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Darryl Rouson victor in tight Florida House Dems leadership battle

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida House Democrats selected Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg lawyer, as their next leader with a 23-21 victory over Mia Jones of Jacksonville.

The 44-member caucus handed the 2014-2016 leadership post to Rouson after a first vote ended in a 22-22 tie.

“The best interest of this caucus is at stake. And the honor and integrity of this caucus today was at stake. The world was watching,” a tearful Rouson told the caucus.

Perhaps anticipating a tie-breaker, current House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, warned the caucus to stick with the promise of a cake and ice cream celebration.

Rouson served on former Gov. Charlie Crist’s transition team (back when Crist was a Republican) and comes from Crist’s hometown of St. Petersburg.

“I care about what we get when we go home and how we can brag to our constituents…we affected policy and we brought something home,” Rouson, who said he fasted prior to tonight’s vote, told the caucus after his win was announced.

House Democrats picked up six seats in November, and Rouson’s supporters lauded his efforts to help incumbents and freshmen on the campaign trail.

West Palm Beach Democrat Mark Pafford nominated Jones, calling her a champion of the middle class and progressives and “a leader whose time has come.”

Sen. Dwight Bullard, a former state representative from Miami who was elected to the Senate in November, cautioned the caucus about moving forward as the minority party in the GOP-dominated legislature.

“Don’t get into the back-biting. Don’t get into the deal cutting. Don’t get into the knee-capping…Do not sell your votes short,” Bullard advised.

Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arcenaux, filling in while the second vote was being counted, congratulated the caucus for shrinking the GOP advantage in November.

“It’s now time for all of us to stop thinking in the mindset of the minority and start getting into the mindset of the majority,” Arcenaux said. “What we learned this cycle – hard work. None of our people got outworked. We got outspent…but we never got outworked.”

But nominating Rouson, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee said that Rouson would help boost the caucus’s numbers in the upcoming elections.

“It is integrity. It’s how you handle pressure,” that will ensure the Democrats keep gaining, she said.

House Dems select new leaders, too

Monday, November 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Rep. Perry Thurston officially took over as House Democratic Leader for the next two years in a ceremony in the Old Capitol, finalizing the minority caucus’s leadership switch before tomorrow’s organizational session.

Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, welcomed 24 new state representatives to the 44-member caucus, a five-seat gain in part due to newly-drawn legislative districts.

“I like to refer to us as…the heart and soul of the legislature,” Thurston said.

Echoing President Obama’s emphasis on the middle-class, Thurston said the outnumbered Democrats will continue as “the voice of opposition” but with new-found strength since breaking the GOP supermajority stronghold in the House as well as the Senate. If Democrats hold together, they would be able to block procedures or legislation that require a two-thirds vote, including proposed constitutional amendments.

Thurston said Democrats should take a lesson from the GOP to make their numbers even stronger.

“The way the other side did it, they did it by sticking together,” he said. “We’re going to be here and we’re going to be ready to fight.”

Speaking of the November election, Thurston said that Democrats predicted that a sweeping election law (HB 1355) passed last year would create problems.

“We understood it was going to be disastrous,” Thurston said. “That disastrous vote, with people standing in line eight, nine, ten hours, we argued against that. And we’re going to continue to advocate against issues that are going to affect our state.”

Thurston and his counterpart Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith are both black lawyers from Fort Lauderdale. Smith also served as the head of the House Democrats in 2005 and 2006.

Smith said the site of the ceremony, typically a brief event held on the House and Senate floors, was significant.

“We both decided to have our events here in the Old Capitol, a place that wouldn’t welcome us a few years ago. But now we’re both taking our leadership positions tonight in this building,” Smith said.

The House Dems also selected Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, as the leader pro tempore, and named other representatives to leadership positions, including Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who is the caucus’s policy lead.

UPDATE: Lawmaker asks Scott to speed up ‘stand your ground’ task force, convene special session

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: A spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott said “it makes no sense whatsoever” to convene a special session or expedite the task force until the investigations into Trayvon Martin’s shooting death are concluded.

“The Governor has already convened a task force that will review all the facts of the case and make recommendations to him. It makes no sense whatsoever to call a special session before the FBI, FDLE and special prosecutor have completed their investigations, or before the task force has reviewed the facts, or before recommendations based on those facts have been presented to the governor,” Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said in an e-mail.

Waiting up to a year to start investigating the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law is too long, state Sen. Chris Smith said today.

Smith, a black lawyer from Fort Lauderdale and the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, is asking Gov. Rick Scott to speed up the task force the governor ordered to look into Florida’s first-in-the-nation “Stand Your Ground law” that allows individuals to use deadly force when they feel threatened.

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who said he shot Trayvon in self-defense, has provoked lawmakers like Smith to demand an investigation into the use of the law.

Scott conceded to demands from black lawyers and civil rights activists’ demands for an outside prosecutor to take over the investigation into the Feb. 26 shooting. And Scott said he wants a special task force to look into the use of the law, passed in 2005.

But Scott’s given State Attorney Angela Corey of Jacksonville, the special prosecutor in the case, up to a year to complete her investigation. And the task force won’t meet until her inquiry officially ends.

That’s too long, Smith said in a statement released Tuesday. Smith wants the task force to start meeting next week and a special legislative session to start a month later.

“The questionable incidents and lives lost under Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law did not begin, nor do I expect it to end, with the tragedy in Sanford,” Smith wrote in a letter hand-delivered to Scott’s office today. “While the special prosecutor sets about unraveling the facts in the case, and whether self defense was a legitimate factor, the law remains intact – with all the same components still in place for more killings and additional claims of self defense, warranted or not.”

Smith, then a Florida House member, argued against the “Castle Doctrine” proposal in 2005 before lawmakers passed it and Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law with NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer by his side. He and other critics say the law gives vigilantes and others cover when they incite deadly confrontations. Smith said he intends to file legislation to tweak the law. But supporters say the law does not give permission to anyone to pursue and confront anyone but rather to stand their ground when they are threatened.

It’s highly unlikely the GOP-dominated legislature would revisit the law prior to the November elections, according to observers including Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R- St. Augustine, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman. The NRA pushed the law and is a powerful lobby in a crucial election year.

But Rep. Perry Thurston, a black lawyer from Plantation, said that is all the more reason why the issue needs to be addressed now.

“There can’t be a better time than now for them to take it on,” Thurston, incoming House Democratic Leader, said. “The right thing to do is address it sooner rather than delay it.”

Capitol student-led Trayvon Martin protest: ‘Please don’t shoot me.’

Monday, March 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

FSU student Michael Sampson

About 100 students, many of them wearing hoodies in the 85-degree heat, marched to the Capitol from nearby Florida State University and Florida A & M University, joining protestors in Sanford and throughout the country to mark the one-month anniversary of the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Chanting and holding signs including one that read “Please don’t shoot me. I only have Skittles and a drink,” the students’ enthusiasm grew as cars in the rush-hour traffic honked their approval.

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he shot the youth in self defense, in a gated community last month. Zimmerman has not been charged with a crime.

The shooting has sparked a national furor with celebrities and sports stars joining in the demands for an arrest, and President Barack Obama saying that “If I had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.” Martin’s parents joined in a rally in Sanford at 4 p.m. this afternoon.

FSU political science major Michael Sampson, 22, organized the Tallahassee event. Sampson called the failure of authorities to charge George Zimmerman with a crime “the last straw” for blacks and others.

“This case of Trayvon Martin, it’s the last straw for people of color,” Sampson, who is from Jacksonville, said. “We will not stop. We must keep going because we do not want to let another Trayvon Martin happen. Anyone one of us could be Trayvon Martin. I’m Trayvon Martin. I’m a young black male.”

Despite Gov. Rick Scott’s appointment of an independent prosecutor and his creation of a task force to look into the use of the state’s first-in-the-nation “Stand Your Ground” law, blacks and civil rights activists need to keep up the pressure, state Rep. Mia Jones, chairwoman of the legislative black caucus said.

The protests “keep the heat on and let everyone know that we’re paying attention,” Jones, D-Jacksonville, said.

Rep. Perry Thurston, one of the black lawyers who asked GOP leaders to look into the law and says it needs to be revised, said the Trayvon Martin shooting represents discrimination and racism that is pervasive throughout the nation.

“Trayvon Martin is the face of potential injustice all across the state,” Thurston, D-Plantation, said.

House passes random drug tests for state workers

Friday, March 2nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

State workers would have to agree to and submit to random, suspicionless drug tests under a measure approved along party lines by the GOP-dominated Florida House.

The bill, a priority of Gov. Rick Scott’s, would allow state agencies to order the tests of up to 10 percent of workers four times a year. Agency heads would have to use the money already in their budgets to cover the costs of the tests for the state’s 114,000 workforce.

Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, tried to amend the bill to require that the governor, members of the Florida Cabinet and the 160 members of the state House and Senate also be required to submit to the urine tests. The bill’s sponsor Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, dismissed the amendment, set aside over Pafford’s objection, as “political theater.”

But, calling the House an “elitist body,” Pafford chided his colleagues, saying “Shame on you,” for being unwilling to go on the board with a vote on his amendment.

Drug testing government workers is a violation of the constitution’s guarantee of unreasonable search and seizure by the government, Democratic lawmakers argued.

Last week, a federal judge heard oral arguments in a lawsuit over a challenge to a drug-testing policy imposed on state workers by Scott last year. After the ACLU and the state workers union sued the state, Scott in June quietly reversed his order for all but corrections officers pending the outcome of the case.

Scott last year also pushed the legislature to pass a law requiring that food stamp and emergency cash assistance applicants pass drug tests before receiving benefits. In October, a federal judge temporarily put that requirement on hold, ruling the drug screens were unconstitutional.

Rep. Perry Thurston, a lawyer, argued that Smith’s measure goes after the wrong population.

“You pick on people who you can bully around. Tell the lawyers of the Florida Bar as a condition of practicing law you’ve got to submit to suspicionless drug testing. That’s where you change society,” Thurston, D-Plantation, said.

Other Democrats called the proposal (HB 1205) a solution in search of a problem. Only two of 500 Department of Transportion – .004 percent – tested positive for drugs in recent screenings, Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said.

But a fired-up Smith insisted his proposal (HB 1205) is necessary to combat drug abuse and said it would make Florida a model for the nation.

“People are dying. And then you make an assumption because these are state workers this doesn’t affect their lives,” Smith said. “The state of Florida by taking this vote becomes a laboratory that…eventually leads the way of the entire nation. You will be having the courage, making the difference, for this entire country.”

Smith made his final pitch before the 79-37 vote: “The word is on the street. People are starting to realize it. Drugs are bad.”

A Senate companion bill is scheduled for a vote in the budget committee this afternoon.

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