Southeast Florida is more distant from the seat of power in this state than any other part of Florida. That distance has through the years created an indifference, an ignorance and perhaps a total disinterest in what happens in state government. The metropolitan area stretching from Jupiter to Florida City is the most unique part of the state – culturally it’s more New York than Florida and years ago Bob Graham, who hails from Miami Lakes talked about a Cincinnati effect where Floridians would be more engaged in the politics of where they came from our family from and would eventually be buried in those places. But as time has gone on areas of the state, particularly southeastern Florida have developed a unique identity, almost hyper-local. The combination of hyper-local thinking and the “Cincinnati effect” meant that state politics and government was largely ignored, even giving local representatives much autonomy on how they voted.
The hyper-localism has sometimes derailed what’s best for the region. For example, mass transit remains a problem and parochial or country-based thinking (including competition between the counties and towns) have prevented an sort of real regional identity from forming. But in recent years we’ve seen elements of regionalism emerge and the Parkland shooting has pushed this forward. As the largest metropolitan area in the southeastern United States in terms of population, southeast Florida’s low engagement and interest in state government is likely to change in the very near future. A new sense of purpose and identity might be growing up in southeast Florida at this very moment.
The Stoneman Douglas effect
On February 14, 2018, the shooting at M.S. Douglas High School (MSDHS) in Parkland changed the relationship between southeast Florida and government in Tallahassee. Suddenly for the first time, local residents watched constant coverage of what was happening in the state legislature
While being a Coral Springs resident who lives close to MSDHS made me particularly close to the situation, I work in the Brickell area of Miami (the banking and financial center of the city just south of the Miami River) and was shocked by how profoundly the shooting which had taken place 35 miles to the north impacted attitudes. It was after all an event that even for those in Miami had happened too close to home, and an event that eventually exposed for many the seeming contempt many elected officials in the rest of the state have for this region – whether that is fair or not it is a perception that has reemerged out of this tragedy. One thing that has persistently come up is the control the NRA appears to have over officials at the state level from outside southeastern Florida.
While most southeast Floridians have no idea who Marion P. Hammer is, they do know the NRA and the idea that “NRA lobbyists” (those of us who have followed the legislature the last few decades know it’s really just a single incredibly effective and influential lobbyist) control the legislature continues to pervade thought in spite of Governor Scott signing landmark legislation last week, the first meaningful restrictions placed on gun sales in this state in three decades. While some legislators might come home to their districts and tout that legislation, most southeast Floridians seem unimpressed by it and this being the first real critical look they gave the Florida House and Senate, they did not like what they saw.
Politically southeast Florida will soon be more isolated than ever in the capitol unless a change comes
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s an alliance between Broward County Democrats and their more conservative partisan counterparts from the Panhandle helped keep parts of the southern tip of the state lubricated with state money and influence.
This was fed largely by the peculiar culture of Broward County politics. It is a county completely dominated by the Democratic Party who have become in many ways as comfortable and relationship-based as the Republican Party is on the state level. The big lobbyists in the area tend to be Democrats and the local corporate interests in an urban county of almost two million people also align heavily with Democrats. The representatives that have been nominated by Democratic primary electorates from the area have tended to be more conservative than the actual voters who put them in office. They found it very comfortable to work with more conservative elements and to an extent that continues to be the case to this day.
Following the GOP takeover of the legislature in the 1990’s, Miami-Dade Republicans mostly Cuban-Americans made an easy alliance with conservative lawmakers from central and north Florida. This gave Miami-Dade County access to power and kept local pols happy. Among those that benefited from this alliance was Marco Rubio, who became House Speaker and concluded one of the most conservative tenures as Speaker (rivaled only by Johnny Byrd and now Richard Corcoran) since the GOP takeover of the House in 1996. But Miami-Dade County is changing and soon it’s likely Democrats will sweep most of the counties legislative seats. Rubio got crushed (by over 100,000 votes and 11 percentage points) by Democrat Pat Murphy in his home county in 2016, even though he won by a large margin statewide. It’s only a matter of time before Democrats, a permanent minority in Tallahassee have overwhelming control of the Miami-Dade delegation.
This process could be hastened as Miami-Dade County now trends even more to the left, with the Parkland shooting having a strong impact on attitudes locally. But when Democrats take seats formerly held by Republicans, will that further isolate southeastern Florida?
The voter supression impact of the August primary
The legislature has through the years found clever ways to disenfranchise voters and maintain a government that is responsive only to special interests and a minority of the state’s population. The pre-Labor Day August Primary which has been held since 2006 has effectively been a turnout suppression tool allowing the most conservative Republicans and in some cases, the most establishment Democrats to be nominated and then win election in seats with nominal or no general election opposition.
Holding the primary when it is held is a thing of genius for those trying to control elections without subjecting themselves to the whims of public opinion of the masses. Florida remains a closed primary state, and the primary is held at the very time of the year where parts of the state have the least residents – those who vacation in the month of August to places like North Carolina, Vermont or take Alaska cruises. Many of the locals who remain are focused on back-to-school. Heck, even Congress takes August off, with members often taking foreign trips or long family vacations during the month, so why hold elections unless you are actively trying to suppress turnout?
The concept of “greater south Florida” or “the state of Miami”
One thing that has been largely unnoticed by political observers is the number of south Florida born or breed urbanites that have drifted north to St Lucie, Orange or Osceola counties. While it’s often credited to Hispanic migration to the area, the shift of the Orlando area firmly into the Democratic column has also been influenced by south Floridians. As time goes on and south Florida’s influence spreads, voting patterns could tip a purple state more decidedly toward the blue column.
Legendary football coach Howard Schnellenberger coined the term “State of Miami,” when he coached the Miami Hurricanes – he wanted to keep every recruit south of I-4 at “home,” not just those from Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. In time the University of Miami did just that and helped create a culture of common bonds and unity behind a football team.
Today, you can see elements of the “State of Miami” redeveloping, intensifying after the MSDHS shooting. The State of Florida, conservative, rural and exurban in this world view is dominated by lobbyists speaking with a southern drawl, gun owners, white protestants and politicians who support Donald Trump is contrasted with the “State of Miami.” In this world view the “State of Miami,” would be forward-looking, urban, multicultural and embodied by the sprawling skyline of Miami, a burgeoning global financial, media and cultural center. In time this might be the landscape of a new Florida.
Democrats long-term will benefit from a regional awakening and sense of new identity. In the short-term the beneficiary very well might be Mayor Phillip Levine’s candidacy for Governor. Since Hurricane Irma, Levine has become somewhat of a media celebrity, parlaying his expertise and experience on countering climate change and his strong pro-gun control stand into visibility in local and national media. The more I speak with people in the southeast Florida region, the more they seem to embrace the idea of Levine for Governor. But it’s worth remembering no Democrat from southeast Florida has been elected to statewide office since Bob Butterworth and Bob Graham, whose daughter, based in Tallahassee is running herself for the Democratic nomination against Levine. Butterworth was elected for the last time as Attorney General the same year as Graham’s last US Senate victory.
A generation has passed since Bob Graham’s last US Senate election, so memories of the Graham name may be limited among the regions newer voters. This gives Levine a great shot at banking a healthy margin in the region.
Longer-term though the beneficiary is likely to be the Democratic Party, as urban areas throughout the country shift blue, southeast Florida’s awakening could turn the southeast’s most Democratic area even more to the left. If this continues to impact other areas of the state like the Orlando area and St Lucie County, the margin for error for the GOP gets tighter and tighter statewide.