Florida's House freshmen take a seat in the front

On the surface, it seems the state lost its clout. But seniority isn't the only source of influence.

Anita Kumar, Bill Adair and Wes Allison
Published February 7, 2007

WASHINGTON - At a news conference to celebrate the passage of the Democrats' first bills in the new Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surrounded herself with House freshmen, including Florida Reps. Kathy Castor, Ron Klein and Tim Mahoney.

As Pelosi beamed like a proud mother, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called the freshmen "our majority makers." The new members, some of whom had toppled Republican giants, beamed back. The message from Pelosi and Hoyer couldn't have been more clear: We're here because you're here.

"It wasn't by accident that the backdrop was the freshman class," said Mahoney, a political novice and South Florida businessman. "Our election represents the will for change by the American people."

Pelosi's mixer was a reminder of the sea change in Congress, especially in the Florida delegation. The state has a large number of new members: five, with three from the Tampa Bay area.

The change brings new faces and fresh ideas to Congress. It also means that Florida has lost seniority, though the new Democratic leadership has rewarded youth and energy by putting some younger Democrats in top positions.

With 25 House members - including six from the Tampa Bay area - Florida boasts the fourth-largest delegation to Congress, but it now has just nine members in the majority.

Departed veterans

Several longtime House members lost or retired, including Republican Clay Shaw, a 26-year veteran who was a contender to chair the powerful tax-writing committee. Republican Mike Bilirakis, vice chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, retired after 24 years. And had he not quit to run for governor, Tampa Democrat Jim Davis would be influential in crafting energy and environmental policy this year.

"Seniority is clearly a big issue, so having a younger generation does not pay immediate dividends," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow.

But Putnam is proof that you don't need gray hair to have influence. The red-haired 32-year-old was elected chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 position in party leadership.

Although Florida's prospects looked bleak after the election, the state has fared well in leadership and committee assignments during Congress' first month, including:

- Broward County's Debbie Wasserman Schultz, already a chief deputy Democratic whip, is a chairwoman of one of the House Appropriations subcommittees, which dole out money.

- Kendrick Meek of Miami was tapped for the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and is the only Floridian on the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax law and oversees Social Security, Medicare and welfare programs.

- And Allen Boyd of North Florida leads the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 44 conservative House Democrats whose support will be crucial to their party's agenda.

"Florida's perceived loss of clout actually isn't," Wasserman Schultz said. "At the end of the day, it's the majority that matters. It's being in the room. We have a good number of members who are there when the decisions are made."

Eager and energetic

Seniority has always been important on Capitol Hill, determining who gets the best offices and who chairs the committees.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, who has served in Congress since 1970, lost his job as chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee when the Democrats seized control, though he remains the top Republican - and can still funnel millions to his district - simply because of his seniority.

But there are growing opportunities for newer members to earn more influence. Most Florida freshmen are eager to pass their first bills and party leaders - particularly Democrats - clearly intend to encourage them.

Wary of losing the majority they just gained, Speaker Pelosi and Hoyer, the majority leader, have given their 41 Democratic freshmen starring roles on popular bills. The idea is to help them quickly build credentials with voters back home.

Castor is a good example.

The Tampa lawmaker was chosen as the freshman representative on the Steering and Policy Committee, which helps set the Democratic agenda. She also serves on two other hefty committees: rules, which sets procedures for floor debates, and armed services.

Castor credits Pelosi with trying to support younger members, while recognizing prior legislative experience and diversity.

"She has been with us constantly supporting us, encouraging us, answering questions, because I think she understands this was a historic election and this is a historic class," she said.

Republican help for its freshmen has been more traditional, though important to their standing back home. Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor got a spot on the Veterans Affairs Committee, whose work is vital to many in his district.

"It's kind of early to see how much of a role we're going to play," Bilirakis said. "If I have my druthers, we will" play a large one.

Bipartisan hopes

The Florida delegation once operated under the "Gibbons rule": By the decree of former Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, no member shall speak ill of, or campaign against, another, regardless of party.

But in the last couple years, the delegation has become more partisan.

The Florida Republicans, who were in power, held regular lunches without inviting the Democrats. Some Democrats, meanwhile, publicly criticized Shaw, a well-liked Republican who was also the delegation's chairman.

The one area where the delegation had been solid for a quarter century - stopping offshore oil and gas drilling - split into two camps: House Democrats wanted to yield nothing, while many Republicans felt they had to compromise and allow limited drilling.

Given the chance to start anew, members now say they are united against drilling and intent on working together to advance Florida's other interests on veterans' benefits, property insurance reform and Social Security.

Florida's freshmen said voters were clear in November's election: They want less bickering and more cooperation.

More than 20 members - an unusually large turnout - showed up for the first delegation meeting two weeks ago, and relations were more cordial than they had been in months. When time came to elect a chairman, the members settled on two: Alcee Hastings, a Democrat, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami, a Republican. Feud averted, for now.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.