Why it sucks to be a Democrat in the Florida House

For the past decade, Democrats have been firmly ensconced in the minority in both houses of the state Legislature.  Currently, there are 77 Republicans in the state House, to the Democrats’ 39. That’s not because the state is overwhelmingly Republican in political affiliation or ideology, but because in part the legislative districts have been gerrymandered to heavily favor Republicans.

St. Petersburg Democrat Rick Kriseman was elected to the House in 2006. He says being in the minority “can be difficult,” and uses as example legislation that he sponsored last year that would have mandated that the Department of Environmental Protection notify the public of pollution hazards as soon as they’re known, in the wake of the problems discovered in St. Pete’s Azalea neighborhood. In 2008, Azalea residents were stunned to learn about groundwater contamination at a nearby Raytheon site that had first been discovered nine years earlier.

“The bill passed every committee unanimously,” Kriseman says. “I had the support of Rules Chairman Bill Galvano, but for whatever reason, I didn’t have the support of [majority leader] Adam Hasner. He  basically said, ‘It’s a good bill, but I’m going to kill it.’”

The ratio of Democrats to Republicans was even more lopsided against the Dems when Sara Romeo represented Temple Terrace and other parts of Hillsborough County in the House in 2000-2002. She admitted that it was “somewhat difficult to get things done,” but said that she was still able to pass several bills for relatively non-controversial items such as water conservation, a breast cancer license plate and the restoration of Lake Thonotosassa.

Romeo says that if Democrats concentrate on non, or bi-partisan issues, they might have a better chance of getting their bills passed. But is that the mandate that most of them run on?

What about issues that could make a major difference in improving the state? Issues that the GOP leadership has punted on in recent years, such as reviewing the many tax exemptions that Florida businesses enjoy, but could immediately raise more revenue for the state.

That’s where the folks behind Fair District Florida are attempting to play a potentially game-changing role to reshape power in Tallahassee. They’re the organization that’s attempting to put two different constitutional amendments on the 2010 ballot that would reconfigure the state’s legislative and Congressional districts.

Ellen Freidin is the campaign dhair for Fair District Florida. She says, “If you look at the state’s population, it’s a little more than one third Republican, yet the Legislature is two thirds presently Republican.” Fair District Florida has both Democrats and Republicans in its leadership, and Freiden says she has no illusions that the situation would be any different if Democrats were in charge. “It’s all about them trying to do whatever they can to hold on to their own power,” she says, adding, “It’s a legalized conflict of interest.  The   legislature should more closely approximate the people they represent.”

Fair District Florida twin amendments call for Congressional and legislative districts to be drawn without intent to favor a party or incumbent; to be contiguous and to adhere as closely as possible to existing local boundaries; to be roughly equal in population; and to maintain the equal opportunity for minority communities to elect representatives of their choice.

Obviously, state Republicans are concerned about any attempts to try to whittle down their hegemony. Though the two proposed constitutional amendments still need well over 200,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot by the Feb. 1 deadline (“We’ll make it,” Friedin insists), members of the Legislature last week were already discussing potential legal action to stop it.

GOP State Senator Mike Haridopolos told the Senate’s redistricting committee that he’ll have legal staff review the potential legal options in January, and said that “could mean a lawsuit.” He didn’t say on what grounds, but proclaimed simply, “We owe it to the taxpayers.”

[image-1]But even if Fair District Florida were to be successful, Sarasota Representative Keith Fitzgerald (right) isn’t convinced that would completely restore balance in the legislature. Fitzgerald, who is also a professor of political science at New College, says the problem with Democrats is that they’re concentrated geographically. In many cases, he says, some of the party’s natural constituencies, such as highly educated people or low-income citizens, tend to live close together.

As it stands now, though, House Democrats like Rick Kriseman say a major part of their job is simply to play defense. He says it’s not just about passing bills, but also staving off bad legislation (such as offshore drilling) or improving bills proposed by Republicans. For an example, he refers to a telecom bill sponsored by Hillsborough/Pasco Republican Will Weatherford that came through the Energy and Utilities Committee this past session.

“I voted no in committee,” Kriseman says. “But then I worked with Weatherford and the lobbyists that were pushing the bill in the session, and the bill that ultimately passed looking nothing like it at the end.”  (That bill was ultimately approved in the Senate and signed by Governor Crist.)

Sarasota’s Keith Fitzgerald says that one of the most important roles that the opposition party can play is to shine a light on sweetheart deals, or try to strike down by amendment particularly egregious aspects of a particular bill.

But if Fitzgerald is right, and Florida Fair Elections isn’t the magic bullet that will restore more Dems to Tallahassee, then how does the party remain competitive in this purple state?

Well, they can start by winning some seats, district by district. Fitzgerald says, “Not any Democrat” could have won his seat in Sarasota County, which he describes as a “fairly” conservative area that is strong on the environment and energy.

“I could talk to them in language that they could understand,” he says. He acknowledges that Democrats traditionally don’t have the same resources as their Republican brethren, so they need to be smarter and more disciplined.

Quixotic? Maybe. But look at Washington right now. Democrats have won a dramatic number of seats in Washington the last two election cycles, not by running liberals everywhere, but by recruiting conservatives and centrists who could appeal to disaffected Republicans and independents.

That's a not a strategy likely to appeal to true-blue Democrats, but in Florida it may be the party's best, if not only hope.

Last week Hillsborough area Democratic Representative Mike Scionti announced he had been appointed to a position in the Department of Defense and would be leaving his state House seat. Immediately, speculation centered around which local Democrats would run to replace him in a special election that will be held early next year.

In his new position at DOD, Scionti, a veteran of the Army Reserve, will be working with local communities in the event of natural disasters. He’ll deal with hurricanes, earthquakes, floods — daunting challenges, yes, but probably easier than fighting uphill battles as a Democrat in the Florida House.

The frustrations of Florida’s House Democrats surfaced last month at a Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee meeting on the University of Tampa campus. Scionti and fellow Hillsborough House Democrat Betty Reed explained that many of the bills they’d hoped to propose in 2010 have no chance of going anywhere unless they meet with the approval of House Speaker Larry Cretul, who controls the gavel. Contending as well with Florida’s budget crunch, Scionti and Reed at times have been forced to perform “triage” to simply prevent things from getting worse.

It was not an encouraging night, and as local Democrats begin campaigning in the Tampa Bay area and across the state to win seats in the House in 2010, the question might be asked: Is it really worth it?

The answer — based on interviews with several current and former House Democrats – is a qualified yes.

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