Six words that could change Florida politics

Will Charlie Justice's loophole bring a spate of competitive Congressional races?

Published May 4, 2007

Politics in Florida may never be quite the same.

The credit, or blame, rightly belongs to Sen. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg.

Some deft maneuvering by the mild-mannered Justice has just opened a big new loophole in the resign-to-run law. Justice, who rarely says more than he needs to, did it with just six words.

From now on, "persons seeking any federal public office" will be exempt from the requirement to resign from one office before seeking another.

Justice, a freshman Democrat, reacted to a narrower Republican loophole that would exempt only those officeholders who ran for president or vice-president. That was interpreted as a move to let Gov. Charlie Crist run for VP in 2008.

But, Justice reasoned, why limit it to just the White House? Let anybody run for U.S. Senate or Congress, too.

The clause was one of many attached to an elections bill that mandates paper trails at the polls and moves up Florida's presidential primary to Jan. 29, 2008.

So it will be the law in this state. And what's the real-life impact of Justice's little six-word amendment?

"I would say, Congressmen beware, " said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, the sponsor of the bill. "Anyone with a four-year term could run for Congress without having to resign from their current post."

The change will embolden politicians who hold four-year terms to run for Congress, secure in the knowledge that even if they lose, they keep their old seats.

The change won't help state House members, who serve two-year terms, because the law still says that "no person may qualify as a candidate for more than one public office."

Is this good for democracy? Yes and no.

It may compel some members of Congress to be a little more attentive to folks back home. It surely increases the chance that a weakened incumbent like Tom Feeney of Orlando, tainted by the Jack Abramoff scandal, draws more than token opposition.

It's likely to increase the number of competitive races, a change that is desperately needed in this state, with its gerrymandered legislative districts and obscenely expensive campaigns.

"No officeholder should be safe in any election, " Justice said.

On the other hand, it could spawn a new and unwelcome phenomenon in this state: politicians elected to one office who spend most of their time campaigning for another one -- on the taxpayers' dime.

"Sorry, the senator won't be in today. He's busy attending a fish fry in Palatka."

Here's an irony in Justice's amendment: State senators, who serve four-year terms, are now not only free to run for Congress, but they can legally raise money during the regular legislative session. That's because the rule that bans fund-raising during the session does not apply to people seeking federal office.

That in turn creates another irony.

Justice, a consistent critic of the way money pollutes democracy, may have has just unleashed a flood of special interest campaign money into the political system -- the last thing Tallahassee needs.

You could see this coming. Term limits have accelerated the trend of the Legislature as a proving ground for future members of Congress.

Of the 25 people who now represent Florida in Washington, 17 are former legislators.

It's a well-worn path from Tallahassee to Capitol Hill.

The elections bill carrying Justice's six little words HB 537 will be soon signed by Gov. Charlie Crist with great fanfare, because it fulfills his campaign promise of a verifiable paper trail.

Those paper ballots will be arriving just in time, now that more Congressional races in Florida might feature real competition.

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