Florida progressives get fired up

Can their efforts reverse the political tide?

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Last week, about a dozen activists from various liberal groups held a news conference in front of Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio's Tampa office, denouncing his vote in support of the Paul Ryan-Republican budget that would end Medicare as we know it.

Three weeks earlier, an estimated crowd of 150-200 gathered in front of Republican Representative Jeff Brandes' office in St. Petersburg just days after the legislative session ended, protesting most of the bills supported by Brandes and his GOP allies.

For longtime observers of Florida progressive politics, it's been an unusual sight — disgruntled Democrats hitting the streets on a regular basis to show their opposition to a governor and a legislature.

It's not as if one-party rule in Tallahassee were something new, as it's been in effect for 13 years now. But the election of Rick Scott, followed by a FL legislative session that some say will set the state back decades, has activated a previously somnolent Democratic base into demonstrating their displeasure with the status quo, a la the Tea Party protests from two years ago.

The origins of this groundswell can be traced to a group of concerned activists, originally working under the moniker of Awake the State, and now joined by another group, Fight For Florida,an uncommon alliance, members say, of different parties and organizations unified for a common purpose. St. Pete resident Kirsten Peck admitted at the anti-Brandes rally what was painfully obvious: that there is a price to pay for voter apathy. "I think that what's happened during the last election was that everybody got a little comfortable and didn't think that their voice or their vote was that important, and that's gotta change."

Awake the State evolved out of Root Camp, a meeting of about 40 activists from labor and the black and Latino communities at Tampa's Unitarian Universalist Church in January, and evolved a month later in Orlando at an event called LegiCamp, where nearly 100 progressives from around the state gathered, including House Democrat Scott Randolph. Ray Seaman, the online director for the group Progress Florida, came up with the slogan "Awake the State on March 8" after conversations with parents and teachers who wanted to protest the controversial teacher tenure bill SB 736 on the first day of the legislative session, which was March 8. That day there ended up being over 30 such protests. In Tampa's Gaslight Park, well over 1,000 people gathered in the late afternoon, fueled by their anger at anti-union and public education legislation, while in Sarasota, author Stephen King told hundreds in the crowd that maybe his next horror novel could be written about Rick Scott.

Sure enough, the next nine weeks of the legislative session did prove to be pretty horrific to most progressives, despite their protests. At the same time, however, the governor's popularity has plummeted, and that is becoming an issue Republicans may need to be concerned about.

Last month, Alvin Brown's upset victory over Tea Party favorite Mike Hogan in the Jacksonville mayor's race sent shock waves through some corridors of the RPOF, as Brown became the first Democrat to lead that city in 20 years.

Brown's pollster, Dave Beattie, told the Jacksonville Times-Union that their camp was thrilled when the governor endorsed Hogan. "Barack Obama is actually viewed more positively in Duval County than Rick Scott."

A week after the Jacksonville stunner, a Quinnipiac survey showed that Scott's poll numbers had grown anemic, with 57 percent disapproving of his performance, and only a bare majority of GOP voters (51 percent) showing their approval. But others are hesitant to make too much of one municipal election. GOP political consultant Chris Ingram calls the vanquished Republican in that race, Mike Hogan, a flawed candidate (Hogan "joked" at one point in the campaign that while it might cross his mind,he wouldn't bomb abortion clinics.) But Ingram does agree that Rick Scott has ignited a passionate response in Democrats, saying, "He's taken so many strong positions on so many issues that were really attacks on Democratic ideals and principals and way of life."

Jacksonville's Tea Party contingent were big supporters of Hogan, begging perhaps the larger question of whether their world view may be losing steam in Florida, and by extension, that of the GOP.

Aaron Carmella, a field organizer for the Florida AFL-CIO, says that when Florida legislators tried to ape Wisconsin, Ohio and other states moves to lessen the power of public service unions, the attempt backfired; hardly any such bills passed here, and instead the initiative alienated and intensified organized labor in the state, whose constituents are not monolithically Democrats.

"That's the thing that we're seeing a lot of: our union membership in this area are not Democrats, strictly. They do vote Republican a lot of the times. And now they're starting to see the people they voted into office aren't necessarily the ones representing their ideals when it comes to their job."

But is too much being made about this so-called Democratic spring? After all, Progress Florida's Ray Seaman says the activism among progressives isn't a 2011 phenomenon, citing the big demonstrations for Hands Across the Sand last year before the Deepwater Horizon incident, as well as the activism that public school teachers engaged in during the spring of 2010, as they successfully lobbied then Governor Charlie Crist to veto the teacher tenure bill, the same bill that Governor Scott quickly signed into law earlier this year.

The truly relevant question is whether this outbreak of progressive fervor can make a difference when members of the Legislature and Senator Bill Nelson and Barack Obama are on the ballot in November of 2012.

University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewitt agrees that the sort of homegrown, grass-roots activism among progressives is pretty unusual for the Sunshine State. But he stresses that much of the Democrats success next year will be predicated on how well the Obama re-election campaign works in Florida and that could depend on other outside factors, such as how well the national economy is doing. Former political science professor Daryl Paulson says that Republicans are potentially in trouble with independent voters next year because of the blowback on some of the more egregious pieces of legislation approved this year. He says that other factors for next year will include a different electorate, with more Democrats traditionally coming out to vote in presidential elections (like 2008) vs. midterm congressional races (like last November).

And yes, he thinks they could also possibly get dragged down by the lack of popularity of Rick Scott, who each day becomes more visible as the face of the RPOF.

Then there are the stark realities of redistricting; there are 4.6 million registered Democrats in Florida and 4 million Republicans, and 2.4 million registered with other parties or as independents. But Republicans hold an 81-39 edge in the state House, and a 28-12 edge in the state Senate.

With the passage last year of Amendments 5 & 6, the Fair Districts amendments that require districts be compact and contiguous, Democrats are pinning their hopes on different district lines being composed for those seats. Public hearings begin later this month in Tallahassee, and a hearing will be held in Tampa on Aug. 29.

So what's it all mean, nearly a year and a half before decision day 2012?

Pinellas County resident Tony Branch, another of the Brandes protesters, calls Florida the laughing stock of the country. Branch was a resident of Sacramento who moved to Florida four years ago because of the lower cost of living, the warm weather and the people, but he says of the latter, "They just don't pay enough attention to political affairs."

Maybe now, finally, they will.

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