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Become Republican, we need moderates

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature is a place where many people lead lives of quiet desperation.

This is not about the Democrats. Desperate they may be, but they don't have to be quiet about it. And they aren't.

The silent sufferers are the moderates and liberals (relatively speaking) among the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Their few chairmanships and their occasional opportunities to pass bills depend on their obedience to the right-wing ruling circle. At the rare times when they stray from the corral, as seven did on a bill to bust the teachers' union last year, they try not to make noise about it.

When the leadership manipulates the rules to treat them as shabbily as it treats the Democrats, they suffer in silence. "Don't quote me," said one such victim. "I still want to pass my bill."

They have Nancy Argenziano twisting in the wind to remind them. The Dunnellon maverick's celebrated disputes with Speaker Tom Feeney over nursing home legislation and budget cuts have cost her two prized committee assignments, including a chairmanship, which may be an all-time record.

Larry Crow, a thoughtful lawyer from Palm Harbor, chairs the Committee on Judicial Oversight, where bills dealing with the courts supposedly go. Crow and the committee would never approve a court-bashing bill that heads the right wing's wish list so Feeney sent it to a committee of non-lawyers.

The Senate still practices small-d democracy. But it is primarily a brake on the extreme instincts of the House and the governor.

One-party rule is no better now than it was during the Pork Chop era when the Democrats were the monopoly party. In some ways, it is worse. Even the Pork Choppers tolerated intraparty dissent so long as it had nothing to do with race or reapportionment. Some of Florida's most outstanding institutions, notably the university system and civil service (both currently endangered), began then.

It is no better in respect to the disenfranchisement of voters. Though the Democratic monopoly legislatures were badly malapportioned, there were at least plenty of spirited primaries. Population equality nominally prevails today but so many districts are so politically gerrymandered, and campaign money has become such a monstrous advantage to incumbents, that most campaigns are effectively over when filing closes. Of 21 Senate seats at stake two years ago, nine went unopposed and nine more were won in landslides. With all 120 House seats up, 21 candidates drew no primary or general election ballot opposition and 32 won with 60 percent of the vote or more. More than 2-million people had no one to vote for.

This is how the far right of the Republican Party has seized control of the House, neutralizing not only the Democrats but also the moderate Republicans. As the conservatives will be controlling redistricting this year, it can only get worse.

Desperate times demand desperate measures. So here is my proposal:

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

We should all become Republicans. Let the Democratic candidates for governor lead the way to the registration office. If they do, I shall follow.

Imagine Jeb Bush facing Lois Frankel, Daryl Jones, Bill McBride and Janet Reno in a primary. What fun. He might even come to regret repealing the runoff.

Even if Bush still won, he'd be dealing with a Legislature where he could take neither house for granted.

The returning Republican moderates could come out of hiding. They could probably even pick the next speaker. Maybe even a woman for once.

The most revolutionary effect would be in terms of campaign finance reform. Only political parties can raise and spend soft money, which is by far the worst problem. If there's only one party, there can't be any soft money. A lobbyist I know says this would save him many thousands of dollars.

The Democratic National Committee would be upset, of course, on account of the implications to the control of Congress. I'm sorry about that, but Florida's situation is more urgent. In the process, however, the congressional Republicans would probably become more moderate, too. Besides, our guys would always be a threat to pull a Jeffords.

It's unfortunate that this is far-fetched, because it really would work. It's too bad that there's nothing reasonable which would.

* * *

Speaking of the unreasonable, how about the pregnant pig initiative? Cruelty to animals is serious, but there is no way that belongs in the Florida Constitution, which doesn't even prescribe such human rights as health care.

But I'm beginning to think about voting for it as a way of cutting the agribusiness lobby down to size. If they kill tax reform, I vote for pregnant pigs. That wouldn't even the score, but it would be a good down payment.

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