With the Republicans back with a super-majority in the house, an almost super-majority in the Senate, and a secure seat for Governor Rick Scott in the governor’s mansion for the next four sessions, there is little hope the next two months will be easy for progressives. This week begins one of the greatest defensive battles that Democrats will ever face, with each issue having long-term effects upon our beloved state. However, they face insurmountable odds: Democrats barely have a seat at the table, much less any actual political power to negotiate. With no cards to play, the best they can do it just sit back and watch policy be written without them. It will be hard to stomach for most on the left, but there are some small signs of hope and progress.
This year, the first in a very long time, it seems like the legislature may actually make progress on issues that have been ignored for years. Water, prisons, and our floundering education system have been marginalized and ignored by the legislature in years passed and there are finally signals that the legislature is willing to take up these. More Republicans are paying attention to these issues as well, which gives at least some hope that some positive changes will come out. While many smaller issues, like medical marijuana, may try to creep in for session, these main issues will dominate the session and take up much of the short 60-day window in which the legislature meets.
And all is not well on the other side of the aisle. There is a noticeable trend for the Republican Legislature to try to strip power from the Governor’s office – in both a water bill and a prison bill now, there are increased signals that even his own party wishes to reign in Governor Scott’s power. The power struggle between the legislature and the Governor’s office, especially over the budget, will be the real battle this session. With Democrats marginalized to the point of ineffectiveness, Republicans will be the ones to negotiate these big issues and clashes are expected between House, Senate and the Governor.
Watch out for strange alliances and bitter rivalries to surface. While the power struggle in the Senate will continue, battles in the house between long-time legislators and the large new crop of Republican freshmen could redefine many of these issues. The big question that all democrats should pay attention to is “Is there a united Republican party?” The contentious election of the Republican party chair at the beginning of the year, along with a new cohort of younger legislators from outside the normal power-structure who have little experience in the legislative process, will make for inevitable drama to unfold. Republicans have a serious problem on their hands: they have too many on the bench, which will always lead to legislative power struggles as they try to move forward. There is a young Tampa Bay crowd in the legislature among Republicans and a more experienced North Florida and Central Florida delegation thus creating a lot of room for conflict.
Democrats will have to watch out and try to take advantage of some of these power struggles, especially in seats that they have a shot at in 2016. With either a Democratic Presidential or Gubernatorial candidates having carried in recent elections a quarter of seats held by Republicans, pick-up opportunities are plentiful in 2016 if the Democrats are ready to pounce. In that body however, House democrats have a hard road ahead; unless individual legislators can can actually show the desire, skill and ability to work across the aisle to make deals, they have no hope for future higher office. The reality is that the only way to get anything accomplished in Tallahassee is to work with Republicans. But will party loyalists forgive these transgressions of the ambitious legislators or will they find primary opponents for some of their own? In many cases, Democratic legislators who work across the aisle opt for the safety of local and county office after legislative service, rather than running statewide. This is logical given the disastrous state of the Florida Democratic Party which deems statewide candidacies running as a Democrat a near-suicide mission.
While it is easy to vilify legislators for reaching out and working with Republicans, the fact is that progressives are too weak to support any candidate statewide – just ask Nan Rich – and that leaves potential candidates looking elsewhere for support. The FDP is also too far too weak to give a push to candidates statewide, leaving many Democratic legislators as virtual “free agents”. A candidate has to show accomplishments in order to gain traction statewide or even in local campaigns for county office and no Democrat can do that without working with Republicans.The essential problem is that legislators have to distance themselves from the Florida Democratic Party, simply because the party is so weak that they can offer virtually no support for legislators who are thinking about running for a higher office.
The biggest element to realize going into session is that there is simply no advantage for legislators to hold true to Democratic values and policies in Florida state politics because the FDP is unable to offer any reward. Until this issue is resolved, Democrats are going to spend session spinning their wheels. No Democratic legislator serving at the moment has the name recognition to run for any of the constitutional offices and this is a huge handicap for the future of the party. Even Mark Pafford, the Minority Leader in the House, is barely known outside of Tallahassee circles and has little hope of running statewide because of lack of name recognition outside his district. This puts legislative Democrats as either ineffective and invisible, or facing the accusations of a party traitor. While institutional weakness of the FDP is well-known, the fact that they cannot support their faithful for higher office is is perhaps one of their greatest crimes. The unwillingness of the FDP hierarchy to cultivate some Democrats with genuine statewide potential adds to this crime. What happens this session will begin to set up 2018 battles and as usual, Florida Democrats are already behind.
In short, this session will be a much different legislative marathon than last year, where polite rhetoric and campaign tensions kept the dialogue relatively friendly. This year, things are going to be tense and ugly, as the backlog of issues to deal with is huge and tempers are bound to run hot. It will be memorable to say the least.
Kartik Krishnaiyer contributed to this story.