Democrats’ tensions boil over with Farmer’s ouster as leader | The Buzz

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If there’s one thing Florida Democrats don’t need, it’s more dissension and infighting. But simmering tensions among Senate Democrats boiled over Wednesday and forced the immediate ouster of Sen. Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point as leader of the 16-member caucus.

The eruption exposed bad blood between Broward lawmakers. The timing was especially awkward, with three days left in a legislative session that has been one long exercise in frustration for Democrats.

Here’s what happened: Senate Democrats held tight Tuesday and killed a bill that would have made university presidential searches secret. (As a new public records exemption, the bill, House Bill 997, required a two-thirds vote in the Senate, and 14 Democratic votes were exactly enough to block passage.)

Soon after the bill was killed, talk circulated that one or more Democrats might switch their votes, revive the bill and pass it. Under Senate rules, a senator on the prevailing side of an issue can make a motion to reconsider the vote. Speculation among lobbyists and legislators centered on Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who was designated last week as the next Democratic leader to follow Farmer in place of former designee Sen. Perry Thurston, who will resign his Senate seat to run for Congress. Old animosities between Farmer and Book have been well-documented.

The Senate Democrats’ pre-session caucus Wednesday morning was close to an end when Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said he had heard his name was being circulated as a possible vote-switcher. He told Farmer that “not being truthful is something that pisses me off … to have my character put on the line.”

Farmer told Jones: “You had told me you were a no on that bill and I absolutely took you at your word.”

Contacted by the Sun Sentinel Tuesday, Jones said he would not switch his vote. He cited text messages from a number of unions that oppose the secrecy bill. Two attempts to reach Book Tuesday were unsuccessful.

As talk in the caucus meeting grew more tense, staff members quickly exited the room. Democrats briefly pulled the plug on the public video feed of the caucus meeting but reconnected it a short time later. A Sun Sentinel writer was in the room at the time.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, told Farmer: “I think sometimes we (senators) don’t feel protected.”

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said it was the second time she had seen Jones feel “humiliated” by remarks she attributed to Farmer. “This is not the way adult senators of the Florida Senate behave,” she said. “I’m tired of people feeling dismissed (and) humiliated. We have to work on this, guys.”

Senators ended the caucus and gathered in the “bubble,” a private room just off the Senate floor where private meetings are common. Not long afterward, Book announced that she was chosen as Farmer’s immediate successor.

The Democrats’ defeat of the university secrecy bill was one of the minority party’s few moments of triumph in an otherwise dreary session. But it didn’t last — and it led to more drama.