In recent days we’ve heard a great deal about the divisions in the House Democratic caucus. In many places they have been cast as fights between the “liberal” wing of the party versus the “moderate” wing of the party. But in reality, what is happening is largely personality driven and politically motivated divisions.
Earlier this week we discussed the issue of Minority Leader Perry Thurston’s amendment to HB 89 regarding the”Stand Your Ground” law in Florida. The divisions in the caucus that were apparent that day on the floor have intensified according to multiple sources since last week. What is at play in these divisions? Is it simply liberal vs conservative as some have claimed? Or is more at stake?
Many of our sources have fingered the contentious caucus vote over leader-designee in February 2013 coming weeks after a divisive Florida Democratic Party Chairs race had concluded. The close vote between Darryl Rouson of St Petersburg and Mia Jones of Jacksonville started a period of discord within the caucus. The size of the unusually large freshman class in the caucus also played a role.
Perception said many of Jones supporters were liberals and Rouson more conservative and a former Republican was backed by more moderate elements. However these lines while partially correct were not exact then, and are not now even after the ouster of Rouson in favor of Mark Pafford, who has greater support and a level of respect within the caucus than Jones did. Pafford is also seen a s a policy wonk and is respected by members on both sides of the aisle for his passion and dedication to the issues he cares about. This allowed him to gain additional support among Rouson’s previous supporters in the September vote that occurred after a few high-profile mistakes by Rouson.
However, Pafford is not the current leader of the caucus and while he is viewed favorably by many, some of the current leadership is rapidly losing their hold on the members within the group. The members whose growing unease with the leadership is apparent come from every ideological corner of the caucus. They are not merely political moderates or conservatives.
The continued divisions in the caucus can be attributed now to two clear factors:
- The direction politically of the caucus in terms of electioneering in the 2014 cycle. This issue directly involved the fate of several freshman members who are in vulnerable seats and the choice of political leadership and vendors by the caucus. This situation will be explored further in future posts. As we reported last month, The Democrats House campaigns were not going well at that moment in time.
- The personal future political plans of current leaders within the caucus. Minority Leader Rep. Perry Thurston is running statewide for Attorney General and equally important his key lieutenant, the rules “maestro” Rep Jim Waldman is running for State Senate in 2016. Caucus members and other Democrats around the capitol are complaining about the divisions being blatantly about runs for future office. In the term limits era this is hardly a new development, however the divisions this year appear to be stronger and deeper than in the past. The last time I can recall the caucus being this divided was when the 43 member Democratic caucus in the 2000-2002 time period was having trouble with Representative Lois Frankel, the hard charging leader at the time. However, on many issues both ideologically and process-wise Rep. Frankel was aligned with the more moderate (or even in many cases liberal) Republican leadership of the State Senate. Thus Rep. Frankel had more leverage within the legislature than Rep. Thurston currently does.
While some have tried to cast this as a liberal v conservative fight, several members more liberal than Rep. Waldman based on just about every available vote ratings metric including our own scorecard from last session are more aligned with the Rouson faction, if they are to be called that. Protection of freshman members in addition to the potential for the Democrats to pick up several seats in the legislature (opportunities that were blown by some of the same consultants and vendors in 2012) appears to be a big issue even for some members currently sitting in safe Democratic seats.
Then twe have the process issues related to the perceived grandstanding and alliance building by those including but not limited to Reps. Thurston and Waldman who are running for higher office. the lack of creativity in legislative tactics also is being floated by those unhappy with the leadership.
With the track record of Florida Democrats in state elections worse than that of any other Democratic Party east of the Mississippi since 2000, those who backed Rouson could make a strong point about the need for new leadership, with new ideas, new alliances and new energy. The message about reform in the party and the need to take out the trash in the way of entrenched consultants and ideas that have cost the Democrats seat in election after election may have been sound, but Rouson was a flawed messenger in many ways for this. However, the issues which brought him into the leadership albeit temporarily still exist, and perhaps have intensified since his removal.
This developing story will continue to be tracked closely at TFS.