Florida lawmakers return to Tallahassee

Senate Democrats elect Gary Farmer as the next leader of their caucus.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Republican from Palm Harbor. (Times | 2019)
Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Republican from Palm Harbor. (Times | 2019) [ Jerry Stockfisch ]
Published Nov. 17, 2020|Updated Nov. 17, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — On the first day that Florida lawmakers returned to Tallahassee, without crowds and with masks, legislators immediately confronted the two approaches to dealing with the nation’s divided and polarized electorate.

In the Florida Senate, losing Democrats welcomed their rival Republicans in a courtly ceremony in the old Capitol where they elected Lighthouse Point Sen. Gary Farmer as the next leader of their caucus.

And in the Florida House of Representatives, a triumphant Republican caucus cheered their election-year wins with a chest-thumping victory speech and a gift of team jerseys from newly-elected Speaker Chris Sprowls.

As incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson of Trilby and other Republicans watched, Farmer said he plans to lead the Senate Democratic caucus by remaining true to their principles and hoping to work across the aisle with their Republican counterparts in the chamber.

“We have to remain true to the principles that make us Democrats and continue to fight to bring across votes from the other side,” said Farmer, who acknowledged that “when you are in the minority caucus you are pretty much on defense.”

The next two years will be a crucial period in which state legislators will tackle redistricting and the legislative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Democratic caucus will be playing defense, Farmer said he hopes to address problems with the state’s unemployment system, mental health issues exacerbated by the pandemic and environmental issues facing Florida, including a ban on fracking.

“Our caucus, as it always does, will rely on facts and evidence and truth, and we will seek to promote those beliefs and values in either support or opposition of what the issues may be,” Farmer told reporters after the ceremony.

Expectations of a difficult session

Farmer, a trial attorney, said the caucus is bracing for an annual two-month legislative session “the likes of which we have never seen” because of the pandemic. He said Monday’s ceremony, which featured a limited guest list, no media and socially distanced senators, highlighted the ongoing threats of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Democratic caucus will address the pandemic with a smaller caucus as a result of demoralizing losses in the Nov. 3 election, including the seat of former Miami Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who lost by a mere 34 votes after a three-day recount.

Rodriguez was unseated by Latinas for Trump co-founder Ileana Garcia, a Republican who the Democratic caucus welcomed during the ceremony.

“It is no secret that we were all friends with JJR, but moving forward today you are a senator and we welcome you and look forward to working with you,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat who will be part of Farmer’s leadership team.

In the House, Sprowls recited the list of victories won on Nov. 3, showing a video that begins with a dig at Democrats, “the leadership of that party has long since abandoned you.”

“You are great, 78,” said Sprowls, a Palm Harbor lawyer to standing ovations and applause, referring to the new GOP majority. On each of their desks was a red and white hockey jersey with the number “78” on the back.

The GOP majority of 78 seats for the next two years is five more than it had in 2018 when midterm successes by Democrats ate into the margin. But, after upsets across the board, especially in the battleground regions of Miami-Dade and Orlando, Republicans succeeded in holding their majority and picking up additional seats.

He said that two years ago, when he took charge of the Republican House re-election effort, he heard from the “smart set — the lobbyists and operatives … members of the old guard who were here in the early ’90s during the Republican revolution” when the GOP took over from nearly 100 years of Democratic dominance.

They told him "the rot is starting to set in,'' Sprowls recalled. “The pendulum is starting to swing back.”

They predicted that the Republican caucus numbers will start to dwindle and it would be only a matter of time when “the Republican majority would be done.”

But with the cadence of a victorious coach, Sprowls said his party persevered as it used its ample resources to counter an $11 million investment in House races by Forward Majority, led by former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

No mention of the president

Sprowls did not mention President Donald Trump, whose convincing win in Florida helped buoy Republicans down the ballot. He spoke of no policy or Republican ideology. He said nothing about Gov. Ron DeSantis, or the governor’s push to open everything in the face of a global pandemic that has crippled the state’s tourism industry and continues to spread.

"We took nothing for granted,'' Sprowls said.

His first act was to appoint Port Charlotte Rep. Michael Grant as Republican leader and Rep. Bryan Avila of Miami Springs as the speaker pro tempore, the number two member of the House.

A misty-eyed Avila thanked them for the recognition and thanked Sprowls for his confidence and trust in him.

"I’d like to thank God for giving me life and health,'' he said. “I want to thank my parents for seeking freedom and giving me the opportunity to succeed in the greatest country on earth.”

Later Monday evening, as the Republicans gathered for an outdoor dinner at the nearby Goodwood Museum, House Democrats elected their new officers. They named Dania Beach’s Evan Jenne and Fort Lauderdale Bobby Dubose to be the co-chairs of the caucus.

They also held a moment of silence in remembrance of the more than 17,000 Floridians who have died of COVID-19, and former Rep. Kristen Jacobs, who died of cancer last spring, as well as deceased family members of legislators.

Florida lawmakers are expected to resume committee meetings in January to prepare for the annual two-month legislative session that begins March 2.

When they meet, both chambers are planning special pandemic committees, but they won’t focus on how to end the rising case numbers, vaccine distribution or how to direct more resources to the Floridians in economic despair.

"This is a time for us to unite,'' said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, during the late House session in which she urged them to ignore the videos of the opposing parties.

West Palm Beach Sen. Bobby Powell, who Farmer tapped as minority leader pro tempore, said he doesn’t “have any problem with any person only with policies,” and vowed to work with both his caucus and Republican colleagues in the Senate to get things done.

“As a member of the minority party,” Powell said. “I remain steadfast in our role to fight for those who are less fortunate and for the values and core principles of the Democratic Party.”