In search of a state legislator who doesn't always toe the party line

Published June 13, 2013

Whenever a group of progressives or pro-business lobbyists release their version of a report card for state legislators, it is understood they are grading on a rather biased curve.

And, naturally, the curve's shape depends on whether that group leans left or right.

Nothing wrong with that. It can be a handy shortcut to common interests. In other words, if you like this business group, then you'll probably love that senator.

Which is fine if you happen to be fanatically liberal or obsessively conservative. But what if your views fluctuate depending on the topic? What if you are conservative on fiscal matters and progressive on social issues? What if you favor life's gray areas?

Because, judging by voter numbers, you could argue that middle-of-the-road types are the overwhelming majority in Tampa Bay. There are more registered Democrats around here, but we tend to favor Republicans in state and local elections.

So how are moderates supposed to grade lawmakers?

One way to decide whether a legislator veers too far left or right is to figure out how often they are willing to cross the aisle on an important issue.

The full House and Senate vote on hundreds of bills every session, and most have near unanimous support. That leaves a couple of dozen contentious floor votes that are typically split along party lines.

So how did Tampa Bay legislators navigate the trickiest issues of 2013?

Sadly, the majority played it safe. They stuck with party leadership time after time.

They might argue they were voting their conscience every time, but that means we are electing militant left- and right-wingers from an area that seems more nuanced.

Take Reps. Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg; Jamie Grant, R-Tampa; Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City; Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill; and Dana Young, R-Tampa. It appears they've never met a partisan issue they wouldn't support.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner and Reps. Janet Cruz and Betty Reed, all Democrats from Tampa, were almost as consistent in the opposite direction.

So was anyone around here willing to break rank?

Rep. Carl Zimmerman, D-Palm Harbor, showed a surprising conservative streak on some issues. Reps. Darryl Rouson, D- St. Petersburg, and Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, also supported a handful of Republican causes.

Not surprisingly, the most independent-minded lawmakers are also some of the area's longest-tenured and most respected politicians.

No one in Tampa Bay, and perhaps in the state, was willing to joust with his own party as much as Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. While he voted for Republican issues more often than not, Fasano was not afraid to stand up for his constituents.

Fasano was the lone Republican in the House fighting for expanded Medicaid funds and also cast votes in favor of teachers and against insurance company interests.

Sens. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, did not often veer from the Republican script, but both had critical roles in killing two major GOP initiatives — pension reform and the parent trigger bill.

In the end, a lawmaker can't be graded on a single issue. We're not all going to agree on every bill or cause.

But it is worth noting which legislators will take an unpopular stand among their House or Senate colleagues because they believe it is the right choice for voters back home.