Bill Cotterell: Resignation edict serves no purpose in presidential races
Why should the state add or subtract requirements for seeking federal office, our Capitol Columnist asks.
Aside from a blind, unhinged, all-consuming hatred of Gov. Ron DeSantis, why shouldn’t Florida legislators relax the resign-to-run law so he can run for president?
Republicans in the Legislature — acting, no doubt, without the governor’s knowledge or complicity — want to use some of the dwindling time in their 60-day session to “clarify” the statute. Under an amendment considered while DeSantis was out of town, elected officials in Florida could run for an overlapping term in the White House, or for vice president, without submitting an irrevocable resignation from their state offices.
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I was working in Tallahassee when the resignation law was passed. The official reason for it was to make the political advancement ladder just a little steeper and more slippery. Unofficially, it added just one more advantage to incumbency. The law can’t stop ambitious politicians from using their offices as stepping stones to bigger things but at least it can give them something to lose if they try.
Of course, an unmentionable but obvious side effect of the resignation mandate was to scare off potential challengers. In those pre-term limit days, many legislators served 20 years or more in the House or Senate, and they didn’t want some city council member of county commissioner back home running against them.
OK, take your best shot, the statute says — but if I win the primary, you’ll be a private citizen again.
Maybe some mayors or sheriffs or school board members are scared off, if their confidence level in challenging an incumbent lawmaker or Cabinet officer isn’t great enough to justify leaping without a net. But does Florida need a law to raise the odds on such a career gamble?
And legally, why should the state add or subtract requirements for seeking federal office? The 1992 “Eight is Enough” constitutional amendment, which imposed term limits on state Cabinet officers and legislators, originally applied to the state’s congressional delegation, too. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that doing so would take a national constitutional amendment.
That’s an inexact comparison because congressional terms don’t overlap with those of state offices, at least not by enough to matter. Bob Graham had to quit as governor three days early to take his seat in the U.S. Senate when he was elected in 1986. DeSantis, if he won a national race next year, would be leaving two years for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez to fulfill.
Lawmakers lifted the resignation requirement for Gov. Charlie Crist, back when they liked him (read: back when he was a Republican) and there was some expectation that Sen. John McCain might choose him as a running mate in 2008. They reinstated the requirement a few years later, when the GOP disliked Crist – first an independent, then a Democrat – almost as much as Democrats now despise DeSantis.
That shows the starkly political motives of resign-to-run from its start. If Nixon had chosen Gov. Claude Kirk in 1968, the Democrats who ran the Legislature then would have helped him pack, watered his plants and driven him to the airport. His successor, Gov. Reubin Askew, was courted by leading Democrats but he knew the party had no chance in 1972. If he’d run, friendly legislators would have made sure his job in Tallahassee was still waiting for him.
Republicans would have cleared the way for Jeb Bush if he’d wanted to be president with two years left in the governor’s mansion — which would have enlivened holiday dinner table conversations, since his brother was already running, and won.
Florida doesn’t produce many national political figures. But when it does, resignation seems to depend on the party in power in the Legislature, and how much that party admires or fears the chief executive.
But how about job performance? If your office had a key employee you knew was looking for another job, would you rely on him or her for big deals? Well, Jimmy Carter ran Georgia for at least two years without resigning, and so did Bill Clinton in Arkansas. How does making it official — as opposed to working day and night in preparation for a campaign — affect a governor’s ability to doing the ol’ day job?
During Senate debate on a large elections package, Democratic state Sen. Jason Pizzo remarked, “Folks, I don’t think that the governor should be able to be politically married, but continue to date.” It’s a good zinger but officeholders don’t take a vow of political monogamy. Aside from not liking this particular governor, what’s the harm if he flirts with a few hundred-thousand new friends in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina?
If DeSantis loses, Florida voters are no worse off than we were last November, when almost 60 percent of them re-elected DeSantis.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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