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Republicans toss Democrats to the state Capitol towers

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- As places of punishment go, the tower of Florida's Capitol is not exactly the old Tower of London. The view is better, for one thing. Better yet, everybody comes out alive. Still, it is definitely not where most members of the House of Representatives prefer their offices to be.

The elevator service during sessions compares poorly to U.S. 19 at rush hour. It's a long way to the chamber, to the committee rooms. Their staffs spend more time on errands, less at their desks.

Worse, from some points of view, tower quarters are as remote for the lobbyists as for the legislators. The lobbyists won't be dropping in as often, which means they won't become quite as friendly and won't be as generous with their campaign contributions.

But the tower has become, as one member put it, a "Democratic ghetto." Virtually all the Democratic offices are there now, including 16 that last year were in the House Office Building or on lower floors convenient to the fourth-floor House chamber. Now, the only Democrats with easy chamber access are the four members of their leadership. Every other Democrat is on the 10th floor or higher.

Johnnie Byrd, the new House speaker, maintains that this is an unavoidable consequence of having more Republicans and fewer Democrats this year. With 81 Republicans, "you fill up the House Office Building pretty quickly," he said.

How's that? There are, after all, only four more Republicans, four fewer Democrats. Do Republicans use office space that much less efficiently than Democrats? There were 84 Democrats 20 years ago, yet no Republicans went to the tower .

Byrd's explanation also prompts the question of why party rather than seniority dictates the more desirable offices. Seniority generally controls even in the U.S. Congress, which until now has been the paradigm of excessive partisanship. If the Florida House operated the same way, some freshman Republican would be on the 13th floor instead of Rep. Stacy Ritter, a Democrat from Coral Springs who is beginning her fourth term.

Ritter says she will make something positive out of it. Her new suite is larger, with a fine view overlooking the old Capitol and Apalachee Parkway. There's a conference room she and other Democrats can share. As for the lobbyists, "If they really want to see me, they can find me," though she concedes that the Democratic freshmen "will have a harder time meeting with the people they need to." Like it or not, lobbyists are essential to legislators.

In practical terms, the "ghetto" is only an inconvenience, and a relatively minor one at that. Its real significance is symbolic, and in that aspect it is huge. It marginalizes them. It signifies an arrogance bordering on contempt on the part of the growing Republican House majority.

The Democrats have proportional representation on House committees, but that means only that they will be outvoted by the same ratio every time

It is noteworthy that no such triumphalism is taking place in the Senate. To the contrary, President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, named Democrats to chair three committees and a budget subcommittee, tinkered with no one's space, and made a point Friday of complimenting the Democrats for their proposal on prescription drug assistance for senior citizens. Senate Republicans still have more muscle when it counts, but King wisely chooses not to flaunt it. Not only isn't it his style, but he knows he needs Democratic help in some hard fights that lie ahead, especially as the House and the governor try to use the budget crisis as a pretext to shut down even more state offices and programs. Even the Department of Juvenile Justice is rumored to be on the chopping block.

What the Democrats need most, however, is nothing that King could give them. Their loss of four House seats and a Senate seat in November portends worse losses after the 2010 census unless the Constitution is amended to provide for an independent redistricting commission and other safeguards against gerrymandering. For that, they need initiatives -- and quickly, before the Republicans do something to make initiatives even harder to pass.

Redistricting reform amendments have been circulating for three years under the sponsorship of People Against Politics, a joint effort Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and the Silver Haired Legislature. But the drive is stagnant; its treasury is broke. The teachers, who had promised support, put all their chips instead on Bill McBride, and now have nothing to show for it.

"The Democrats would not put up one dime last time," says Chairman Dexter Douglass. "I asked them, I met with them and did everything else, and they looked at me like I was crazy. We could have gotten that on the ballot and it would have passed."

Bob Poe, the former Democratic chairman, used to say there was no money to spare for that. Scott Maddox, the new chair, says redistricting reform will be his top priority. If the Legislature won't act, says Maddox, the party will aggressively promote initiatives.

This used to be a Republican cause, by the way. It was the Democrats who resisted.

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