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Senate GOP Moderates an Endangered Species

By: John Kennedy
By: John Kennedy

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Nov. 17, 2010 --

The Florida Senate’s political right turn was marked on its opening day by the occasional red light – with a dwindling number of Republican moderates voting ‘no’ on several veto overrides sought by leaders.

But the conservative shift under Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, also is raising prospects that the Senate sworn-in Tuesday will include a floating coalition of centrist Republicans ready to band with similarly outgunned Democrats on a host of social, environmental, education and spending issues.

“It’ll strictly depend on the issue,” Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said in gauging the strength of the Senate and House’s veto-proof, two-thirds Republican majorities.

“If it comes back to…some of those far-right issues that I’ve never been willing to support since I was elected in 1978, then I’d join with the opposition. It’ll depend on the issue. I wouldn’t be joining with the Democrats just to join with them,” Jones said.

Haridopolos made it his goal to steer the Senate on its rightward course, wooing such candidates as incoming Sens. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, and Greg Evers, R-Baker, who each replaced more moderate lawmakers.

Their arrival Tuesday helped cement the smaller government, stricter-spending, lawsuit-limiting and anti-union approach strengthened by last year’s arrival of new Sens. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who doubles as Florida Republican Party chairman.

“This is a new Senate; more conservative, and I’m proud of that,” Haridopolos said. “I worked hard to get it here. And a lot of members of my caucus worked hard to get it here.”

Haridopolos isn’t giving the cold shoulder to most Republican centrists, with Jones, a longtime gambling proponent, getting his favored chairmanship of the Regulated Industries Committee and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, being named chair of the choice Transportation Committee.

But the role Senate moderates may play in shaping legislation remains an unknown. And the conservative sweep may have claimed its first victim, with Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a moderate known to antagonize leaders on a number of issues, was the lone Republican failing to earn a chairmanship under Haridopolos.

Haridopolos shrugged. “There’s a lot of tough committee assignments to make,” he said. “She didn’t get one. I can’t make all senators happy.”

For her part, Dockery said being excluded from Haridopolos’ leadership lineup didn’t surprise her. But she said it sent a stark message to lawmakers.

“The leadership statement sent this week is that loyalty is rewarded,” Dockery said Wednesday.

“If you balk at what’s going on, or you express independent thinking, you won’t get rewarded.”

Still, Dockery said she didn’t dispute the Senate president’s decision to surround himself with his closest allies.

“It’s certainly his prerogative,” said Dockery, who is a member of Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s transition team. “I’m not upset, angry or bitter, but I’m also not surprised.”

GOP moderates have long formed a key voting bloc in the Senate, with a 2005 vote against intervening in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case being perhaps the group’s most high-profile moment. Florida trial lawyers also have retained a political foothold in the Senate, thanks to moderates, but business organizations now see the centrists’ flagging influence as clearing a path for more corporate-friendly legislation – coinciding with Scott’s ‘get-to-work’ campaign themes.

The 28 Republicans in the 40-member Senate give the GOP the strongest position held by either party since Democrats commanded a 30-10 chamber in 1986. But Republican moderates may be at their lowest ebb, with only about a half-dozen senators generally considered moderates on social, budget and environmental issues.

“I don’t think anyone wants to say they’re middle-of-the-road right now,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. “With this latest election, even very centist voters moved far to the right.”

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, R-Weston, whose caucus lost two seats on Election Day, sees an opportunity for her party with disaffected Republicans. But two Democrats, Sens. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, and Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, rewarded with chairmanships under Haridopolos, look likely to side frequently with ruling Republicans, further sapping Democratic ranks.

But Rich forecast that several Republicans can be counted on to join with most Democrats on issues. “We’ll be a loyal opposition, but a vocal one,” she said.

Dockery, though, cautioned that even such loose-knit alliances may accomplish little in the emboldened, conservative Senate.

“The numbers just aren’t there,” she said. “The conservatives are in charge. We’ll see how it goes.”


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