Florida legislators should act as if their every move will be in the newspaper — ’cause you never know

Former State Rep. Daisy Baez pleads guilty to a misdemeanor perjury charge over a case regarding her legal residency.
Former State Rep. Daisy Baez pleads guilty to a misdemeanor perjury charge over a case regarding her legal residency. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

For organizations to work well they require a set of formalized behaviors or norms, generally accepted principles of behavior. The Florida Legislature is no different.

I was first elected to the Legislature in 1982. Back then, institutional elders schooled us at the outset on how to succeed in the legislative process. We were to serve a period of “apprenticeship” where we listened and learned, but were restrained from speaking. State government is complicated, and you were expected to either bring or develop expertise in specific policy areas such as transportation, healthcare, or education. There were expectations of reciprocity where you supported each other based on one’s subject area expertise. Most important of all, you were not to attack each other personally or insinuate ulterior motives.

Recent revelations about some legislators’ misbehavior make these notions seem quaint. Two Democratic legislators resigned recently: One lied about living in her district, and the other had an affair with a lobbyist. Jack Latvala, the Senate Republican appropriations leader, has been stripped of his chair for inappropriate behavior toward women.

No doubt such things also went on 30 years ago. What has changed is the increased frequency of bad behavior and the seeming vindictiveness some legislators have toward each other. These feelings cross party lines and are destroying the reputation of the Florida Legislature. What has precipitated the change? I attribute it to three causes:

▪ Term limits. With legislators being limited to eight consecutive years of service, some tend to be more focused on the next rung on the political ladder than on legislative accomplishments. The person sitting next to you in the chamber can soon be your opponent for that next rung, be it the Senate or some other office. Consequently, they’re seen as a political enemy and not a colleague. With limited time to establish their personal brand, legislators heat up the rhetoric to be heard above the din.

▪ The unconscionable influence of money. Members believe they need to not only have campaign accounts but individual political action committees to fuel their ambitions — or just to ward off opponents. These coffers are not primarily filled by community supporters but by lobbyists and special interests with narrower agendas. Increased money is corrupting and often used to weaken fellow legislators.

▪ The proliferation of sources of information through technological innovation and social media: People now tend to get their information through ideological organs, which have varying degrees of credibility, cutting into their reliance on mainstream media. Many of these survive by fueling division as opposed to being unbiased information sources. This adds to the coarseness of our civic dialogues.

Together these make being a candidate for the State House an unattractive proposition. In Florida, we have a citizen Legislature where it is expected that people with established professions would serve and bring their life experiences to the process. Many legislators today lack that experience and view being elected as a way to advance professionally.

The atmosphere of distrust does not bode well for the upcoming legislative session. Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran will have to use their considerable political skills to keep the lid on a volatile election-year environment if they expect to advance any sort of legislative agenda. There is no easy fix to all this because the problems in our body politic are systemic. Legislators need to act as if everything they do will be in the newspaper. Still, having said all this, the majority of legislators are there for honorable reasons and at great personal sacrifice. It is going to be their challenge to restore confidence in the institution and each other.

Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator, and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.