With less than three days left in this year’s Legislative Session, Senate Democrats ousted Sen. Gary Farmer as the leader of the minority party. Sen. Lauren Book, who was set to succeed Farmer in 2022, will take over for the remainder of this year’s Session.
The Democrats removed the Broward County Senator in a vote of no confidence during a Zoom meeting ahead of the scheduled floor session Wednesday. The move prompted a whirlwind of late-Session drama, putting Farmer on the defensive and raising questions about who is now really in charge.
But Farmer, after claiming the vote was out of order because it wasn’t noticed properly, resigned.
“I hereby resign as Democratic Leader in the Florida State Senate, and pursuant to Senate and Caucus rules Leader Pro Tempore Senator Bobby Powell shall assume the role and responsibilities of the Senate Democratic Leader effective immediately,” he said.
Despite the Democratic Caucus acknowledging Book as their current leader, Farmer indicated Leader Pro Tempore Sen. Bobby Powell would take over his post.
All of that drama was put to rest late Wednesday after another, this time official, vote of the Caucus was held once legislative business had concluded for the day.
In the end, Book was elected unanimously by her colleagues.
“There is much work to be done and it’s time to have a united Caucus that is ready for the important work of Redistricting and the next legislative session,” said Book. “I am grateful to Senator Farmer for his service to Senate Democrats, and I know we will continue to work together for the good of our Members and the best interests of Floridians. We are united on our values and shared respect for the issues and causes that will make Florida a better State.”
The internal strife arose from brewing animosity over Farmer’s failure to unite his minority caucus around several bills this year. Within the party, Book was seen as a remedy — someone who proved her ability to navigate partisan complexities to get stuff done. With a 16-24 deficit in the upper chamber, unity is crucial to get legislation passed and, often, to block what the party sees as bad legislation.
The move, which some are describing as a coup, likely began with Sen. Shevrin Jones.
He began calling out Farmer, suggesting the former Leader had implied he would switch his vote on a bill allowing public record exemptions to college presidential applicants. The bill’s defeat was a rare victory for Democrats, however, Senate rules allow a member on the prevailing side of a floor vote to motion to reconsider a bill. If Democrats couldn’t muster 14 votes to again defeat the bill, it would have passed and undone the victory.
According to sources close to the caucus, Farmer contacted a reporter Wednesday, alleging Jones, Book and others may change their vote. The call came after Farmer witnessed Jones stepping out of a meeting with Book, which raised Farmer’s suspicion.
Jones said to Farmer during the meeting that “not being truthful is something that pisses me off” and said Farmer’s actions put his “character put on the line.”
Farmer responded that Jones had told him he was “a no on that bill and I absolutely took you at your word.”
As the meeting grew more tense, audio cut out and staff members left the room. However, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter was in the room and witnessed other members of the Democratic Caucus lay into Farmer.
Boca Raton Sen. Tina Polsky said of Farmer’s leadership, “I think sometimes we (senators) don’t feel protected.” And Sen. Janet Cruz said Farmer’s actions marked the second time she knew of that Jones had been “humiliated.”
“This is not the way adult senators of the Florida Senate behave,” she reportedly said. “I’m tired of people feeling dismissed (and) humiliated. We have to work on this, guys.”
Farmer’s actions angered Democrats. The no-confidence vote, sources added, was called abruptly during the meeting and swiftly encouraged by Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart.
“It’s not anything personal against Sen. Farmer — he’s a friend,” Jones told Florida Politics. “People did not feel included within the process, and so because of that, it creates division within that … As a freshman, the one thing that I’m looking for is someone who is going to guide us in this process and sometimes, it just didn’t seem that way.”
Book, who was selected in a unanimous vote at the meeting, will likely take over the caucus to serve as the Senate Democratic Leader.
“There is much work to be done and it’s time to have to a united caucus that is ready for the important work of redistricting and the next Legislative Session,” Book said. “I am grateful to Senator Farmer for his service to Senate Democrats, and I know we will continue to work together for the good of our members and the best interests of Floridians. We are united on our values and shared respect for the issues and causes that will make Florida a better State.”
Earlier this month, Book was elected to lead Florida Senate Democrats through 2024, after previously elected Leader-Designate, Sen. Perry Thurston announced his decision to resign from the Florida Senate to run for the late Congressman Alcee Hastings’ open seat in the U.S. House.
Book, who represents Broward County, has also been considering a bid for the statewide office of Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, a position currently held by Republican Jimmy Patronis.
Book’s designation as Leader will mark the first time the Florida Senate will be led by two women.
According to a release from Senate Democrats, “Book is expected to bring strong, results-oriented leadership.”
“Trust is everything in a caucus and while change in the middle of a leadership term is never ideal, to be effective Senate Democrats, we need to be united with trust,” said Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz. “Our work to be the effective Minority Party now continues and we can put this morning behind us, and stand united as one.”
Sens. Lori Berman and Jason Pizzo declined to comment on the latest intra-party turmoil. Jones had no such reservations.
“I think when you look at leadership, it requires you to bring everybody along with you, and so when people feel as if they’re disjointed, in the process, it can cause division, and so we have to make tough decisions, in order to get us back on track and to do what we need to do for the people of Florida and for our district,” Jones said.
Hours after the vote, Farmer pushed back against the grievances expressed by his Democratic colleagues.
In a statement, he denied the “representations” and pointed to what he described as a “significant misunderstanding at multiple levels”
“Regardless, my members made clear that they desired a change,” Farmer said. “While I do not believe that the calls for my removal as leader were justified, it has become clear that my zealous advocacy of core Democratic principles and driving of my members to act and vote in accordance with those principles has become problematic to several of my members.”
Further, the former Leader asserted the caucus took “great strides” under his leadership.
“We organized through a pandemic, and stood firm against a barrage of bad bills,” Farmer added. “We stood up for the millions of Floridians suddenly unemployed, fought hard against voter suppression and anti-speech laws, defeated an attempt to dismantle unions in Florida, and we ensured transparency and fairness in our search process for college and university presidents.”
Haley Brown and Jason Delgado contributed to this report.