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Pinellas Legislative Delegation Democrats lament ‘distressing’ session

“Why do Republicans hate democracy so much?”

The all-Democrat panel at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon Thursday lamented all the things you would expect about this year’s Legislative Session.

Republicans in Tallahassee subverted the will of voters and made the controversial decision to potentially arm teachers in a session one Democrat described as “distressing.”

Asking about the GOP-controlled Legislature’s implementation bill for Amendment 4, moderator and Florida Politics Publisher Peter Schorsch posed the question like this.

“Why do Republicans hate democracy so much?”

The panel, which included State Reps. Ben Diamond, Jennifer Webb and Wengay Newton and Sen. Darryl Rouson, didn’t respond with quite the same fervor, but shared frustration about the decision to tie voting rights restoration for ex-felons to financial obligations.

Some of us would call it voter suppression rather than hating democracy,” Rouson said. “We don’t believe anyone wanted finances to be a barrier to vote.”

Voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 last November to restore rights to non-violent ex-felons who had served their time and paid their debt to society. But in its implementation efforts, conservative lawmakers tied court fines and restitution into that process, meaning if a would-be voter couldn’t afford to settle up, they can’t get their voting rights back.

Newton compared their efforts to the Legislature’s implementation of Amendment 2, which legalized marijuana for medical use. In that case, lawmakers included a ban on smokable marijuana in its implementation efforts.

Webb suggested such implementation efforts were a power grab.

“[These voter-approved amendments] move power out of Tallahassee and into the hands of the general public,” Webb said. “a party that has been in control for a very long time will not be in favor of that.”

The group also unanimously opposed the teacher guardian reforms this year that allow individual school districts to let teachers who undergo 144 hours of training to carry a gun on campus.

Republicans argued the move was a necessary safety protocol to keep kids safe by providing a primary line of defense. But Democrats vehemently opposed the measure. Newton, a black lawmaker, worries African-American teenagers could be at risk in a school with armed teachers. He shared a story about a time he was heading home wearing casual clothing.

“I entered an elevator with a middle aged white woman,” Newton said. “She backed up clutching her purse. She could have shot me dead under Stand your Ground.”

His point: teachers who feel threatened could have the tools to shoot anyone who might make them feel threatened. To counter that scenario, Democrats offered an amendment to include implicit bias training for teachers in the armed teachers bill. That didn’t happen.

Democrats have been in the minority in Tallahassee for years. Their role becomes less about driving policy and more about ensuring the Republican majority priorities are tampered.

“The idea that we’re just supposed to lie down and not offer good ideas, that’s just not what we’re elected to do,” Diamond said. “Even if we can’t support the bill, we can at least agree on some sensible ideas to make the bill better.”

Though the four Democratic lawmakers largely agreed on big ticket items, they varied on some overall takeaways from the 2019 Legislative Session.

Asked to grade the Legislature this year on the environment, both Newton and Rouson gave lawmakers an a. Webb gave a C – and Diamond gave the Legislature a D +.

Newton and Rouson praised the legislature for allocating more funds than ever for water restoration, exceeding even the $625 million Gov. Ron DeSantis had requested.

Diamond and Webb agreed funding for water restoration was a win, but they disapproved of the Legislature’s performance on overall policymaking.

“When you actually look at the policy bills, whether it was banning fracking, dealing with our septic tanks, starting to plan for climate change, starting to move Florida to a renewable energy economy, none of those bills saw the light of day. I don’t understand why not,” Diamond said.

Diamond also passed on the opportunity to set the record straight on his future plans for elected office. Diamond is slated to be the Minority Leader in 2022. If Democrats managed to wrangle back a majority in the House by then, he’d be in line to be House Speaker.

But Diamond wouldn’t directly say whether or not that put to bed rumors that he was considering a possible run for the Senate for Mayor of St. Petersburg.

“I’m exclusively focused on building out our caucus,” Diamond said. “Even though these statewide elections for Governor have not gone the Democratic way by a hair, there has been significant progress in the Legislature where we’re actually able to talk to each other.”  

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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