Florida Democrats replace Senate leader in late-session revolt

The intra-party conflict was the result of long-simmering frustration with Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer.
Florida Senators Gary Farmer, left, with Sen. Darryl Rouson.
Florida Senators Gary Farmer, left, with Sen. Darryl Rouson. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published April 28, 2021|Updated April 28, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Democratic senators voted to replace their leader in a rare late-session revolt on Wednesday.

Just three days before the end of this year’s legislative session, Democrats unanimously took a vote of no confidence in Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point lawyer.

Sen. Lauren Book, a children’s advocate from Plantation who was set to lead Senate Democrats in 2022, was chosen as his replacement, effective immediately.

The intra-party conflict was the result of long-simmering frustration with Farmer, who’s failed to unite his caucus on several bills this year. Democrats make up just 16 of the 40 senators, making them powerless to stop the vast majority of Republican bills.

But this week, Democrats had a rare opportunity to stop one Republican priority: a bill that would make secret the names of people who apply to be college or university presidents.

Unlike most bills, which require a simple majority vote to pass, bills that restrict public records require a two-thirds majority. On Tuesday, 14 of the 16 Democratic senators united to stop that bill from passing.

In the wake of that victory, however, Farmer tweeted that Republicans were considering holding a second vote, and he urged Democrats not to switch sides.

The frustration boiled over during a Wednesday morning caucus meeting, when Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, suggested Farmer had given reporters names of people he thought were considering switching their vote.

As a member of the Florida House, Jones had previously supported the exemption. But as a senator, Jones joined his Democratic colleagues to vote down the measure on Tuesday.

Farmer denied giving Jones’ name.

“Did not happen. It absolutely did not happen,” Farmer said.

As tensions rose, the audio and video of the meeting which was being broadcast via Zoom, shut down.

“We lost audio,’' said one of about a dozen lobbyists and reporters watching the livestream of the meeting.

About five minutes later, the audio and video resumed.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, told Farmer that Democrats sometimes didn’t feel protected by their leader.

“You are a leader, and you are supposed to just lead us and protect us,” she told Farmer.

As Senate President Wilton Simpson delayed the start of the Senate floor session, Democrats huddled in a side room on the Senate floor to oust Farmer and replace him with Book. Farmer was going to be the Democrats’ leader until 2022.

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Farmer later objected, saying the meeting wasn’t noticed. He then resigned, and Book and 11 of her Democratic colleagues elected Book a second time. Only Farmer, Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach and Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale didn’t vote for her.

In a statement, Farmer denied “many of the representations conveyed at that meeting and believe there is significant misunderstanding at multiple levels.”

“While I do not believe that the calls for my removal as leader were justified, it has become clear that my zealous advocacy of core Democratic principles and driving of my members to act and vote in accordance with those principles has become problematic to several of my members,” he said.

Jones, who expressed personal fondness for Farmer, said afterward that each senator had his or her own reason for moving to oust him.

“It’s bad we have to do this now. But you can’t move on internally if we are not ok,” Jones said. “Members did not feel we were unified as a caucus.”

Book, a savvy dealmaker with close ties to Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, was elected by Democratic to succeed Farmer.

She now takes over a fractious caucus that will need to be united to challenge Republicans during an upcoming redistricting process.

This session has seen Democratic senators switch sides at critical junctures. When Republican leaders proposed cutting the state’s struggling prison system by $140 million, Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, led a highly unusual revolt against his own party — only to lose when the swing vote, Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, sided with Republicans.

Enough Democrats, including Book, also switched sides on another Republican-sponsored public records exemption, related to a bill that gives the Florida attorney general new powers to investigate social media platforms that fail to alert users when their content is censored.

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