State Politics

Miami Gardens lawmaker installed as leader of Florida Senate’s Democrats

Senator Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, is all smiles after he was chosen Senate Minority Leader, Monday, November 21, 2016, by fellow Senate Democrats.
Senator Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, is all smiles after he was chosen Senate Minority Leader, Monday, November 21, 2016, by fellow Senate Democrats. TAMPA BAY TIMES

A longtime legislator from Miami Gardens will lead the Democrats of the Florida Senate for the next two years.

Sen. Oscar Braynon’s ascension to Senate minority leader was made official Monday evening in advance of Tuesday’s organizational session for the 2016-18 Legislature. He’s now in charge of a 15-member Democratic caucus, of which 11 are newly elected senators.

“I’m happy to be taking on that role,” Braynon said. “We’re going to have a bunch of blank slates when it comes to what happens in the Senate. There’s a lot of potential there.”

One of those newcomers is freshman Broward County Sen. Lauren Book, whom the Democratic caucus also unanimously elected as Braynon’s No. 2 in the role of Senate Democratic leader pro tempore.

Book, of Plantation, is a prominent advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse and the founder and CEO of Aventura-based Lauren’s Kids. She is also the daughter of powerful Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book, whom she called “her best friend, rock and mentor.”

Although the Republican majority in the Senate will drive the agenda, Braynon said his goal as minority leader is to continue pushing for Democratic priorities, such as equal pay for women and raising the minimum wage, protecting the environment, improving access to health care and strengthening public education.

[Oscar Braynon] has the vision to lead the state of Florida.

Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., D-Lauderhill

Braynon accepted the Senate Democrats’ top leadership role with a bevy of supporters in attendance — including his wife, Melissa, and two young sons, Oscar III and Brandon. Several Republican senators, such as incoming Senate President Joe Negron and outgoing President Andy Gardiner, also attended.

In nominating Braynon as leader, Lake Worth Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens joked that Braynon “is the living embodiment of cool in the Florida Senate” and applauded him as “the kind of leader that cares about his community.”

He cited Braynon’s four-year effort to reduce the spread of disease contraction in northern Miami-Dade County by persuading the Legislature to approve a state program that distributes clean needles to drug addicts for free.

“It sounds like a small thing but by fighting for his community, Oscar Braynon is saving lives,” Clemens said.

“He has the vision to lead the state of Florida,” agreed Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., D-Lauderhill, who seconded the nomination.

Outgoing Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner — who just finished her final term in the Legislature — said that Braynon was crucial to her tenure, which included the rocky years of redistricting.

“I would not have been successful without him,” she said. “I had implicit trust and faith in him.”

Braynon, 39, has represented Miami Gardens — Florida’s most populous predominantly African-American city — as an elected official for the past 13 years. He began his political career at age 25 as one of the youngest politicians ever elected in Miami-Dade County.

He served on the Miami Gardens City Council from 2003 to 2008, including a stint as vice mayor for two years. In 2008, he won a seat in the Florida House, where he served for three years before being elected to the Senate in a special election in March 2011 to succeed now-U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson.

Braynon was reelected this year without opposition. The newly redrawn District 35 spans Broward and Miami-Dade counties and includes the cities of Miami Gardens, Opa-locka, Miramar and Pembroke Pines.

Meanwhile, Ron Book sat in the gallery with tears in his eyes as his daughter was named to the honorary role to help lead the Democratic caucus.

“That was an ‘Oh, my God’ moment,” he said after the ceremony. It was 15 years ago this past August when Ron Book and his wife discovered Lauren had been sexually abused by their former babysitter. The experience led Lauren to a career advocating for sexual abuse victims and preparing education curriculum and awareness programs.

“You don’t know as a parent what that journey’s going to be,” Ron Book said. But to have been able to walk into the newly-renovated Senate chamber, to a place he regards with respect “was just one of those special moments. It’s a recognition of what she’s become as a woman. It’s a recognition of what she’s become as a leader.”

He pulled up photos from his iPhone of the twins Lauren and her husband are expecting — taken last week — and proudly proclaimed the girl would be named Kennedy Grace and the boy named Hudson Lee.

The family will move to Tallahassee for the session and grandfather expects to have an active role.

“I have refused to use aging-connotative names,” he offered. Instead, he said he is going to become known as “Coach.” To make sure his carefully tailored suits are not soiled, he has ordered six lab coats that say “Coach” on each one for when he tends to the babies.

Book, known as one of the Capitol’s most veteran and successful lobbyists, acknowledged that he has been slowed somewhat in recent months after having suffered a bone infection after foot surgery. He also was diagnosed with an aggressive tumor on his prostate in July and is undergoing radiation treatment that has led to many side effects.

“I’ve had a very rough couple of months,” he said. “I’m going to be all right over time, but I’m still sort of experiencing those side effects every day.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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