Smith and Rep. Perry Thurston, both of Fort Lauderdale.

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz and other GOP senators were on hand for the late afternoon event, and two busloads of community activists made the seven-hour trip from Broward County to witness the ceremonies.

Smith, a lawyer, was elected to the House in 1998 and the Senate in 2008. He listed three priorities: improving Florida's schools, implementing President Obama's health care act and reducing the burden of high property insurance premiums on homeowners. His reference to Obamacare brought loud cheers from the audience.

"The election is over," Smith said, referring to Obamacare. "The issue has been deliberated, debated, litigated and procrastinated. Now it is time to be implemented."

Smith leads a 14-member Senate Democratic Caucus, following the party's pickup of two seats in the recent election.

During a more boisterous House ceremony, Democratic Leader Ron Saunders, of Key West, gave parting words before he passed the reins to Thurston.

The Democrats blocked bad bills and were vocal about their ideas and acccomplishments, and voters showed they were listening, Saunders said.

"We faced a difficult time at the Democratic caucus, but we worked as a team," Saunders said of his tenure. "Sometimes we didn't have the votes, but we had the voices."

Thurston, an attorney, also cheered Democratic gains and said he hopes to see his party get even more seats during the next election.

That will be possible, he said, through changes to the election laws that disenfranchised voters by causing lines as long as eight or nine hours in some places.

"We have to work for our front-line workers, our firefighters and our teachers," Thurston said. "Yes, our numbers have increased, and we are going to be more effective."

--By Steve Bousquet and Brittany Alana Davis