The third time wasn’t the charm for Rep. Ron Saunders in the southernmost Florida Senate district . Despite two failed attempts in the past to win this district, Saunders tried again and was backed by big Tallahassee money. But ultimately he fell short with Rep. Dwight Bullard who was strongly endorsed by our website emerging as the victor in the five candidate field. In his first incarnation in the Legislature, Saunders was a decent enough vote, somewhere near the midpoint of the Democratic caucus. His record was never great but was rather inoffensive and his stewardship of budget priorities was at times outstanding. After a Secretary of State run in 1994, and two failed attempts to reach the State Senate, he finally returned to the House in 2006. His return was not what some of us expected.
It is fair to claim that Saunders was Rick Scott’s favorite Democrat. Under Saunders’ watch as Democratic “leader”, Democrats supported business and school choice initiatives in record numbers, stood still as environmental protection and growth management were gutted and played dead in the face of assaults on women’s reproductive rights. Simply put, Saunders leadership has been a disaster for progressives and boon for Republicans and Scott agenda. For all these reasons and more we named Ron Saunders to our list of “Florida’s Most Wanted” last month.
Saunders strong support from the NRA (who rated him an A+, the only Democrat running in a primary for any non-local office in Florida to receive that grade), big business, insurance companies, and school “choice” advocates did him little good in this largely urban district. This should be a lesson to future Democratic candidates that what you may do to be liked in Tallahassee by the lobbyists will bite you when you return home.
Unlike Saunders’ previous runs for the Senate which were against Dwight Bullard’s mother, Larcenia who is far less progressive, activists around the state had a stake in this election. In the past their was even sympathy for Saunders whose record in his first House stint that ended in 1994 was a distant memory and Larcenia Bullard was considered by some Democrats a less than exemplary legislator.
But Saunders recent record in his second House stint erased any sympathies he may have previously engendered. His adaptation to Republican rule of Tallahassee was to shift his voting record sharply to the right and to make deals with the Republicans. He also worked to “moderate” the positions of the Democratic caucus instead of providing and presenting a viable alternative to the radical GOP agenda. Saunders’ previous experience and success meant that in the era of term limits where the Legislature is dominated by inexperienced amateurs, he was elevated quickly back into the leadership.
Unlike 2002 and 2004 when Saunders faced Larcenia Bullard in a Senate Primary (in 2002 he also faced Cindi Lerner, the late John Cosgrove and Dr. Donald Jones) this time he was facing Bullard’s son, a favorite of statewide progressives and even worse had accumulated a record that contradicted his past successes.
Saunders is the consummate Tallahassee insider. In between his legislative stints, he opened a restaurant at Kleman Plaza in Tallahassee that quickly became one of the favorite watering holes of lobbyists, and legislative staff. Saunders became even more popular among lobbyists, legislators, staff and others around the Capital during this period. It is entirely possible this went to his head and he became less connected with the feelings and attitudes of Democrats outside the legislative process, the same Democrats that had nominated him to run statewide in 1994.
In facing Dwight Bullard, one of the brightest young stars Florida Democrats have to offer Saunders met his match. His directing of the Democratic caucus towards the right and personal votes in favor of tax cuts, budget cuts, school vouchers and the NRA agenda were too much voters even if he possessed personal charm and a campaign war chest unmatched by any other Democrat in the state who was running in a primary for legislature.
Simply put, Democrats have to begin holding our “leaders” accountable for bad votes and for betraying the liberal cause. Republicans have the majority in both houses as they have had for 16 years. It is their responsibility to govern, not ours to be “pragmatic” and “practical.” Their extreme elements have pulled the GOP leadership further to the right over the past decade and the Democrats have reacted by moving not towards our base of voters but into a mushy middle where nothing exists except for non likely voters and people who lack any sort of passion about big ideas and big issues.I have often remarked the only true moderates in Florida are the governing class in Tallahassee and County Governments. Motivated voters are either liberals or conservatives. We already have a conservative party in Florida, and we don’t need another one.
Statements were made in both south and central Florida on Tuesday with the defeat of Ron Saunders and Victoria Siplin. Progressives are ready to hold Democrats accountable in the legislature and in the state party which has been incompetently run by “moderates” for the better part of three decades. The moderate philosophy has delivered Florida an overwhelming majority of GOP legislators and statewide elected officials despite the fact that more Floridians identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans.
The time for change has come and we have just begun the process of returning the Democratic Party in Florida to its principles.