They just don’t make state senators like they used to
TALLAHASSEE — Nothing is how it used to be in Florida’s Capitol. It’s not just the deep erosion of transparency that starts with Gov. Ron DeSantis, or a dark sense of alienation and suspicion in an excessively locked-down Legislature.
The change that has not drawn enough attention is the sad transformation of the Florida Senate. Once it was a desperately needed, fiercely independent institution looking out for all of us, but the Senate of old no longer exists. It’s as predictable as the House of Representatives. What do we need a second House for?
In today’s Senate, there’s no suspense before a key vote, as there was for decades. In the Capitol’s desolate hallways, they have a name for it: “Houseification.” Like the House, the Senate is a tightly managed and highly disciplined place where dissent is discouraged or punished. The collegial spirit is still there. The fighting spirit, not so much.
“There are fewer and fewer independent-minded individuals in the Senate,” says Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the only senator in the majority party who consistently bucks the system.
Senators once relished breaking from their leaders on abortion, education or guns. For most, it was a vote of conscience, and it was smart politics. The idea was to never let leadership take you for granted: Make them earn your vote, perhaps also at the price of a much-wanted museum in your district.
The loss of an independent streak among senators is another consequence of term limits, a highly destructive change to modern Florida politics. The defanged Senate is also a stepchild of the Trumpism that is wrecking the Republican Party.
Another factor, as always, is money, which has a way of keeping senators in line. The modern Senate reflects the trend by leaders to hand-pick favored candidates in Republican primaries, then buy their loyalty by showering them with millions in contributions from special interests. The money, often laundered, flows like water through and between unregulated political committees and overwhelms prospective opponents.
Senate President Wilton Simpson did that with brutal efficiency in the 2020 cycle. That’s why he never has to worry about having enough votes to pass a Republican priority, whether it’s making it harder to vote by mail or to erect constitutionally suspect barriers to petition-gathering or exercising a First Amendment right to protest.
When freshman Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, recently opposed the GOP changes to the Bright Futures program, it got picked up in news stories, partly because it was so rare.
It used to be much different. Former Republican senators Paula Dockery, Mike Fasano, Jack Latvala, Nancy Detert, Dennis Jones, Tom Lee, Alex Villalobos and many others resisted efforts by Senate presidents who tried to dictate to them how to vote. They weren’t perfect, but they had a fearlessness you don’t see today. For them, the greater the arm-twisting, the greater the resistance.
The record is filled with examples of their rebelliousness, which in most cases led to positive outcomes for Floridians. A memorable case was in 2012, when former Gov. Rick Scott tried to ram through an ill-conceived plan to privatize two dozen prisons, mostly in South Florida, with the help of then-Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
The Democratic Senate leader then was Broward’s Nan Rich, who had only 12 votes in her caucus, but a Republican revolt erupted. Nine GOP senators led by Latvala all voted no, killing Scott’s privatization scheme on the spot.
It’s impossible to picture Dockery or Fasano in today’s Senate, nodding passively, not raising questions and voting yes on DeSantis’ “anti-mob” bill, or in the latest awful attack on home rule, wiping out a legitimate vote by the people of Key West to ban large cruise ships on their island. This isn’t the Senate most Floridians want or deserve.
“Why did they get elected? What are they doing there?” Fasano asks of today’s sheepish Senate flock.
It’s the duty of senators to scrutinize and doubt a governor’s decisions, especially in their own party. A Senate district is almost as big as a congressional district. Unless it’s grotesquely gerrymandered, it’s a fair reflection of Florida’s diversity. Until Democrats find a way to start winning back seats, the House is a lost cause. Without a forceful Senate as a check on the worst excesses of others, we are in very serious trouble.
Questioning the status quo is not popular. The current pariah is Brandes, who was not invited to stand in the background at a recent DeSantis signing ceremony for one of Brandes’ bills — an unheard-of level of spitefulness. “Never underestimate the pettiness of this process,” Brandes said.
Brandes has criticized Simpson’s agenda all session long on behalf of his Pinellas County constituents, from restricting voting to shutting prisons. He’s the only one of 24 Republicans who voted no on the “anti-mob” bill that failed to get a single committee hearing in the Senate. Instead, the Senate brought the House version (HB 1) straight to the Senate floor, which Brandes saw as a corruption of the process and said: “This does not smell right.”
“The House is unique because of its compliance. The Senate is unique because of its independence,” Brandes said. “If the Senate loses its independence, it’s not the Senate.”