TALLAHASSEE -- They come from big cities and small towns across this sprawling state, and from vastly different backgrounds. Some are new and some are seasoned. Some Democrats. Even more Republicans.
But members of the Florida Legislature heard largely the same message from voters on Election Day, and they agree on how that will influence their work in the upcoming legislative session, according to a Herald/Times survey of more than 40 state lawmakers.
After years of increasingly intense hyper-partisan warfare, Republicans and Democrats sound serious — so far, anyway — about working in harmony for the common good of Floridians.
“They want us to work together, they’re not going to reward acrimony, they’re going to reward results,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. “I’m a conservative, I have a conservative view of the world, but the notion of representative democracy is that we respect one another and recognize we don’t have the market cornered on good ideas and are willing to compromise to advance the ball.”
The Herald/Times surveyed 42 legislators, including equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, about the message voters sent in the election and how it would shape their approach to the upcoming session. The majority said the same thing: work across the aisle to produce results.
In Tallahassee, Republicans set the tone because they are firmly in control. However, they seem chastened by what happened in Florida: Their party’s presidential candidate lost, as did most of the constitutional amendments they placed on the November ballot. They lost seats in the House and Senate, and voters grew angry standing in line for hours to cast ballots.
It will be months before we’ll know if lawmakers mean what they say, and it’s justified to be at least a little cynical.
But if there was a theme in Tallahassee during last Tuesday’s organizational session and swearing-in ceremonies, it was bipartisanship.
Both Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, talked about working with Democrats.
Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, said voters sent more Democrats to the Legislature for a reason. The minority party’s gains were modest but significant because Republicans no longer have a supermajority that allows them to dictate the speed at which they pass bills.
Democrats picked up five seats in the 120-seat House, which now has 76 Republicans and 44 Democrats. Republicans needed 80 seats to hold a supermajority and completely control the legislative agenda.
In the Senate, Democrats picked up two seats, and while they are still outnumbered by Republicans 26-14, they did break the GOP’s supermajority.
“The election resonated this year for the middle class,” Rouson said. “People want to be valued. We broke the supermajority because of it, and we can do meaningful things here in Tallahassee as Democrats. We have momentum again. We just need to keep it up.”
Rep. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, is returning to the House after having spent the past decade in the Florida Senate. He said that lawmakers must work together.
“We cannot be partisan, as the Florida Legislature has been over the past few years. I think that message was heard,” Fasano said. “This garbage that goes on — not only in Tallahassee but in Washington — has all got to come to an end. There are people suffering out there, and we hear from them every day.”
The election itself is also on lawmakers’ minds. Long lines at polls that began during early voting and issues with absentee ballots delayed results for several days. Florida shouldn’t be a national punch line and voters want it fixed, lawmakers said.
“All citizens have a right to vote, and we need everybody who wants to vote to be able to vote,” said Sen. John Thrasher, a Republican from St. Augustine.
Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, said the election was a “disaster” created by a shorter early voting period that led people in her district to wait in line six or seven hours to vote.
“We in the Legislature are going to make sure we fix this problem, and we’re going to make sure we listen to the voters,” she said.
During his welcoming speech, Gaetz vowed to analyze the recent election and proposed changes if needed.
But this doesn’t mean that lawmakers aren’t going to tackle the many other pressing issues facing the state, such as creating jobs, improving education and addressing health care issues.
“The No. 1 issue that has come up — is the economy and a close second is insurance,” said Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami. “The insurance prices that we’re paying down here are astronomical. It’s really impacting our senior citizens, which are our super voters down here.”
Rep. Joe Gibbons, a Democrat from Hallandale Beach, said he expects to serve on the budget committee and hopes that this year’s discussions produce a plan that both sides can live with. Most Democrats vote against the budget.
“I’m going to work as ranking member with the chair to come to some agreements so that we can as a body walk out with a balanced budget that we all agree to,” he said.
Addressing his colleagues Tuesday, Weatherford reminded them of the countdown clock he placed in all of their offices ticking off the minutes until the 2014 election.
“Our time is short,” he said. “The clock is ticking. Let us make the most of every single second.”
Herald/Times writers Steve Bousquet, Michael Van Sickler, Toluse Olorunnipa and Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report.