Democrats regain clout with Jeb's departure

Published February 3, 2007

What a difference an election can make.

With Jeb Bush out and Charlie Crist in, Democrats have returned from their legislative Siberia.

They're relevant again, and politics in the capital is more interesting as a result.

The hyperpartisanship of the Bush years has been replaced, for now at least, by a new and refreshing inclusiveness.

Attack-dog politics is out; cooperation is in. Chants of "Jeb must go" are out; singing Kumbaya is in.

Democratic lawmakers are still getting used to the strange sensation of being summoned to the governor's office for policy talk, and then being publicly congratulated by a Republican governor for a job well done.

When Bush was around, the Democratic dance was easy and all too predictable: Bash Bush continuously over the FCAT, grim graduation rates, tax cuts and privatization.

Crist's populism and disarming style is forcing Democrats to rethink the way they position themselves.

"We're not going to have our alter ego," says Rep. Dan Gelber, the Miami Beach Democrat and the new House minority leader. "We're going to have to pick and choose our battles."

Bush seemed to regard the Legislature as a rubber stamp at best, an annoyance at worst, and too many House members bowed at his feet.

In Jeb's defense, he had to deal at times with a super-combative Senate and a dysfunctional House. Ugly stuff.

But Crist was a legislator, and he readily accepts the equal nature of the three branches of government. Big difference.

Another big difference: The two Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have sharper political instincts and bigger appetites for policy details than their predecessors.

Senate Democrats are led by Sen. Steve Geller, a 48-year-old lawyer from Broward County who has 18 years of lawmaking experience and was a classmate of Crist's at Florida State.

His counterpart in the House is Gelber of Miami Beach, who was a federal prosecutor at age 25 and later was chief counsel to Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Ironically, in his first race in 2000, Gelber beat Geller's brother, Joe.

Geller and Gelber have a third partner on their side of the aisle: Alex Sink, the new chief financial officer.

Sink will have the most influence of the Democratic leaders because she has a four-year term, a statewide constituency and shapes statewide policy with Crist on the Cabinet.

Speaking to Florida editors and reporters this week, Sink defined her role as a fiscal watchdog and urged more affordable health insurance for children, a stronger consumer advocate on insurance issues and tighter oversight of poorly written vendor contracts and privatization deals.

Sink voiced concern that the property insurance fix, while lowering rates short term, could expose the state to huge financial risk after a catastrophic storm.

She and the other Democrats have begun taking the gloves off but with restraint and a noticeable lack of rally-the-troops rhetoric.

Geller called it "the height of irresponsibility" to propose a major overhaul of the Save Our Homes tax cap when a tax expert hired by the state warned that it could be unconstitutional. That's a Crist proposal.

Gelber chided Crist for an "early retreat" from his campaign-trail support of embryonic stem cell research.

Other Democrats weighed in on Crist's first budget proposal Friday, praising some parts of it, like a tuition freeze, while criticizing other parts, like too little money for teacher pay and pre-kindergarten programs.

"We cannot be co-opted," Gelber said. "We have to be the honest opposition."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.