A common theme from our writers at The Florida Squeeze is that we believe Democrats should be more aggressively pro-environment. In the 1990s, Democratic victories statewide, both for Governor Chiles in 1994 and President Clinton in 1996 could be directly tied to environmental and water issues. In fact, one GOP memo in 1997 indicated that in Florida, Republicans had to neutralize the environmental issues or face certain defeat. This is something they made an effort to do the next several years, appearing proactive on green issues in the legislature and spawning the statewide careers of among other Charlie Crist whose environmental rhetoric always sounded positive.
Enter newly-elected Congressman Patrick Murphy, one of only handful of House Democrats in the country elected from a district carried in 2012 by Mitt Romney. Murphy has carefully balanced his voting record to placate constituents but has really stood out in his activism on environmental issues. Murphy proves you can chart a progressive course on green issues while maintaining a moderate profile in a conservative district and still call yourself a Democrat. In the past many Democrats in Florida followed this formula, but today he is one of a kind, perhaps.
The de-emphasis of environmental issues by Florida Democrats I have no doubt hurt the Obama campaign in the areas that make up Murphy’s 18th Congressional District. Northern Palm Beach, Martin, Indian River (which is not in FL-18 but represents a community of interest with the district) and St Lucie Counties were long traditionally anti-growth and in favor of punishing polluters in order to fund Everglades restoration. In fact, the only area where Congressmen and legislators from these two regions have broken with GOP orthodoxy over the past two decades is on issues related to environmental protection and preservation. Tom Warner, Sharon Merchant, Mark Foley, “Doc” Myers, Ken Pruitt and even Joe Negron at times comes to mind. This is part of the reason why despite being a Republican area, Allen West would have been a total mismatch for the district.
Rep. Murphy has been forcefully active in articulating something we talk about often at this website – The positive relationship between environmental protection and economic growth. A few examples of Murphy’s activism are listed below.
– Rep. Murphy secured $12M in federal funds to dredge local inlets and fund beach renourishment projects across the district.
– Rep. Murphy convened a historic briefing on Capitol Hill on the waterways issue, which was attended by over 20 Members of Congress and over 100 members of the community. This included discussion of the ailing Indian River Lagoon ( a subject we will cover in greater detail in the near future.)
– Rep Murphy has been a strong forceful advocate for local environmental projects and the overall Everglades restoration efforts, which he states “in addition to protecting our ecosystems, provide a three-to-one return on investment.”
Murphy’s theory differs with other Democrats who seem to want to either not talk about these issues or vote with polluters on key matters. What seems to have happened in the last decade is fewer and fewer progressives really care about the environment or water issues, though our state is rapidly accelerating down the road to ecological disaster.
The disinterest of many progressive activists and the party has given many Democratic state legislators free reign to vote with polluters and business interests on these matters. Our House scorecard released last year showed many Democrats with poor scores, in several cases due exclusively to poor votes on environmental issues which we consider important at this site but are sometimes ignored by other progressive interests. The Democrats elected to the State House in 2012 were particularly bad on these issues.
Environmental activism has previously had major victories in Florida. Most notably in the late 1960s and early 1970s when both the Everglades Jetport and Cross Florida Barge Canal projects were stopped, and the St Johns-Indian River Canal was never consummated. In the 1980s and early 1990s Everglades protection and restoration were emphasized by elements of both political parties. But since the early 2000s, both parties have become unreliable at best and at worst downright hostile to protecting Florida’s natural resources, beauty, ecosystem and water supply.
The Democrats held onto to legislature for many years in this state before the collapse partly because of an emphasis on environmental and coastal issues. Moderate Democrats from districts which had voted for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush sent Democrats who voted a conservative line on economics to Tallahassee because they were forceful advocates for protecting the coastline, the water supply or the fragile ecosystem. But since Democrats have lots their edge on this issue, the GOP has stopped paying lip service and we have accelerated down a road to ecological disaster.
Regardless of Patrick Murphy’s views on a host of other issues, his emphasis on the environment, offshore drilling and on waterways should earn him reelection. His willingness to talk about these issues and engage constituents on them should be a lesson to Tallahassee based Democrats who seemingly think these issues are unimportant or to be cynically exploited without real solutions.
Governor Charlie Crist, an early supporter of Murphy’s in 2012 has a history of talking about the environment. If he wins the Democratic nomination for Governor, perhaps that will help shake up the rhetoric a little more as well.
Murphy faces a tough reelection challenge regardless of opposition. In a district where Democrats fare poorly especially in off-year elections, he must maintain a good rapport with constituents. Many Congressional Democrats in safe seats may have little or no interest in really gauging their constituents needs and interests. Some of these members may spend most of their time playing local, state or national politics. But Murphy does not have that luxury and thus far he’s showing that he can hold his own in a very difficult district.