Florida Politics

Gun debate bitterly divides Florida House Democrats

Rep. Lori Berman, D-West Palm Beach, asks for debate as members of the House Democratic caucus discuss whether to take a caucus position on the school safety bill, SB 7026, Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Tallahassee.
Rep. Lori Berman, D-West Palm Beach, asks for debate as members of the House Democratic caucus discuss whether to take a caucus position on the school safety bill, SB 7026, Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Tallahassee. meklas@miamiherald.com

The tensions that have divided the nation over gun control have also split the Florida Legislature’s Democrats as a bitterly divided House Democratic caucus voted 21-9 Wednesday to oppose the school safety bill because of what many consider a “poison pill” that will introduce armed school personnel into Florida schools.

Democrats took the vote just before the House was set to vote on SB 7026, which is expected to pass narrowly and be sent to the governor.

As Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky stood in the back of the room, Rep. Robert Asencio of Miami moved that the House Democrats vote in a block against the bill, arguing that the optional proposal to put armed personnel in Florida schools was too risky to pass the bill. Black lawmakers warned that the policy will disproportionately threaten black students or even black school personnel who, if they are armed, may be misidentified by law enforcement as gunmen in an active shooter situation.

But several Democrats urged their colleagues to reject that approach because they believe the bill before lawmakers is better than no bill at all.

“From a strategic standpoint, I don’t think a caucus position adds anything other than the appearance that unfortunately, some of us that feel it is necessary to vote for the bill, will be outside of the caucus,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat who represents Parkland.

He noted that Democrats have already inflicted pain on Republicans by forcing them to take recorded votes on dozens of amendments that were rejected Tuesday.

“We put them on the board on issues that we’ve never been able to put them on the board in the six years I’ve been here,” he said. “We created a record that will haunt them for a generation of elections.”

Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, who also represents Parkland, urged them to reject a caucus position because they look fractured.

“We don’t look unified, and I don’t think it serves us well to not be able to pull a caucus position together,” she said. “We have never taken controversial issues up where we know this room doesn’t all feel the same.” She said she will vote against the caucus as others will and added, “I don’t think it’s smart for this group to show that kind of mess.”

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, opposed being told what to do but he said he couldn’t recall “having to cast a vote that made me as sick as this has made me. Because I think I’m going to vote for someone to die and the question is who and how many — and that would be sick,” he said. “I don’t care who is where or what the NRA wants. For me, I have to look myself in the mirror and live with the vote that I cast today.”

But several black legislators urged resistance, arguing they could force House Republican leaders to amend the bill and take out the provision opposed by the governor to arm school personnel.

Rep. Barbara Watson of Miami urged her colleagues to “try and stay in a party line because we have them on the ropes. They are short four votes.”

She offered a note of optimism that others said they had: “If we can carry this today, it will force them to give us something better.”

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, the Orlando Democrat who was elected after the Pulse shooting, said he understood the position of Parkland-area representatives like Jacobs and Moskowitz. But he noted he had been in the same position.

“They have extended session because they can’t agree on a handful of line items,” calling the original scheduled end of session on Friday a “fake deadline.” “Why not ask them to extend session because we can’t agree on a meaningful gun safety package that was slapped together in three weeks that is half baked, that makes no one happy? ... We can get better from this Legislature, and I think we do it by standing together.”

But Rep. Larry Lee of Port St. Lucie told his colleagues their hope was misplaced. He has decided not to run for re-election and has concluded “change is not going to come from this Legislature. It’s not going to come within this system that we have. Change is going to come from the outside, and I’m going on the outside. I’m going to work with those kids, because we would not be having this discussion if it weren’t for those kids.”

The caucus then voted on the motion. Reps. Loranne Ausley, Lori Berman, Ben Diamond, Nick Duran, Katie Edwards-Walpole, Geller, Jacobs, Moskowitz, and Matt Willhite voted no.

Before ending the caucus meeting, Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa urged members to respect any decision to break the caucus position.

“No one should be bullied for their decision or their vote,” she said. “We made the vote that we think best serves our communities.”