As my colleague Ryan Ray demonstrated again on Friday, the Democrats in the Florida House of Representatives failed on the gun issue once again. The gun lobby year after year finds new creative ways to chip away at any restrictions on ownership or use of firearms in this state, and year after year they find Democrats from liberal areas willing to help them.
The premise that Democrats must vote to liberalize gun laws in most districts currently represented by members of the party is completely flawed. In the mid 1990s Democrats represented most of the rural districts in the State House. In these seats, voting against the gun lobby would indeed be politically foolish though personally courageous. Two decades later Dems do not represent a single rural district in the House. Yet this past Thursday, on three different floor votes, at least a dozen Democrats crossed over and voted with the right-wing gun lobby. Why?
Before we get to looking at specific current House Democrats who have crossed the line on this issue, a little history
In the mid ’90s, as conservatism was surging around the country, Florida was being overrun by those who were more interested in pushing ideology than good public policy. In 1994, Jeb Bush embraced the NRA mantra accusing Lawton Chiles of being soft on crime — and then lost in his bid to unseat Chiles. In 1996, Bill Clinton touted his strong record on gun control and he crushed GOP nominee Bob Dole who was closely allied with the NRA. In 2000, Bill Nelson defeated Congressman Bill McCollum, one of the NRA’s most celebrated champions in Congress, for election to the US Senate. Also that year Al Gore ran the most pro-gun control campaign in the history of the United States Presidential Elections: Gore was denied Florida’s electoral votes by court intervention and other political games, but he was without question the choice of the majority of Floridians who turned out on November 7. While Gore’s strong stand in favor of gun control likely cost him New Hampshire, West Virginia and his home state of Tennessee (all of which had voted Democratic in 1992 & 1996) it probably won him Florida.
President Obama twice carried Florida while being perceived (perhaps wrongly) as a strong advocate of gun control. This seems lost on many Democrats, even though all but three current caucus members sit in districts the President carried in 2012. The nine Republicans who sit in districts carried by the President in 2012 all voted with the gun lobby on the floor votes Tuesday.
Chiles, Clinton, Nelson, Obama and Gore all won the majority of urbanized I-4 corridor counties, yet legislators representing those counties often times sat at the forefront of any NRA-led effort to weaken Florida’s gun laws. Republican legislators, aided by weak-willed Democratic allies, literally proved they could not read policy papers, studies about crime rates, poll numbers or election results. The only sources of information that mattered to them were the GOP platform and NRA (and Unified Sportsmen of Florida) legislative bulletins.
This process has intensified recently with Democrats. For the votes on Thursday let’s excuse first off Rep. Mike Clelland from Seminole County who represents a very difficult district and a member I understand was given the freedom to vote the way he needed to in order to try and compete for reelection.
I will give partial passes to five other House Democrats. First off, Rep. Carl Zimmerman, who represents a Republican-oriented district in northern Pinellas County. Zimmerman is facing a very difficult reelection fight and he may think he needs to cast this vote to increase his chance of survival. However, in the past the areas Zimmerman currently represent have elected Republicans who have actually voted for gun control legislation.
Secondly, Rep. Katie Edwards, who in fairness has no excuse for voting the way she does based on the liberal bent of the Broward County district she represents. But Rep. Edwards has never hid her views on firearms, and I respect a member who votes based on personal conviction and is honest about where she stands far more than others who make excuses for how they vote or do it based solely for reasons related to the internal politics of the body.
Rep. Amanda Murphy got elected from a somewhat conservative Pasco district in a special election. While her district is more liberal than Rep. Zimmerman’s district, it is similar in demographics and thus I can see a case for voting the way she did.
Rep. Karen Castor-Dentel voted wrong on HB 89 but she is also in a tough reelection fight. More importantly, she voted correctly on a leadership amendment (which we will discuss shortly) and on HB 7029 which was another bad gun bill related to schools. Rep. Larry Lee represents an area (St Lucie County) that has never supported gun control legislation, yet like Castor-Dentel he voted correctly on two of three roll call votes on the floor. Lee’s area though is growing more liberal with time, but historically it is not an area where you cast a vote against a gun bill.
That leads us to the rest of caucus. Most importantly, Rep. Darryl Rouson, whose removal as Democratic Leader-designee last year seems to have created a lasting division in the caucus. On Thursday. Rouson confronted on the floor his own Leader, Rep. Perry Thurston. Thurston had offered a common-sense amendment to the expansion of Stand Your Ground (HB 89). Rouson in an open defiance which would not be tolerated by Democrats in Congress let’s say, attempted to humiliate the leader in front of TV cameras, reporters and ultimately the citizens of the state. When Thurston’s amendment came to a vote, a large segment of the bloc that had backed Rouson for Leader voted AGAINST their current leader and with the Republican leadership and Governor Scott. Again, such a show of defiance would be crushed were it to happen against Minority Leader Pelosi in the Congress on the floor.
On final passage of the bill even more Democrats crossed over, and then on passage of another piece of gun legislation the majority of the Democrats in the House voted the wrong way. From liberal Broward County, Rep. Rick Stark was the only white Democrat to NOT cross over and support the Republican/NRA position on HB 89. As a Broward resident, I thank Rep. Stark for his vote but am infuriated by the other white members of the caucus.
We at TFS would love to hear explanations from the Democratic House members from urban and suburban areas that voted the way they did. Is it simply because these legislators want to have bills passed by a GOP House and feel they should “trade” votes? Do they feel that past gun control measures have failed and thus they need to go in another direction? Is it due to internal Democratic Caucus politics, as I suspect it might be? Or do they simply not know what they are doing out there?
Rather than list who crossed over, a shorter and easier list is those Democrats who held the line and voted against the wishes of the extremist gun lobby on all three votes Thursday. The list is below and we would hope our readers would thank each of these Reps. for their courage if they get the opportunity. Below that, we are listing those who held the line on two of the three votes Thursday.
We do not seek to impugn the integrity of those Democrats not on the below list, or any of the six members I exempted above. But again, we would love to hear explanations for the vote from the members that crossed over in the comments or by reaching out personally.
Members who voted against the gun lobby on all three votes Thursday:
Rep. Lori Berman
Rep. Randolph Bracy
Rep. Janet Cruz
Rep. Joe Gibbons
Rep. Kionne McGhee
Democratic Leader-designee Rep. Mark Pafford
Rep. Ricardo Rangel
Rep. David Richardson
Rep. Hazelle Rogers
Rep. Cynthia Stafford
Democratic Leader Rep. Perry Thurston
Rep. Barbara Watson
Rep. Clovis Watson
Members who voted against the gun lobby on two of three votes Thursday:
Rep. Karen Castor-Dentel
Rep. Gwen Clarke-Reed
Rep. Reggie Fullwood
Rep. Larry Lee
Rep. Bobby Powell
Rep. Kevin Rader
Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez
Rep. Joe Saunders
Rep. Rick Stark
Rep. Dwayne Taylor
Rep. Victor Torres
With Rep. Elaine Schwartz and Rep. Michelle Rewinkel-Vasilinda missing the votes Thursday, that means only 23 of 43 present House Democrats opposed the NRA and the GOP leadership on the majority of floor votes. Again, we would love to hear explanations from the rest of the caucus.