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Democrats can only fight the good fight


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001

In the camp of the loyal opposition.

In the camp of the loyal opposition.

It was once said that some parts of Florida had so few Republicans, they could hold meetings in a phone booth. Times change.

Now there are few enough Democrats in the Florida Senate, 15 out of 40, that they can meet around a conference table. That's where they gathered Tuesday morning over breakfast.

In some ways they are a more resourceful bunch than when their party last held a Senate majority eons ago (nine years). When they first lost power they were stunned, even bitter. After years in the wilderness they have learned to take small wins where they can scratch them up.

The first to speak was Rod Smith of Gainesville, a veteran state attorney now turned rookie senator. He is the funniest and one of the ablest of the newcomers. Smith groused about the Republican bill to rewrite Florida's growth laws: "It's a Chinese-buffet sort of thing."

"A bunch of disjointed ideas," agreed Tom Rossin of West Palm Beach, the Democratic leader in the Senate, a silver-haired fellow in a pin-striped suit. He has the resigned air of a man accustomed to being on the short end of votes. "At best confusing, at worst watering down what we have now."

Yet Rossin put in a good word for the Republican governor, who is pushing to require enough schools to meet growth. "Obviously a good idea," Rossin said. "His battle is with the home builders, not the environmentalists."

The senators talked about their strategy against certain Republican ideas -- including pulling away enough Republican votes to slow things down. Classic minority strategy. So the Democrats need to appear reasonable, Smith cautioned: "We don't want to force the Republicans away."

As an aside, Smith complained that police and firefighters' groups had given campaign contributions to the Republicans to protect their interests in civil service matters.

"Are you alleging people buy government?" Walter "Skip" Campbell of Tamarac asked in mock surprise.

"No," Smith drawled. "I'm just saying they get better bills."

Darryl Jones of Miami reported there are several little bills on election reform: Getting rid of punch cards. Provisional ballots. Clear deadlines. Voters' rights. Non-partisan election supervisors. No more second primaries.

"All of this is sitting in pieces all over the place," Jones complained. Rossin said it's not enough for the Republicans to get rid of punch-card ballots -- by itself, mostly a PR move -- and said Democrats should work to combine many of the reform bills.

Another fight involves nursing homes. The industry and the lawyers who sue them "are about this far apart on an agreement" for a new law, Campbell said, holding up his thumb and index finger. Senators like it when enemies can make their own peace.

The senators fell to grumbling about how few of their bills were being placed on the calendar. Richard Mitchell of Jasper was asked about one of his bills that deals with chicken waste. Many bill numbers begin with the letters "CS," which stands for "committee substitute." "This brings a whole new meaning to CS," Rossin joked.

Rossin announced the Democratic caucus would hold a dinner Monday and buses would be available. "Buses?" Steven Geller of Fort Lauderdale asked incredulously. "There's only 15 of us."

As senators started leaving, Rossin warned that talks over the state budget are going so slowly the session might take extra time: "I wouldn't let your apartment leases run out."

"I've enjoyed my first session as much as I want to enjoy it," Smith shot back. "I don't want to go to summer school."

Ron Silver of North Miami, a lawmaker since 1978, wandered in at that moment. "Weirdest session I've ever been associated with," he offered.

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