Florida Democrats look to ‘long game’ to rebuild

Florida congress members gather in the state Capitol. Credit: AP

After significant losses in the November 8th elections, Florida House and Senate Democrats started trying to bounce back as they gathered in the state Capitol this week.

A one-day organization session of the Legislature on Tuesday featured new Republican leaders formally stepping into their roles with “supermajorities” in the House and Senate.

Democrats, meanwhile, only hold 35 of 120 House seats and 12 of 40 Senate seats.

But Democratic leaders this week offered a message of rebuilding as Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, became House minority leader and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Davie, started a new term as Senate minority leader. During her designation ceremony Monday evening in the House chamber, Driskell said the party should “put the last election season behind us” as it looks to turn things around.

“I know right now the Republican influence feels outsized in our state. But they actually don’t represent the full diverse sentiment of our state. I’ve heard from Democrats across the state asking, ‘What happened to the Florida Democratic Party?’ Maybe some of you are asking that same question. From my perspective, going forward, well, you are the party. We are the party. And change starts right here and right now,” Driskell said.

Because Republicans hold more than two-thirds of the seats in each chamber, Democrats have little power procedurally to stop the GOP from imposing its agenda. Supermajorities mean that even measures such as public-records exemptions, which require two-thirds votes, can be passed without concerns about Democratic opposition.

During Tuesday’s organization session, Driskell spoke to the full House and cast Democrats as underdogs who won’t be ignored.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, and I look forward to the dialogue. But it is important to me that you understand that my caucus intends to conduct ourselves as this great democratic republic demands – as the loyal opposition. A vocal minority whose voice is heard despite the obvious math of the vote count,” Driskell said.

The organization session included swearing in Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, as House speaker and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, as Senate president. While Republicans have controlled the House and Senate since the 1990s, this month’s elections brought expanded majorities.

As lawmakers met, abortion opponents rallied in the fourth-floor rotunda of the Capitol. They urged Legislature to end abortions in Florida, with chants such as “no more excuses.”

During her speech, Driskell warned about efforts to restrict abortion access further, after lawmakers passed a 15-week limit on abortions this year. But Driskell and Book acknowledged that the numbers are stacked against them as they go into their two-year leadership terms.

Book called the 12 Florida Senate Democrats “the Dirty Dozen” and described losses during the elections as requiring a “fundamental shift” in Democratic strategies to be effective.

“The last several months, we’ve been at war. Battles that began inside of this chamber spilled out into Senate districts across the state. And although we’ve fought hard to defend Floridians rights and freedoms and be a strong voice for working people, we have suffered great losses,” Book, who became leader in 2021, said during a designation ceremony Monday.

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said that “being down is not a failure; being down is an opportunity” for Democrats. Jones suggested that the road to rebuilding could be a long one.

“The long game is what counts. What does that look like, and how will we get there?” Jones said during Book’s ceremony.

But Book and Driskell also expressed willingness to work with Republicans on issues plaguing the state, focusing mainly on the state’s ailing property-insurance system.

Renner congratulated Driskell on her leadership role as he laid out priorities in a speech Tuesday.

“I also pledge to members of the minority party that we will have robust debate. I’m confident that all members will exhibit the civility and mutual respect that all our constituents deserve,” Renner said.

Passidomo similarly said lawmakers will have to work together on issues such as recovering from Hurricane Ian, which in September ravaged areas including her Southwest Florida district.

“Most issues we will agree on, such as workforce housing, protection of the environment, safeguarding our vulnerable population, and honoring our veterans and first responders. There are a few issues we will not agree on, and that is OK. I assure you we are going to listen to each other’s concerns and incorporate suggestions to make every bill better,” Passidomo said.

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