Outside Washington, Democrats and Republicans actually talk to each other and often can find common ground on issues that paralyze Congress. Now two former House members, Republican David Jolly of Belleair Bluffs and Democrat Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, have joined together to begin a public conversation about why there is gridlock in Washington and what can be done to change it. This is a worthwhile effort to educate Floridians and build broader support for reforms that would encourage more bipartisanship and consensus-building to tackle the nation's most pressing challenges.
Jolly and Murphy have the experience and the battle scars to be credible reformers. Both represented competitive congressional districts, and both at times upset the leaders of their respective political parties by refusing to stay in line. Jolly won a special election to succeed the late C.W. Bill Young and narrowly lost to Democrat Charlie Crist last year after the Pinellas congressional district was redrawn to favor Democrats. Murphy lost a U.S. Senate race last year to incumbent Republican Marco Rubio.
Both Jolly and Murphy are critics of President Donald Trump, fed up with the stalemate in Congress and determined to engage voters in a discussion about what can be done to make fundamental changes. In a conversation with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Wednesday, they outlined three broad areas ripe for reform:
• New rules for drawing congressional districts. There are very few competitive congressional districts in the country, and both Democrats and Republicans often fear primary election challenges more than an opponent from the opposite party. That means there is little incentive in Congress to build bipartisan support for anything or to compromise.
In Florida, voters approved the Fair Districts constitutional amendments in 2010 that required the Legislature to redraw districts without regard to political party affiliation or incumbency. Yet those changes did not produce a dramatic increase in the number of competitive districts, and Jolly said one reason is that the amendments also require the districts to be compact. The U.S. Supreme Court will take up another redistricting case this fall, and Jolly and Murphy are hopeful the court will provide further clarity about how voters can demand that rules be adjusted to redraw districts to be more competitive.
• Open primary elections. Florida allows all voters to cast ballots in primary elections that will decide who takes office. But there is a loophole that allows write-in candidates to keep primary elections closed, which is often exploited. Open primaries would enable voters to choose which primary to participate in, allow those registered as no party affiliation to vote in primaries and force candidates to move toward the middle rather than the extremes in both parties.
• Campaign finance reform. Jolly and Murphy know firsthand about the influence of special interest money in Washington and the ability of outside interests to hijack campaigns with independent expenditures. Jolly angered Republican leaders by exposing the ridiculous amount of time incumbents spend raising money and filed legislation that would have banned members of Congress from personally seeking contributions. But reducing the influence of big money may be the most difficult challenge because of court decisions that have essentially declared money is speech and corporations are people.
Jolly and Murphy, who are scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University of South Florida's Marshall Student Center in Tampa, plan to spend this fall holding similar public conversations around the state. As Jolly said, "We may have lost our seats, but we haven't lost our voices.'' That's good, because they have an important message that should inspire Floridians to push for reforms to make government work again.