The two biggest upsets in legislative races election night were the victories of Mike Clelland and Carl Zimmerman over well-established incumbent Republicans.
No legislative race victory in the past decade has meant more for the attempts to rebuild the Florida Democratic Party than did the defeat of Chris Dorworth by Mike Clelland. Dorworth, the Speaker Designee for the 2014-2016 term had become a poster child for an arrogant, reckless, and entitled GOP Legislative majority. This happened despite the support many fickle and spineless Democrats gave to Dorworth. Clelland however now has to manage reelection against former Rep. Scott Plakon in a district that historically has been unfriendly to Democrats.
Clelland has gotten off to a fast start with trying to placate his more conservative constituents. He’s taken a few positions that has have irritated the most progressive Democrats most recently his support of Rep. Cary Pigman’s HB 1129 yesterday in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee. Clelland who reiterated his pro-choice position in the debate (the bill is opposed in its current form by Planned Parenthood…the issue is complicated to explain in a short form piece. Look up the bill on the internet for more information) voted with the conservative majority to pass the bill onto the full committee. Clelland’s voting record will have to be carefully balanced, and it will be fascinating to see how he plays his hand when the most controversial bills of the session reach the floor.
Plakon despite his hard-right rhetoric is more likable and ultimately more electable than Dorworth. That coupled with the reality that 2014 is an off-year election where Democrats traditionally turn out in smaller numbers means Clelland has to be balanced in how he approaches his votes. This however does not mean he should vote like a traditional “Blue Dog” Democrat but should pick and choose where to take strong progressive stands and focus heavily on constituent work.
It is important Clelland be re-elected. The take-down of Dorworth had massive symbolic value in sending a strong message to an arrogant, reckless majority whose promotion of a culture of cynicism and entitlement have contributed to destruction of Florida in many ways over the past decade. Now the question is whether the architect of this strong message can be re-elected.
When Carl Zimmerman challenged Rep. Peter Nehr for a third time last year, local Democrats were aghast hoping for a “fresher face.” Many politicos locally (but interestingly not Peter Schorsch at the Saint Petersblog who correctly forecast Nehr’s demise) wrote the seat off for the Ds despite Zimmerman’s close calls in 2006 and 2008. But Nehr had accumulated substantial political baggage in his six years of serving in the legislature and Zimmerman sprung an upset victory.
Northern Pinellas County, particularly Zimmerman’s district votes much more like Pasco County than the St Petersburg area. Unlike most of the county, Democrats haven’t been consistently competitive in this area and Zimmerman was the first Democrat to win this a seat in this area since the 1980s. While southern Pinellas County votes like a typical urban area, albeit one with significant Republican history and lineage, Zimmerman’s district is a combination of suburban voters, and traditional conservatives. Despite this, the area has had a long history of sending moderate Republicans to Tallahassee, members who would often clash directly with the more ideologically driven leadership of the House and Senate.
Zimmerman’s pragmatism and moderation have been on full display all session long. Yesterday, for example he cast a yea vote in favor t of Rep. Greg Steube’s controversial bill which would arm school administrators in the House K-12 Education Subcommittee. The bill flew threw committee but it should be noted that Pinellas County Republicans have through the years accumulated a mixed record on gun issues (ironically the exception to this rule was newly minted Democrat, Charlie Crist who as a State Senator voted with the NRA 100% of the time). Pinellas County Republicans (including Crist) have also traditionally been better on environmental issues than the vast majority of Democrats in the state.
The challenge for Zimmerman is to maintain a good relationship with Democratic leaders while he votes like a traditional Pinellas Republican. While that may appear like a bad thing to progressives, traditional Pinellas Republicanism was more liberal and forward thinking than much of what the Democrats have done in this state. Zimmerman’s words and votes the rest of session certainly bear watching.