When Gov. Ron DeSantis recently referred to the current political climate as “the silly season,” he was brushing aside questions about his presidential campaign plans.
But these few weeks before the Florida Legislature convenes its annual session really is a time of some publicity-grabbing frivolity. It doesn’t detract from preparation for 60 days of lawmaking, but the goofy stuff gets more attention than it should.
And sometimes an attempt to twit the opposition stings, especially in the hyper partisan climate of both state and national politics. Punching down is not funny when the recipient of the ridicule is already prostrate and gasping for air.
The latest example is a bill introduced by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, which would consign the Florida Democratic Party to the musty back shelves of the state archives. Ingoglia, former chair of the Republican Party of Florida, proposed legal decertification of any political organization that ever advocated slavery.
Ingoglia noted that “cancel culture” activists want to tear down century-old monuments and chisel the names of long-dead segregationists off public buildings. Without mentioning any party by name, he reasoned that no entity that formally endorsed slavery – which the Democrats did from the 1840s until the mid-1860s – should besmirch Florida’s electoral registration rolls.
If his bill passes, which it won’t, it would move all 4,880,042 registered Democrats (as of Jan. 31) to the “no party affiliation” column. They could still vote, but it’s not clear how they’d nominate candidates. “This is what a dictator does,” said Nikki Fried, the new Florida Democratic Party chair. “A dictator goes after those who oppose his policies.”
Well, it’s also what sore winners do, to really rub it in after a prolonged winning streak. There are no Democrats holding statewide office, the GOP leads in voter registration by more than 400,000 voters, both legislative chambers have Republican supermajorities and the Democrats have no realistic prospect of changing any of that in 2024.
So Ingoglia’s bill would make the Democrats irrelevant not just mathematically, but by statute as well. But its real purpose is simply to raise a middle finger across the aisle. Legislators like to express their derision, even contempt, from time to time by introducing something, getting some laughter, then letting the barb fade away:
- When the Legislature named a Miami highway the “Dolphin Expressway,” star players Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield had just bolted for the upstart World Football League. An amendment was proposed for the naming bill, designating the Csonka, Kiick and Warfield northbound exits.
- To show how tough they were, some senators got an amendment attached to a death penalty bill once, requiring executions to be carried out the same way a murder had been committed. (“OK, Smith, here’s some rope — go in there and strangle that guy…”) After making the wishy-washy liberals vote against it, members quickly reconsidered and took the amendment out of the capital-punishment bill.
- When a revenue shortfall forced spending cuts, legislators defined “non-essential state employees” who'd be furloughed temporarily. Republicans, then in the minority, tried to officially include Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay on the superfluous list.
- When the Florida Supreme Court declared the old sodomy law too vague about 50 years ago, there was a rush to pass a more explicit new one. Members got so raunchy with playful amendments, the Senate president sent the teenaged pages and messengers out of the chamber during the debate.
Fun is fun and, with more than 1,300 bills already filed for the 2023 session that starts today, some should be taken with a big block of salt. A few members will zing each other with partisan barbs – mean-spirited or just joshing – and the media will pounce on the wacky stuff.
Unfortunately, many readers and viewers consider every bill equally significant. They write letters to editors, howling, “Why waste time on an official state pie, or commending some basketball team, when we need insurance relief and there’s a teacher shortage?”
In fact, legislators spend very little time ribbing each other or scoring rhetorical points. Resolutions get waved through with little or no debate. The silly stuff gets withdrawn, if it’s taken up at all – after the humor or bitterness makes its mark.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter and columnist for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.