U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and her nearly 24 years in Congress – gone.
U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson and his nearly six years in Congress – gone.
U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster and his nearly six years in Congress – gone, moved to an outside district.
U.S. Rep. John Mica and his nearly 24 years in Congress – more at risk than he’s faced in more than a decade.
This year, Orlando is losing most and potentially all its seniority, experience, leadership and clout in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Whoever gets elected, the voters’ choices for change may wind up being for the better. And in the long run, who knows, at this point, how effective the new class might become?
But at first it could be like replacing an entire college basketball team starting lineup with freshmen for the coming year. And it’s not about wins or losses. At least in the short term, it’s about attracting Washington’s attention to Central Florida’s needs and priorities, and about finding and bringing federal money for such discretionary goodies as transportation improvements, veterans’ facilities, military simulation center support, social services’ grants, and college and university research funding.
Might Central Florida’s next congressional starting line-up be able to compete?
“It certainly might have a big effect when you lose so many people who are established in Washington and have been serving this area for at least some time,” said University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett. “How much it hurts will be determined by which party is in control of Congress. That’s going to play a big role.”
Technically, Orlando still has U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, the Rockledge Republican, assuming he wins re-election in Florida’s 8th Congressional District. But he’s always been first and foremost about the Space Coast, not the inland counties, though his district includes a sparsely-populated corner of Orange County.
Technically, Orlando may be picking up U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Flagler County Republican, whose newly-redrawn Florida’s 6th Congressional District, assuming he wins re-election, stretches into the northernmost Orlando suburbs in Volusia County. But his attention more likely would be focused east and north, from Daytona through St. Augustine, where his base always has been.
Technically, Orlando may be able to count on Webster, the Clermont Republican, assuming he wins re-election, because he’ll still be representing Orlando’s western-most suburbs in Lake County, if he’s elected in Florida’s 11th Congressional District. But he no longer has any responsibility toward Orlando voters. And any congressional clout Webster had was largely stripped away in 2015 anyway, after he first challenged John Boehner and then Paul Ryan for the house speakership. Insurgents who lose are not rewarded with shared power.
That leaves Mica, the Winter Park Republican who is the only Orlando-oriented member of Congress with a chance to still be in office next year. Suddenly he is getting a stiff challenge from Stephanie Murphy in a race the national Democrats are trying very hard to win, for Florida’s 7th Congressional District seat representing north Orange County and Seminole County. A poll commissioned by Democrats last week showed her in the margin of error against him.
Mica, first elected in 1992, is almost a poster child for how a member of Congress grows in power with seniority, key committee assignments, and longterm relationships, and using them to bring federal support for his district. SunRail, the Interstate 4 expansion, Orlando International Airport expansions, the Orlando Veterans Administration Medical Center, Orlando’s National Center for Simulation, and other Orlando projects have gotten federal approval and money, due in part to his his connections, and in part to his work with Brown, Grayson, and Webster, who had their own clout.
Mica makes congressional seniority and the power that comes with it a key part of his campaign message.
“I do have a senior position in Congress and because there are 435 members it takes many years to gain positions of importance,” he said.
Mica offers another advantage, as big brother to the new members of Congress. Orlando will have two freshmen for sure, either Democratic state Sen. Darren Soto or Republican businessman Wayne Liebnitzky in Grayson’s old Florida’s 9th Congressional District; and either Democratic former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings or retired businesswoman Thuy Lowe in Webster’s old Florida’s 10th Congressional District. Brown’s entire district is gone. First her district was pulled from Orlando in last year’s redistricting, then she lost her primary.
Statewide, there will be at least seven freshmen, out of 27 Florida members of Congress.
“If I’m re-elected one of the things I’m going to work with both Republicans and Democrats in my position – I’m fairly well respected – to help them get on committees that they want. Eventually they will benefit our community and our state, and of course our country too,” Mica said. “That’s one of my goals: to help place and mentor the new kids on the block.”
But there’s that word “if,” which seemed unnecessary and modest until recently, though Mica always says he never takes re-election for granted.
Mica also has political policy positions and records, particularly conservative views on social issues, which Murphy and the Democrats are portraying as out of step with the changing, younger, more diverse, more Democratic new CD 7, which covers much of north Orange County and all of Seminole County.
Murphy is asking voters to trade Mica’s seniority and experience for fresh ideas and more liberal policies. National Democrats are investing millions of dollars to help her knock off Mica. A recent poll – commissioned by Democrats – showed the race within the margin of error.
She also says that Congress simply doesn’t work anymore, adding that Mica votes with the Republican line 97 percent of the time. So his seniority is partisan, she said.
“I think seniority is important if you are willing to work across the aisle in a bipartisan manner and actually lead on issues,” she said.
She dismissed any notion that the next class of Orlando members of Congress would lack experience.
“I have deep experience in business, in national security and academia and I would be able to draw on those real-world experiences to bring fresh perspectives to Congress, and a willingness to work across the aisle to get things done,” Murphy said. “I’m excited about the prospect of having a trio of members of Congress representing the Orlando area who will be a powerhouse representing the area with fresh new ideas that actually represent the people as opposed to being very partisan.”
Meanwhile, Orlando leaders are bracing for changes that are likely to require them to start over in building relationships with member of Congress, whether Mica or Murphy wins. The lobbyists and institutional leaders across the region insist they play no political or partisan favorites – they just want someone they can talk to who can get things done.
“We’ve been very fortunate in terms of the team we have there, not just who’s there, but the length of them they’ve had there, and their abilities to be effective. I’m very mindful about the changes that might take place. I’ve had discussions with board members about what that might mean,” said Harry Barley, executive director of MetroPlan Orlando, Central Florida’s transportation planning agency.
He noted both Brown and Mica have had senior positions on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, saying, “They’ve worked well together over the years. I’m not sure they’ve agreed on anything other than transportation. But that’s been a very great team. They’ve both been very, very helpful to us.”
Michael Waldrop, chair of Orlando’s Veterans Advisory Council, said the issue is making sure the new members of Congress are willing to work together to forward veterans’ and defense concerns, which he said must be non-partisan matters.
“You would hope a newer delegation that represents us in Central Florida realizes this and if they can work together on any one or two topics then it is the defense of our nation nd supporting our veteran community,” he said.
UCF Senior Vice President Dan Holsenbeck, who has overseen the university’s lobbying for decades, said there is reason to be concerned, but ultimately reasons to be hopeful.
“Seniority is the way you get a principal voice in budgeting, the way you get access to make meaningfully comments on policy,” Holsenbeck said. “So if you lose your seniority in the eleciton, then it does have a significant impact on policy and budgeting, on persuasion opportunities.”
But, he added, new relationships eventually lead to new opportunities.
“We’ve done very well over the years, our president and others, to build new relationships,” he said. “That would be our challenge, to build new relationships of trust and support for UCF.”