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Senate Democrats are under fire for failing to block some controversial Republican bills

Florida Sen. Lauren Book, center, and Florida Sen. Darryl Rouson, right, mingle during a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
FR121174 AP
Florida Sen. Lauren Book, center, and Florida Sen. Darryl Rouson, right, mingle during a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Tensions are flaring again between Democrats in the Florida Senate, as some of them vote to support highly controversial Republican bills. This trend outrages an outspoken Republican senator, too.

All 15 Senate Democrats have stuck together in opposition to the Republican agenda on many issues -- like confirming Governor DeSantis’ Surgeon General, Joseph Ladapo. But on others, they splinter into factions with some supporting the GOP.

The two latest examples are bills to phase out the rooftop solar industry and a new public records exemption to hide virtually every aspect of a Death Row execution in Florida.

On the execution secrecy bill, six Democrats defected, including Sen. Loranne Ausley of Tallahassee, and Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando.

“I am opposed to the death penalty except for extreme circumstances,” Stewart said. We have a choice here. We can be humane, and we can continue to use the mixture cocktail and the drugs that are required for that cocktail, or we cannot do that and have the choice be the electric chair. I cannot make a choice to use the electric chair, when I’m opposed to the electric chair to begin with, so I’m voting for the bill.”

Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point called that a false choice. Farmer said drug companies that sell Florida the lethal chemicals are opposed to it being known that their products are used to take a human life, and he said it’s wrong for the Legislature to trample on the public’s right to know what those drugs are.

“Voting for this bill doesn’t mean we’re going to have electric chair executions in the state of Florida,” Farmer said. “It just comes back to the transparency argument. This is something that people deserve to know about.”

The only Republican who opposed the bill was Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who pointedly asked Democrats to summon the courage to fight the Republican majority.

“I wish you would not support this bill,” Brandes told senators. “I hope you can find it in your heart that this is not the right process. This is not the right piece of legislation. And I hope you can find it in your heart to make a stand on one issue this year.”

Such a records exemption requires a super-majority of two-thirds of the Senate, or 26 votes, to become law. The vote was 28 to 10.

That vote deeply disappointed the First Amendment Foundation, a statewide open government watchdog group backed by Florida news organizations, this station is among them. Pamela Marsh is the foundation’s executive director.

“It was shocking,” Marsh said. “I was amazed at how many of the Democrats voted for the exemption. When the state uses its authority to take someone’s life, that is a time when government should be at its most transparent. Even the pharmaceutical companies won’t know that their drugs are now being used to put someone to death.”

Democrats also failed to hold their party line on a bill that partially closes the presidential search process at the state’s public college and universities—further frustrating open records advocates.

Yet another example involved Florida’s restrictive 15-week abortion bill. The Senate approved it on a straight party-line vote of 23 to 15 last week, but that’s only part of the story. Democrats tried to amend the bill to provide for an exception for rape, incest, or human trafficking.

Yet, they agreed to an unrecorded voice vote on the amendment. A recorded vote could have forced Republicans to put their opposition to the exception on record. It was not a spontaneous decision.

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation, announced during debate that she would not demand a recorded vote. In an interview, Book did not clearly explain why.

“I was really in my debate, in my emotion on it and, you know, we’re in the passion of it, and it’s unfortunate. I think the president called it like he heard it, and that’s unfortunate because I clearly believe it was very obvious,” Book said, regarding the outcome of the vote.

The other Democrats could have demanded a recorded vote if five of them raised their hands. But none did. And that frustrates many of the organizations that were relying on them to help foil some controversial GOP moves.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.