No ordinary time
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000
Amid the swarms of national politicians, journalists and lawyers drawn to Tallahassee by the presidential election that wouldn't end were some five dozen Floridians on a less dramatic mission. They were concerned with offices, parking places, travel reimbursement and the other mundane business of being newly elected to the Florida Legislature. It wasn't lost on any of them, however, what historic and challenging work waits upon their swearing-in ceremonies Tuesday. There is widespread doubt, where there was none before, that every Floridian's vote will be accurately recorded and fairly counted. Correcting that must be the new Legislature's paramount priority, no matter what it takes.
The task falls to the most inexperienced Legislature since the great court-imposed redistricting of 1967. The purge this time owes to term limits. Though only one senator is a true freshman without prior experience in either house, 66 of the 120 House members share that distinction. There aren't many senior members to mentor them.
However, inexperience is an opportunity to admit fresh ideas and exclude bad habits, as Florida needs to have happen now. The Legislature has been afflicted with too much partisanship, too prevailing a follow-the-leader mentality. Rules have been applied not just for the sake of orderly process, but to suppress dissent and play "Gotcha!" Lobbyists owe too much of their influence to the campaign contributions that the system extracts from them, too little to the merits of their arguments. Too many politicians have come simply to stay rather than to make a difference.
Florida voters believed, rather too credulously, that term limits would put all of this to right. Term limits make their own problems beyond the bicameral experience gap. New House members will be prone to rely too much on guidance from lobbyists, staff and the executive branch. They will be impatient to win chairmanships and pass bills, knowing that they have at most eight years to make their mark.
But as Kenneth Plante, a former legislator and well-regarded lobbyist, points out, "They don't have to make it in two months."
The late Bill Sadowski of Miami, a widely respected House member who left voluntarily in 1982, put to paper some perpetually pertinent advice for new members, from which we quote hoping that the freshmen of 2000 will take it to heart.
Among other things, he cautioned his successors against committing themselves on issues "until you have talked to persons on both sides of the issue. . . ."
"Once you take a position," he added, "don't change it unless there is a compelling, rational reason to do so. Do not feel compelled to take a firm position on an issue simply because somebody wants you to. You will gain respect if you candidly admit to a lack of knowledge of an issue and promise to acquire the knowledge -- and follow through with the promise. . . .
"Do not rely on others to adequately educate you on an issue. They will frequently have a bias. Rely on your own efforts to educate yourself. After all, it is your public decisions upon which others will judge your performance."
Legislators who follow that advice will be happy that they did.
What they should not do is rely upon Florida's ethics code to keep them out of trouble. It permits them almost any sort of voting conflict, so long as they report it and the outcome does not benefit them exclusively. Even the disclosure rule is imprecise; the Ethics Commission exonerated a legislator who had failed to announce that his real estate firm stood to profit from an appropriation he was sponsoring. But though such instances too rarely result in official discipline, they usually guarantee bad press and hostile voters. Legislators who care for their reputations will expect more of themselves than the law does. The best advice is still what their mothers and fathers told them: "Don't take candy from strangers."
Those who care will also strive, regardless of party, to clean up campaign finance, rid it of the sewage that is called soft money, repair the loophole that lets lobbies campaign without reporting their costs and contributions and improve the ethics laws. These issues are siblings to Florida's voting crisis, equally corrupting to the public confidence that is the whole heart and soul of democracy.
"Public office is a public trust, both legally and conceptually," Sadowski wrote. "Never violate that trust.
"Your family is a source of strength and a point of real world contact. Preserve and protect that strength at all costs. A legislative session is in many ways an artificial world. Don't lose touch with the real world.
"You have two constituencies: one that elects you and one that you serve. The one that you serve consists of all the citizens of Florida.
"You are a politician in a democracy. Take pride in that. Use your office to generate public debate on important issues of the day."
Yes, politics is proud work, though that is infrequently apparent during campaigns. But the campaigns are over now; it is time for the victors to prove that the better people did win.
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