As Miami Democratic Rep. Kionne McGhee and Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley dined Wednesday night on the street-side patio of a restaurant a block from the Capitol, the unlikely pair naturally piqued the interest of fellow patrons and passers-by.
Only five days earlier, Baxley, known for his conservative views and the descendent of a Confederate soldier, had said a proposed Florida Slavery Memorial would “celebrate defeat.” The remarks — even with an apology and clarification — immediately incensed McGhee and other black and Democratic lawmakers.
McGhee publicly called on Senate President Joe Negron “to step in and remedy this situation, or we deal with it on another level.”
After several quiet days, Baxley and McGhee — two “good friends” who attend Bible study together once a week — made amends Wednesday night.
But lawmakers won’t approve the slavery memorial this year as McGhee had still hoped. The Senate has no plans to take up McGhee’s House-approved bill before the end of Friday when all pending policy bills die.
Over their casual meal at Andrew’s Capital Grill & Bar two days ago — in full view of other lawmakers, legislative staff, lobbyists and other insiders — the two lawmakers “talked about our differences and realized we have more in common,” McGhee said.
Both said they wanted to have a conversation before their public dispute escalated any further.
“I can be persuaded a lot easier than I can be forced, and they kind of changed their approach,” Baxley said in reference to angered Democrats, who viewed his comments as racially insensitive. “We have different positions, and we have to listen to each other and what our reservations are. This [the Legislature] is how 20 million people have a conversation.”
“I think conversations need to be had with those who differ,” said McGhee, who is set to be the House Democratic leader after the 2018 election. “My previous interactions with Senator Baxley led me to believe he’s a man that I can sit down and speak with, and I did.”
Their quarrel stemmed from comments Baxley made April 28 that were published online in a Herald/Times story after the House gave unanimous approval to McGhee’s proposal (HB 27) for Florida’s first slavery memorial on the Capitol grounds in Tallahassee.
The Senate bill, by St. Petersburg Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson, had been blocked by Baxley, because Baxley never took it up in the government oversight committee he chairs. In explaining why, Baxley told a reporter he had “a discomfort about memorializing slavery” and that it would be too negative.
“I would rather celebrate overcoming the heartbreak of slavery. I wouldn’t want to build a memorial to child abuse; I wouldn’t want to build a memorial to sexual abuse,” Baxley said. “I would like to take it in a more positive direction than a memorial to slavery.”
McGhee sought “an immediate clarification,” saying Baxley’s comments were “borderline racism.” By Friday evening, Baxley had apologized “if anything comes across like that,” and he said that by “celebrate defeat,” he had meant “adversity.”
“I could have used the wrong word, but what I mean by that is: Rather than celebrate adversity, I’d rather celebrate the overcomers of that adversity,” Baxley said, also saying: “I love black people. I love white people. It’s not a racial thing with me.”
During their meal Wednesday, McGhee said Baxley pledged to “put his weight behind [the proposed memorial] and support it” — specifically by asking Negron, the Republican Senate president from Stuart, to bring McGhee’s bill to the floor by Friday.
“He did give me his word that he would reach out to the president and see if we could pull it up before the end of the session,” McGhee said.
Baxley said he did speak to Negron Thursday, but he expressed that he was more in the position of “not trying to obstruct it” rather than actively advocating for the bill. “I’m not blocking its passage; I’m not doing anything to interfere with it,” he said.
Negron spokeswoman Katie Betta said late Thursday that Negron had relayed the situation to Rules chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, and directed that it would be her call, should she get a formal request to waive Senate rules and bring McGhee’s bill to the floor.
Such a request isn’t expected, senators told the Herald/Times. And if the Senate were to agree to one, it would set a precedent of the presiding officer overriding his chairman and of the chamber disregarding Senate rules that require bills to be heard in committee before coming to the floor.
Baxley said he wouldn’t make an official ask to bring up the bill — “I’ve signed off as being non-obstructive, if that’s the will of the body” — and Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens, said neither Rouson nor any other Democratic senator planned to do so.
“It’ll happen next year,” Braynon said.