Florida goes Republican.
Orlando's Daniel Webster had little time to savor the moment in November when he was sworn in as Florida's first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction.
Minutes after he took the gavel during the organizational session, bitter Democrats - still smarting from losing their House majority during elections two weeks earlier - went on the attack. Jewish members protested that Webster, a conservative Christian, was insensitive in letting his pastor invoke Jesus Christ in an opening prayer. Black members complained that a veterans' honor guard entering the House chamber for the pledge of allegiance consisted only of white men.
But that was just the beginning. For four and a half hours that day, 61 Republicans and 59 Democrats hotly debated rules for how the House would conduct itself. They did not agree. The result: The chamber adopted temporary rules that will expire at midnight March 4, the first day the Legislature meets for its 1997 session.
Welcome to Florida's new Legislature, the first in the South to be controlled completely by the Grand Old Party. If the first day was any indication, Speaker Webster's reign will be a rocky ride.
"It's going to be a long two years," said Representative Lars Hafner, a St. Petersburg Democrat who was in line for a leadership role if his party had maintained control. "Unfortunately the games began on the very first day."
In the Senate, the November elections solidified the GOP's majority with a 23-17 margin. But the real action and intrigue came in the House, where the Democrats failed to hold on to their 120-year-old majority. Instead, the Republicans rallied to win 61 seats, knocking off several incumbents and taking away the Democrats' six-seat margin. Florida voters on Nov. 5 elected the South's first Republican-controlled legislature, meaning the Sunshine State would have its first GOP House speaker since a carpetbagger named Malachi Martin held the post in 1874.
The historic majority was not sealed until well past midnight on election night, when the final returns from a West Florida district came in and the GOP learned that a rookie - Nancy Argenziano from a tiny, rural county - had unseated a Democratic incumbent. Argenziano upset incumbent Helen Spivey, the liberal darling of the state's environmentalists. Spivey, and several other Democrats tagged as vulnerable, had been targeted by the state Republican leadership, which helped pump millions of dollars into legislative races from South Florida to the Panhandle. Indeed, Florida was an election battleground. The money told the story.
A St. Petersburg Times review found that candidates for the 120 House seats spent more than $18 million in their campaigns. Senate candidates spent about $8.8 million. Those totals, according to the Times, are about $1 million more than what was raised in 1994 and about twice as much as candidates were spending a decade ago. All told, candidates, parties and independent committees spent at least $40 million in the election. Legislators in Florida's part-time assembly earn about $25,000 annually. The two major parties raised about $16 million each, pouring a portion of those funds into legislative races for polling, opposition research and technical advice. The state Democratic party reported spending up to $6 million on legislative races while the GOP said it spent up to $4 million.
The Times also found that the Florida Democratic Party got $85,000 from three donors connected to an Indonesian business group under scrutiny for giving money to the Democratic National Committee. In the end, it was not enough to stop Florida Republicans from making history. When Argenziano told Webster by telephone the final results on election night, cheers, high-fives and shouts of "Hooray!" filled the cramped House Republican office suite, located on the third floor of Tallahassee's skyscraper Capitol. A makeshift laser-printed sign reading "Speaker's Office" was taped to the nameplate outside Webster's office. One floor up, the Democrats had already moved into the real speaker's office, which adjoins the House chamber. They were enjoying an election night party, complete with a deli spread. But the glum looks on everyone's faces foretold the next week's activity: moving out.
Governor Lawton Chiles, who campaigned hard for Democrats in the weeks before the election, had called a Republican takeover his "worst nightmare." He predicted that, if the GOP took control, he would close out his political career with "two long, useless years" as governor. But just one day after the elections, the governor was not as glum. He gloated that Republicans may have won the Legislature, but they "couldn't beat ol' Lawton Chiles and they couldn't beat Bill Clinton." In a speech to the new House during a December orientation session in Tallahassee, Chiles reached out to the Republicans. He said that the state's welfare reform plan, which passed last year after months of bipartisan work, proved the two parties could cooperate. "My door is open to legislators, it will continue to be so," Chiles said. "Again last session we have proven that Democrats and Republicans can work together."
For Webster, an air conditioning contractor who grew up in Orlando and earned an undergraduate engineering degree from Georgia Tech, the victory was something he said he had only dreamed about since entering the state House in 1980. For 16 years he watched as Democrats dominated, consistently blocking GOP legislation and beating back efforts at bipartisanship. Only in 1994, as the party split became more even, did Democratic speaker Peter Wallace reach out to the GOP, appointing Republicans to committee leadership positions. But, as a GOP caucus officially crowned Webster at a gathering the day after the election, the speaker-designate promised to flatten the "pyramid of power." He told a cheering crowd that every lawmaker would have a voice in his House, unlike the Democrats' system of consolidating power among a few senior members.
"The idea is to flatten out the pyramid, spread out the base, so every citizen of the state of Florida sends a representative to the House who has an opportunity to be effective," he said. His colleagues rejoiced, hailing him as a prophet of biblical proportions. They hoisted him on their shoulders, like a college football coach who had engineered an upset victory. "Dan will correct me if I'm wrong," said Representative Tom Feeney, a fellow Orlando Republican, "but Moses' troops were lost for only 40 years."
In interviews, House members on both sides of the aisle praised Webster's moral fortitude and said, whether they agree with him on the issues or not, they know he keeps his word.
"He is a man of impeccable honesty," said Representative R.Z. "Sandy" Safley, a moderate Republican who once competed against Webster to be the GOP Leader. "He believes that a person's word is absolutely important. He is incapable of not telling the truth."
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat who has fought hard against prayer in school, said Webster can be open minded. She notes that in 1994 he supported a bill she sponsored to promote gender and racial diversity on state boards.
"I like him personally," she said. "He tells you exactly where he stands. He has a lot of integrity."
Still, Wasserman, Shultz and other Democrats worried aloud about where a Webster administration would lead. They called his agenda "extreme."
Webster, after all, is a Christian Coalition conservative. He opposes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. He favors school prayer, and "homeschools" his six children.
But the Democrats were not alone in their concerns. Two Republicans - Cuban-Americans from South Florida - worried with them. A coalition of moderates was formed with an unlikely goal in mind: Representative Luis Rojas of Dade County, a Cuban-born Republican lawyer, would challenge Webster. He teamed up with one other South Florida Cuban Republican, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, and contacted the Democrats.
The result was a two-week campaign in which the Democratic leader, Representative Buzz Ritchie, criss-crossed the state with Rojas and others to round up votes. Ritchie, who expected to ascend to power if his party maintained control in the House, found himself working on behalf of a Republican. But, Ritchie said, Rojas was a welcome alternative to the conservative Webster.
At first, few gave the coalition any chance of pulling off a win. But within days, minors began circulating that several moderate Republicans would vote against Webster. Representative Burt Saunders, the only Jewish Republican in the House, was mentioned as a possible vote for Rojas. Democratic members assured reporters Saunders was with them.
But Saunders later denied it. It was true, he had sent Webster a letter expressing concerns about how he would run the House. But Saunders later followed that up with a note backing his party's speaker-designate, and he eventually voted for Webster.
The GOP countered with its own assurances to reporters. Webster said he had the support of four Democrats, but he named only one: Representative Bob Sindler. When Governor Chiles got wind of Sindler's decision, the governor called to twist his arm. From that point, Sindler refused to disclose who would get his vote for speaker.
When the day of the organizational session finally arrived, the Democrats realized their coalition would not work. In a caucus minutes before the session, Representative Ritchie announced that he - not the Republican Rojas - would be nominated for speaker. Meanwhile, Rojas and Diaz de la Portilla were behind closed doors with Republicans, agreeing to vote for Webster. The campaign was over.
When the House was called to order, and the votes were cast, 64 members supported Webster. He won votes from every Republican and three Democrats, including Sindler. The pro-Webster Democrats said party switches were unlikely, though they acknowledged they hope to be awarded with leadership posts in the Republican-led House. Sindler, who represents an area near Orlando, said he thought Webster's victory would be good for Central Florida residents.
Rojas, meanwhile, says he wants to be a part of Webster's team. "The mood of the House now is to let Speaker Webster move the House forward," Rojas said. But moderates believe they will stick together to combat the conservatives close to Webster. "The moderate coalition is there no matter what," said Representative Jim King, who once challenged Webster for the party leadership.
Since Webster's victory, he has compiled his leadership team and totally redesigned the framework of the House. He has deferred discussions of actual policy, insisting he focus his attention on process. He has eliminated the traditional subcommittees, choosing instead to establish seven policy "councils" to oversee the major issues, from academic excellence to economic development. Each council is made up of the chairmen and vice chairmen of the more narrowly focused committees below them, plus one senior Republican who will head the council itself. Legislation will be introduced in the small committees, but the policy councils will set priorities for bills, allowing only the ones judged most important to reach the floor for a vote.
Webster says that will force the Legislature to tackle the most important bills at the beginning of each annual, 60-day session. In past years, the Legislature has spent the early days on more trivial matters (voting on the official state pie and butterfly, for example) while the most crucial business - namely the $40-billion budget - was left until the end. The result was a flurry of confusing legislation passing in the Legislature's final hours, which tends to include measures many lawmakers do not even realize they voted for. As the Legislature meets late into the night, bills get tied together and combined as members wheel and deal.
Last year, for example, legislators unknowingly passed a strict curfew on teenage drivers - which few knew about until news reports days after they left Tallahassee. In another case, they approved a program that guarantees community college scholarships for criminals leaving prison. That controversial item was discovered seven months after the session.
Webster also is promising earlier notice of meetings and agendas. There is talk of prohibiting any meetings past 6 p.m. Across the Capitol, newly installed Republican Senate President Toni Jennings has made similar promises, saying there will be no meetings past 9 p.m.
Democrats acknowledge the old system in the House was not perfect, but they say a certain amount of procrastinating on the most important issues is natural. "There are good reasons why we've been operating under the system we have," said Ritchie, now the minority leader. Of Webster's assertion that the new setup will spread power among more people and open the process, Ritchie is skeptical. "There is power still left in the office of the speaker," he said. "How he uses that power will determine how this structure works. If this plan turns out to be more exclusive than inclusive, then he's failed. I don't think he had to create a whole new system to broaden the power base."
BUT WILL POLICIES CHANGE?
As Florida's historic, new Legislature prepares for its 1997 session - which begins next month - huge questions remain about what policy changes the state should expect. Business lobbyists hope GOP control will help their interests. Already, business interests and trial lawyers are gearing up for a major tort reform battle. Business officials think this could be the best legislative environment yet to aid their battle against lawsuits.
Leaders of the Christian Coalition already have said they look forward to new access to the speaker's office. School prayer, which was adopted by the Legislature last year as part of an education reform package and then vetoed by Governor Chiles, likely will come back.
Democrats fear the state's vocal anti-abortion forces will seize the moment and find sympathy with Webster. "In terms of policy, he can't get too far afield because the governor is still a Democrat," Ritchie said, adding he was ready to go to battle nevertheless. "I think it's fair to presume they'll test the system."
Webster says he will do more than that. He promises to change the system entirely.
"The system was designed to...punish Republicans," he said. "It was a pyramid of power."
Now, as he attempts to flatten the pyramid, Webster admits things could get rocky. But, he said with a grin, "It's better to take a few stumbles in the majority than know what we're doing in the minority."
SENATE MEMBERS: 40
Republicans: 23 Democrats: 17
HOUSE MEMBERS: 120
Republicans: 61 Democrats: 59
LEGISLATURE MEETS PART-TIME (limited to 60 calendar days)
Salary: $24,000 Convenes: March 4 Adjourns: May 2
Peter Wallsten covers the Florida Legislature for the St. Petersburg Times.
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|Title Annotation:||Three of a Kind; Republicans gain control of Florida Senate and House of Representatives|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1997|
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