It’s where ideas go to die, presumably, or worse, where people of certain character quality – one that is one part comb-over and two parts moral extroversion, with a dash of acronymic uniformity – spin from futility to apathy and back again until their legislative wheels come off. Either way, Tallahassee is a joke. And this year even that joke isn’t funny anymore.
The “salad days” are over, lawmakers say over and over again with all the sincerity of an old drunk in a rocking chair, and if salad is loosely meant to equate lettuce with greenbacks, then apparently they’re right. One-point-five billion dollars from this year’s budget has been tossed out with the silverware, along with an additional $3 billion from next year’s $70 billion budget.
“Revenue limits are effective because they force government leaders to prioritize spending and make choices, the way normal families live every day,” wrote House Speaker Mark Rubio, R-Miami, in a cautionary Feb. 26 letter to his fellow legislators.
Just like a normal family, then, only one with a hostile majority of potbellied Republicans who would rather lock their pregnant daughters in the closet than utter the words “reproductive freedom.” A normal family that takes guns to work, buries its gay brother alive and eats radioactive uranium for dessert. Mmm, Florida.
So how does it all work? It doesn’t, actually. To demonstrate, I spent one shortened week (hello, Good Friday!) lubricating the gears of the state’s governmental dune buggy, hoping to experience firsthand the herks, jerks and stalls of a system going nowhere. It was “Progressive Week,” after all – four days marked with liberal lobbying from all corners – and state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, offered to play tour guide. One bottle of vodka, one phallic Capitol and countless hand-shaking, back-patting excursions later, the truth was self-evident.
“We’re not in a revenue crisis,” says Randolph. “We’re in a character crisis.”
Don’t even get me started.
Monday, March 17
6:45 p.m.: “If you were going to have a chicken sandwich, which chicken sandwich would you have?” asks Robert Hudson, Randolph’s legislative aide, while we wait in line at Crispers.
Between bites of black-bean soup, Randolph details some of his priorities for the 2008 session. He’s authored an energy bill, House Bill 1383, to address the rate impact structure of the state’s utilities and suggest tighter appliance standards so that Florida doesn’t become a dumping ground for bad electronics. There’s also HB 359, which would help codify special education programs that Randolph says suffered under a Department of Education “run rampant” under former Gov. Jeb Bush. And the real prize, HB 979, seeks to regulate predatory lending and alleviate future problems with subprime loans.
Foreclosures aside, we’re running late.
7:15 p.m.: Tonight is the 53rd Sometimes Annual Capital Press Corps Skits – known colloquially as “presskits” – wherein members of the Tallahassee press corps convene on a stage in front of lawmakers and lobbyists to amuse (or rather, roast) the elected officials they cover. They’re about five grades of actual talent shy of the Capitol Steps, but based on the show’s irreverence and draw, this is a very important night indeed.
Let the drinking begin.
Outside a Tallahassee bar called the Musical Moon, an impressive queue winds all the way into the parking lot. There are lawmakers, there are toupees, pretty assistants, some shuffling feet and a swelling din of wonk-speak about this bill and that amendment. Inside the din continues, elevated by the availability of liquor and the close proximity of political conflict. Just about everybody here is in on the joke or just happy to be part of it. They do not know nor care how it looks to the outside world.
This is very annoying.
It’s hard not to get sucked in, though, because it feels like it should be so important. These people aren’t talking about bathroom makeouts at last night’s kegger; they’re bloviating on the mortgage crisis and nuclear power (“Bend over,” jokes environmental activist Susan Glickman). Democrats are frustrated with Florida’s conservative lockstep, and that frustration tends to make them more animated, I guess.
The softball press is apparently frustrated too, lighting up the stage with a seemingly endless round of overwrought community theater. There’s a list of the top 10 reasons Gov. Charlie Crist doesn’t deserve to be vice president – “Deliver Florida? He couldn’t even save Bob Allen’s seat!” – a gambling romp called “Viva Tallahassee,” a painful nightly news re-creation, “Eyewitless News Late Edition,” and your requisite garden-variety potty references to Larry Craig and, again, Bob Allen.
The only bright spot is Bay News 9 reporter Troy Kinsey’s fake-baked sendup of Crist, a bit of smeared-on brownface he’s become known for among insiders. Between slouched-shouldered pistol-fingers and head-bobbing chin-ups, he spits out Crist-y comments about being “the people’s governor” and how Florida is the state with “the most beautiful name.”
But for the most part, the evening is a mess of acronyms. “Tallahassee SBA” takes on the state’s banking crisis to the tune of “Harper Valley PTA,” while the political term “TP” – meaning “temporarily postpone” – takes on a new meaning in a bathroom-stall setting. Geddit?
A closing salvo of television commercial spoofs finds chief financial officer Alex Sink paired up with several Republicans by “dHarmony” – a fictional Democratic version of eHarmony – and state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, dancing seductively (or nauseatingly) to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” in a Gone Wild product, all adding up to an uncomfortable sense that Tallahassee’s leadership is an exercise in tired stereotypes.
Worse still, what the hell is the press corps doing here rubbing naughties with their prey? The smugness of the entire proposition has pinched my face into unpleasant contortions.
“You didn’t think that was funny?” a girl at my table quizzes. “You don’t think anything’s funny.”
Tuesday, March 18
11:30 a.m.: Omigod! It’s Billy Manes Day in the Florida Legislature! On a tripod outside Suite 1401 on the Capitol’s 14th floor, a large foamcore poster of the Orlando skyline by night reads “Representative Randolph welcomes Billy Manes and the Orlando Weekly.” So. Fucking. Famous.
Inside, Hudson, Randolph and a kicked-over anthill of political types, including but not limited to scrappy queer lobby Equality Florida, are stirring around in directions that imply intent but probably won’t add up to much.
Across the hallway in Suite 1402, freshman state Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, holds a much calmer court. He’s chuffed that he’s getting three of his six bills through this session and really wants to tell me about them. HB 289 provides free admission to state parks for those serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, veterans, their spouses and their minor-aged children on state and federal holidays (yawn); HB 1127 addresses the collection of court costs (double yawn); and HB 1043 – his big one – seeks to tighten the laws on street racing. The current statute is unconstitutional, he says, and he wants its penalties strengthened to include a clause about the forfeiture of vehicles, and “modest fines” to be imposed on spectators, which he says is difficult because “they all scatter like Cannonball Run.”
Doesn’t sound very liberal, does it? I ask Soto if he finds working in an overwhelmingly Republican body frustrating.
“It isn’t,” he says, “because I have realistic expectations.”
11:50 a.m.: When all else fails, hold a press conference. That’s the mantra here in Tallahassee, where at the drop of a striped red tie the crowds will split to reveal a lectern, some bad lighting and a banner or two about how horrible everything is.
The anger is palpable in the Capitol’s fourth-floor rotunda, and with good reason. The Coalition for Fair and Comprehensive Tax Reform – comprised of labor unions, public education, social service and consumer advocates – is staging a presser to remind the legislature that while budget cuts are starving social programs, big corporations are sneaking through tax loopholes and costing the state billions of dollars. You know, the obvious.
Surrounding the coalition are placards juxtaposing pictures of crying babies and folks in wheelchairs with those of shiny new arenas; nearby a slogan reads “state of denial.” There is the expected rhetoric flying around – “Stop considering special interests as sacrosanct”; “Why take from the most needy?” – and there are numbers to back it up: $400 million in special interest sales tax exemptions, $21 million in professional sports subsidies and over $400 million in loopholes in the corporate income tax structure.
Doug Martin of the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees explains with evident exasperation that Florida ranks 50th in spending on state services nationally, yet first in high-school dropouts and incarcerations.
(He’s mostly right. Florida has the third-highest number of incarcerated individuals in the country, behind only California and Texas, although the state ranks 36th in incarcerations per capita, according to a 2006 census report. Whether or not Florida is dead last in social spending is difficult to codify, although Florida is typically at the lower end of such rankings.)
“These are self-inflicted wounds,” he says.
12 p.m.: Not to be outdone, out on the Capitol courtyard, the environment is staging its rhetorical budget fight. Today is Florida Forever Day – a celebration of the state’s conservation blueprint program – and in the middle of sundry informational booths, a speaker is lamenting the fiscal crisis that is “sucking the air” out of conservation programs.
To make the whole thing deserving of a photo opportunity, the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey has brought along a real live bald eagle. Also, there’s an adorable taxidermied bear on one of the tables, totally dead!
The wind is blowing everything over in a leaflet-scattering fit, so apparently Mother Nature is angry, too.
12:15 p.m.: “Hold your placards in the air until your arms hurt!” commands Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates executive director Adrienne Kimmell. She may come off a little bitchy, but I’d probably be bitchy too were I to host ovaries in my abdomen while residing in Florida.
Planned Parenthood is running a tight ship for its media onslaught. Filling the steps of the old capitol building – facing the busy intersection at Monroe Street and Apalachee Parkway – nearly 100 supporters are holding nearly 100 signs, pink-and-black ones boldly reading “Prevention First Equals Healthy Families,” and green-and-blue ones promoting “The Healthy Teens Campaign.”
“It would be nice if we had our sponsoring senators here,” Kimmell seethes in the organizational chaos.
They eventually show – state Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, and state Rep. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, for the Prevention First Act (Senate Bill 780, HB 385), and state Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Delray Beach, and State Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, D-Miami, for the Florida Healthy Teens Act (SB 848, HB 449) – and Kimmell pleads her case for sex education and birth control, even from backwoods pharmacists who take issue with it.
It should be noted that Bendross-Mindingall is wearing the most beguiling gold headdress ever seen and is obviously the star of the show.
“Last year there were protesters,” somebody nearby chirps.
Not this year.
12:30 p.m.: “The cruisiest bathrooms are on the sixth floor,” legislative aide Hudson offers with a wink.
He’s only joking, I’m sure, but Hudson’s guided tour of the Capitol chambers is full of mood-lightening irreverence. You get the sense that it has to be. Hudson, an affable if a bit presentational guy – he bought a whole suit to match his green paisley tie – could use a little unwinding.
There’s free Wi-Fi everywhere, he says as we walk along the legislative corridors, and – added bonus – there are people here who will fix the hem in your pants should it fall out (“Should what fall out?” I ask, initially mishearing him). There’s also a glamorous clinic that will more than happily dress any shaving wounds accidentally incurred. A bit posh, considering the budget issues presently burying the state, but who’s counting?
6 p.m.: Scott Randolph is not having a good day. This afternoon, state Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Jacksonville – chair of the House Committee on Financial Institutions – refused to hear his subprime loans bill.
In his office, Randolph grimly reads through a letter on the issue sent in by a constituent, while his wife Susannah – who is also the Florida political director for activist group ACORN – listens in on a conference call via her Blackberry.
“The game in Tallahassee is to push the ball down the field,” laments Randolph, saying that more often than not the Republicans take the bits they like out of Democratic legislation and insert it into their own bills, disposing of the rest. He suspects that will happen with his appliance standards bill, which the Department of Consumer Affairs says is too difficult to police at the moment. In fact, it looks like none of his bills will be moving this session.
“You’ve left me here with 45 days of nothing to do,” he adds with a slight look of mischief on his face.
7 p.m.: There’s no time to dwell on the potential mortgage fumble; Randolph’s been asked to speak to the 100 Planned Parenthood members in town to keep up the good fetus fight. The event is a catered dinner at the nearby Doubletree Hotel – where white-haired politics practically lubricates the lobby – but he can’t eat, because that would look bad, politically. He says there are always photographers trying to catch politicians dining for free, because that’s news.
There’s even bigger news than that, according to Stephanie Kunkel, legislative and policy advocate for Planned Parenthood Affiliates. Rep. Soto’s ballyhooed street-racing bill is all of a sudden a hot topic. In the fine print, the bill refers to a “quick child” – the new Republican-speak for “fetus” – in terms of vehicular homicide.
The anti-abortion contingent in Tallahassee has been attempting a number of sneak attacks on the law books lately. HB 513, authored by state Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Titusville, seeks to replace the term “viable fetus” – meaning a fetus that could survive outside the womb – with “unborn child,” which would translate as any human fetus at any stage, when included in cases of vehicular homicide. If a car accident kills a pregnant female passenger – whether or not she even knows she’s pregnant – the driver could be charged with two counts of vehicular homicide. (The bill passed the House April 2 on an 80-36 vote. There has been no movement on its Senate companion, however.)
Adding insult to injury, state Rep. Anthony Traviesa, R-Tampa, has introduced HB 257, which requires sonograms even in first-trimester abortions and nearly insists that the patient view the sonogram, should they not sign a waiver otherwise, among other restrictions.
The idea, of course, is to find a legislative back door to Roe v. Wade and declare the fetus a human being, no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court says.
No media is allowed in the initial “business” portion of the Planned Parenthood dinner, so I’m asked to wait outside. Randolph joins me.
“The job of the minority party is to raise issues and cause discomforts,” he explains outside the dining hall, a little defeated. “You may not be here should your issue finally move, but it shouldn’t be about you. You can have influence without passing bills.”
Back inside, he mirrors that sentiment to the budding lobbyists, who are mostly pretty girls and the gay boys who like to brush their hair.
“Don’t get disappointed. Don’t get down when you have a meeting with the Legislature and they don’t agree with you,” he says, adding that it’s important to put a “young face” to the issues. “Don’t get discouraged when you get there, because we’re chipping away.”
8:15 p.m.: Out at the North Florida Fairgrounds, the AFL-CIO is treating the in-town Legislature to a taste of Southern comfort, healthy drips of barbecue sauce included. The $35-a-head fund-raiser is a perennially well-attended affair, offering the politically active union a chance to rub shoulders with the state’s power brokers.
Inside the barn-like hall, echoes of country and blues pull several people into workmanlike dance maneuvers, while others – some with obvious injuries, one with what appears to be an acid burn on his face – choose to sit it out. This is a Mellencamp, working-class, “Lonely Ol’ Night” moment, and a pretty charming one at that. There is liquor everywhere, and with an open bar included in the entry fee, it’s a good place to catch up on the old drinking and flirt with men in jeans.
It’s also a chance to bend the ears of representatives. An ACORN member from Sanford, Josephine Miller, tells her story to anyone who will listen: She’s lived in the same house for 30 years, recently refinanced, and is now facing foreclosure. This, while union members and politicians alike lift legs and clap to the “Electric Slide.”
The Randolphs regularly disappear to discuss subprime strategy, leaving me to pick up some gossip from insiders: One representative keeps a bottle of Captain Morgan rum in her desk drawer, another may be dumb or inefficient or both – AND he gets carried out of bars!
That’s my kind of politics.
Wednesday, March 19
11 a.m.: Today’s the big session day, and the Capitol is teeming with political efficacy. In the Democratic caucus office, a bumper sticker on the refrigerator reads, “Family Values Is When Your Little Brother Helps You Steal the Election.” Ha!
Over in his own office, Florida House of Representatives staff director Barry Kling is taking in the latest “Hannah Montana Bill” discussion presently occupying his office television. It’s an attempt to regulate the ticket-broker problem that nearly ruined the Miley Cyrus tour for crying tweens everywhere, and the representatives involved are having a hard time keeping a straight face at this very important piece of legislation.
Of course the bill is voted down, ending the day’s only entertaining diversion.
Back in the caucus office, the room has finally filled and seems reasonably jovial. HJR 7003 is today’s only vote, and it should be an easy one. The joint resolution aims to pitch a constitutional amendment that offers property tax credits to active military members for the amount of time they are deployed. Everybody loves the troops.
“Screw the vets!” jokes one.
“It doesn’t go far enough!” jokes another.
But all realize – despite some concerns that local governments near military bases may be hurt by the resolution – that they can’t really afford to register any votes even tangentially against the military. That would be political suicide.
11:30 a.m.: Session time. Susannah Randolph has escorted me into the spouses’ lounge upstairs. The room has been decorated in a pink princess theme to celebrate the birthdays of two of the legislators’ children. There are mom-types milling around with promises of pizza and soda, and kids with sullen “I don’t want to be here” faces. There’s also a television broadcasting the session with the volume turned off.
Which is fine, because the session itself is a huge letdown. Seeing as there aren’t any real issues on the docket and that it’s officially “old-timers’ day” (meaning a geriatric parade of former lawmakers), witnessing the general political impotence is like being a spectator at somebody’s awful dinner party. They’re all shaking hands and laughing, but not with you. House Speaker Rubio playfully slams his gavel a few times. Isn’t he cute?
When the military issue finally comes up, a medaled military retiree is introduced as its inspiration, and several representatives take their allotted time to pontificate on their love of the troops in general and – in some cases – their own service. Sadly, it’s a going-through-the-motions affair, and even while they’re speaking, the rest of the representatives are talking even louder.
There remains the distinct feeling that nothing at all is happening.
7 p.m.: Over his Mexican dinner and my margarita, Randolph grills me on what I’ll take away from this experience. I muster some explanation of frustration and futility, with just a touch of admiration for those willing to hold themselves up against it.
OK, so I lied: “I guess I’m pleasantly surprised.”
8:30 p.m.: We arrive at a lackluster party thrown by the Florida Young Democrats to celebrate the detail-oriented hopelessness of this session’s Democratic legislative aides. It’s at a bar called Paradigm, which is ironic because nothing is shifting.
Nothing, that is, except the Amazonian woman in the green flower-print dress who’s twirling around the room with stories about her daughter’s HPV vaccination. Filthy!
There are drink tickets, though, and I am getting drunk. If I keep at it, maybe there will be a quick child!
Thursday, March 20
3 p.m.: Three pretty girls sit in front of me at the Healthcare Council meeting; three pretty girls who are talking about massages and Prozac while sharing a dab of hand moisturizer between them. A fourth pretty girl arrives and giggles about the number of wadded-up pieces of paper containing chewed gum that litter the bottom of her handbag. Not one of these girls seems the slightest bit concerned about her reproductive rights.
I think I love them.
Today’s meeting will focus exclusively on Tampa Republican Rep. Traviesa’s abortion bill, HB 257 – the one mandating sonograms for first-trimester abortions – from which several items have been stricken: most notably, a 24-hour waiting period for abortion procedures.
“Welcome to the Thursday afternoon edition of the Healthcare Council,” the council chair says, assuming a sportscaster’s voice.
“Great to be here,” Traviesa replies, his hair slicked back with a fresh coat of Republican grease. He looks confident. Kimmell and Kunkel from Planned Parenthood, less so.
A trailer-park circus follows, with two women from Plant City who used to be pro-choice detailing their own painful experiences with uncaring doctors. They look a mess, all leopard prints and split ends, flybacks and leggings.
“On my third abortion,” sobs one, “the doctor told me to spread my legs wider!”
After two hours of educated contradictions from Planned Parenthood members, lawyers and doctors, the council votes. Predictably, the bill passes the council. Common sense never even stood a chance. This is Tallahassee, after all. (On April 2, it also cleared the House of Representatives, on a 70-45 vote.)
In the elevator on my way out, state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, looks exhausted. She’s got a six-hour drive ahead of her to make it home for Good Friday and an extended Easter celebration. If she had it her way, she’d already be on the road, that much closer to celebrating the resurrection of the baby Jesus. Poor dear.
“They were afraid they weren’t going to have enough votes `for HB 257`,” she tells another elevator passenger while rolling her reptilian eyes. “I only stayed around to give them my ‘yes.’”