This is part III (the final installment) of the series.
Part I is available here
Part II is available here
With complete control of the state government, the Florida GOP was growing in arrogance and recklessness in the early 2000’s. The will of the voters clearly expressed by the Kendrick Meek -backed Class Size Amendment was quickly reversed by the majority of legislators while the Governor continued to call special sessions to push ideologically motivated bills such as medical malpractice reform and social services budget cuts.
While Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist co-existed in the Florida Cabinet, they had several high profile disagreements. Crist almost immediately after taking office launched an investigation of price gouging in the petroleum industry, something that was not popular among the Bush family even if it had wide populist appeal among the citizens. On big ticket items such as PIP reform, Terry Schiavo and Homeowners Insurance, it seemed Governor and Attorney General were not on the same page; but one notable exception was evident to this trend: guns.
In 2004 Attorney General Crist nominated Marion Hammer to Florida’s Women’s Hall of Fame. She was inducted in December 2004 after being approved by Jeb Bush. Crist meanwhile used the gun issue to increase his bonafides with a GOP base that was less and less impressed with his body of work. Crist would benefit directly from NRA assistance again in the 2006 Republican Primary for Governor. While many leading conservatives in Florida supported Tom Gallagher, whose track record of losing important statewide elections is second to none in state history, Crist was loudly supported by the NRA. The resulting primary rout reinforced the perception/fear among rank in file Republicans that gun control was more important than being conservative on issues of finance, insurance or school reform.
Meanwhile, a faction of Democrats led by prominent Tallahassee based consultants were loudly articulating the view that winning rural North Florida counties was more important to reversing the fortunes of the party than just about anything else statewide. This approach ignored the fact that even the smallest of I-4 corridor counties had more voters than the entire Big Bend region minus Tallahassee itself. But these consultants deluded many Senate Democrats from other parts of the state into believing their party should be shifting its philosophy in order to appeal to the conservative, rural north Florida vote.
A leading Democratic Senator Rod Smith, now the state party chair was at the time perhaps the most respected senator in the minority party. Smith, who represented a largely rural north Florida district, believed that one of the ways back to winning elections was the turn erstwhile Democrats in the panhandle and big bend regions back to their ancestral party. This meant appealing to voters of that region on economic issues and not emphasizing gun related issues, or in many cases voting with the GOP on the issue.
Smith cast votes in line with his constituents, even perhaps to the left of his constituents on many issues. But the Democratic Senators from southeast Florida who cast similar votes were completely out of the mainstream back home. Votes on issues like Everglades protection, school vouchers and most noticeably gun control exposed these Senators.
While many House Democrats strongly opposed the NRA agenda, others saw an opportunity to get into the good graces of the GOP leadership. This lead to many Democrats voting for and even co-sponsoring the most offensive of legislation. The “Stand Your Ground” bill in 2005 was aided by this weakness and accommodation. Sure the GOP had the votes to pass the bill in either chamber, but did not get challenged on the bill in a way they should have.
More importantly than the Democrats was the continued GOP effort to cow tow to the NRA agenda. When Republican advancement within the party is tied specifically to their voting record on gun control related issues, and they are indoctrinated in this philosophy by outside organizations, members from the most crime ridden and sensitive areas cast votes directly contrary to their constituents wishes. By tying itself directly to the conservative apparatus in the state, the NRA was able to control the process to its advantage and force legislators of both parties to routinely cast bad votes.
Florida Government has been essentially used as a laboratory by conservative think tanks and activists since Jeb Bush was elected Governor in 1998. Among those taking advantage of this was the NRA and their national allies who used Florida to push bad gun laws, and then exported these laws to other states. The “Stand Your Ground” law, pioneered in Florida has now been passed in a majority of state legislatures nationwide. It is important for Florida progressives and moderates alike to understand what has happened to their state and why exactly it has happened.