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In Tallahassee, our elected leaders wielded their strength without restraint or courtesy

Lessons from the aftermath
By John Louis Meeks, Jr.

“When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible,” said Mahatma Gandhi, a man who lived and died fighting for the rights of his people through the least violent means.

In Tallahassee, however, our elected leaders wielded their strength without restraint or courtesy.  They chose purely political agenda that was designed to exact revenge on their enemies.  They disguised their attacks on teachers unions in the guise of education reform, they claimed they were protecting free speech as they tried to limit public workers from being able to deduct their union dues from their paycheck, cut back on early voting days in a cynical move to protect the integrity of the polls, and they took dead aim at a co-equal branch of government by seeking to change how Supreme Court justices are chosen.

This arrogance was fostered in a state where, although registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by over 400,000 eligible voters, the Republicans held a super majority in both houses of the state legislature and occupy the entire state cabinet.  Through the added power of coffers overflowing with money from business and industry, the majority party did not need to listen to others because our leaders designed the system to keep them gainfully employed.  Their dominance of state politics by one political party turned the machinery of governance into a steamroller which flattened all opposition.

The Republican Party may not have met their Waterloo as they maintained comfortable majorities in the state legislature.  They did, however, lose seats in the process and saw incumbent members of Congress from Florida lose their seats.  They also failed in their efforts to unseat three state Supreme Court justices.  The most painful consequence of their overreach by Republicans was the fact that a president whose unpopularity helped put the governor in office was the same president won Florida’s electoral votes in a repeat victory.  Not even Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Connie Mack or Allen West could help put the pieces together again.

The overconfidence began early in Governor Rick Scott’s term.  Despite winning office by a razor-thin margin, he and party leaders went above and beyond in crushing their opposition.  They began with education ‘reform’ that created an onerous evaluation system that is still being sorted out in school districts statewide.  They confiscated three percent of public worker pay on which they balanced the state budget.  They sought to privatize state prisons in a way that is reminiscent of former governor Claude Kirk and Wackenhut.  They had all the levers of power in their hands and they used these levers as clubs with which to beat their foes. 

The headless Florida Democratic Party gave the false impression that the lack of a public face to the opposition party meant that Floridians would willingly go along with whatever came out of Tallahassee.

This was made shamefully clear when the state’s elected leaders erected roadblocks to early voting.  In spite of a chorus of protests from supervisors of elections around the state, the lawmakers insisted on passing new laws reduce the number of voting days and cracked down on voter registration groups.  Even public high school civics teachers were not safe from the legislature and their infinite wisdom.

When the time to choose finally arrived for Florida’s voters, they responded by bucking the trend that tipped the scales of power in favor of the state’s leaders and their moneyed supporters.  The state reached a tipping point in which the polling stations were overwhelmed by people who waited hours to make their voices heard.  They responded by reelecting President Obama.  They responded by chipping away at the Republican majority in Tallahassee.  They responded by keeping all three state Supreme Court justices in office.  They responded by voting down all but three proposed constitutional amendments.

If the political establishment thought that they could avoid such disaster by playing the system to demoralize and discourage the opposition, they were really playing themselves.  Did they really think that their bullying would go unanswered forever?  

Having dominated state election cycles, the state’s leaders have numbed themselves to any prospect of push back from anyone.  They assumed that they could deliver 29 electoral votes to the GOP nominee and could cakewalk to victory all the way down the ballot – including the eviction of three Supreme Court justices from office.  Worst of all, they were taking Florida voters for granted, or even stupid.

If there is to be a takeaway lesson from this past election, it would be to heed the lesson that is told in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’  Decades ago, Florida Republicans were on the outside looking in and were seeking ways to make inroads in governance.  They succeeded; perhaps they were victims of their own success.  Orwell’s pigs led the overthrow of Farmer Jones but soon adopted the vices of their vanquished nemesis.

The new majority in the state legislature was not content with having the reins of power.  Without mercy, they found new ways to assail collective bargaining, public workers, teachers unions, trial attorneys and anyone else who stood in their way.  This common thread between our friends in Tallahassee and the fictional beasts of Manor Farm was that the mere expansion of powers enabled them to effectively cripple dissent.  The trouble is that intimidation was not at the heart of why we created our republic.

Since 2010, many Floridians indeed did begin to give up on having any kind of voice in their state’s affairs.  The record low approval ratings for the governor did little to deter the state’s leaders from behaving as if they were entitled to lead and give orders.  While parent and teacher groups were largely ignored in drafting policy, corporations and lobbyists (Including ALEC) had carte blanche with their friends in office.

Paradoxically, the same groups who demanded that the threshold for new constitutional amendments be raised to a super majority of 60 percent or more are the folks we should be thanking for the failure of the constitutional amendment proposals that looked more like a laundry list of Tea Party gripes that were almost enshrined into law.  Talk about a silver lining to their shenanigans. 

The next question is whether our state’s elected officials plan to become more circumspect about their power-hungry ways or will they continue to plow through the opposition and toward what promised to be a very contentious election year.  In an increasingly purple or blue state, true leadership will involve learning from this year’s mistakes to avoid another embarrassing election result.

The final question is what the electorate can learn from this election cycle.  Charles de Secondat said, “Power ought to serve as a check to power.”  If our state preaches open rebellion against federal abuses of power (e.g. ObamaCare), it is high time that Floridians continue to protest and fight the overreach coming from the state capital.  

John Louis Meeks, Jr. studied political science at the University of North Florida, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications in 1998.  He resides in Jacksonville and teaches social studies in Atlantic Beach.

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