Senate President Wilton Simpson on Thursday removed Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Lauren Book from a chairmanship role, a change that comes less than two weeks before the start of legislative committee hearings.
In a memo circulated to senators, Simpson said Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, would replace Book as chair of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, a committee the Plantation Democrat has led since 2018. Garcia was already a member of the committee.
Simpson said the change was due to “significant challenges” that can come about having dual leadership responsibilities as chair of a committee and leader of Senate Democrats. Book, who Simpson described as a “tireless advocate for children,” will remain on the committee as vice chair.
“In my view, if anyone could take on a dual leadership role, it would be Leader Book. However, reassigning the role to another senator is in the best interest of the institution,” Simpson said in the memo, first reported by Florida Politics.
Over the past week, though, Book has been vocally critical of Simpson’s pledge to push legislation similar to a controversial Texas abortion bill that has sparked nationwide outrage among Democrats and pro-choice groups.
“Just because I’m no longer the chair of this committee doesn’t mean that my efforts are going to stop. I will fight even harder,” Book said. “The Texas bill certainly allows for a quasi-police state where private citizens are reporting to the government… and I don’t believe that Florida is that kind of place.”
Simpson tapped Garcia to lead the committee weeks after he had announced in July the new slate of committee chairs for the 2022 legislative session, which begins Jan. 11 but has preliminary hearings that start this month.
“I’m humbled to serve as chair of the committee tasked with caring for the most vulnerable in our state,” Garcia told the Herald. “I’m ready to take on this responsibility and the work that comes with it to improve the services of our children in foster care, our elderly, victims of domestic violence and families in need.”
This is Garcia’s first chairmanship since being elected in 2020. Her narrow victory over an incumbent Democrat has had a cloud over it as a result of GOP operative Frank Artiles being criminally charged for recruiting and paying a sham candidate to run in her Senate District 37 race. Prosecutors say Garcia had no involvement in the alleged vote-siphoning scheme.
Simpson’s communications director, Katie Betta, said the change was not announced in July because Simpson and Book were in the midst of discussing the possibility of a change. The change was announced Thursday because notices for committee meetings that will take place on Sept. 20 are due on Monday, Betta said.
“The chair sets the agenda, so the final decisions needed to be made and announced this week,” Betta said.
The announcement of the change also coincided with Book’s recent statements, strongly opposing Florida’s considering legislation that is inspired by Texas’ new six-week abortion law.
“So long as the bodily autonomy and self-determination of women are under attack, I vow to give those who seek to oppress reproductive rights the fight of their lives,” Book said in her statement on Sept. 2. “They cannot win.”
Book told the Miami Herald on Thursday that she has had several conversations with Simpson about what the bill would look like in Florida, and she said she has made her sentiments clear that if a bill like Texas’ SB 8 makes it to the Senate, there should be an exemption for rape and incest.
Book said she was informed of the change on Thursday and that she said she will do “anything in my power” to support Garcia. When asked if she thought the action was related to her abortion comments a week earlier, Book said that there is always a “natural tension” between Democratic and Republican leadership in the Florida Legislature.
“At the end of the day we’re going to fight, and we don’t know what the bill looks like, so it’s hard to say exactly what that fight is going to look like,” said Book. “I believe that our voices and that advocacy will be heard, and this is a tough process and people get bumped and bruised along the way, but this is a battle.”
In the memo, Simpson did not make mention of Book’s abortion comments as an impetus for his decision. When asked whether the comments played a role in the change, Betta pointed back to the reasons given on the memo, which focused on the burdens of having “dual leadership responsibilities.”
Betta added: “President Simpson was well aware of Leader Book’s position on abortion when he appointed her to chair the committee last November. He chose her for the position in part because, while they disagree on abortion, they have worked together on a number of adoption and child welfare issues over the years, including this last session which saw historic child welfare reforms in SB 80 and SB 96.”
• • •
Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.