Imagine running on issues rather than slinging mud | Bill Cotterell

·5 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit, Friday, July 22, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit, Friday, July 22, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

A group of experienced, knowledgeable, caring former state legislators and other government officials is trying to slow down Florida’s headlong rush to the right.

Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a moderate Democrat who served at almost every level of Florida government, knows what he’s talking about. If he’s concerned about the direction our state is moving — an all-powerful governor, the culture wars being waged in schools, the reflexive rubber-stamping of partisan legislation — that’s something to worry about.

“It’s scary,” he said in an interview. “It’s just flat-out scary, what’s going on.”

Butterworth chairs the Florida Leadership Council, a new group of politically aware people who hope that, if they can lower the fever in just a few legislative races next November, a spirit of moderation and cooperation might catch on.

His modest goal is to target four to six Senate races and eight or 10 House seats, promoting candidates more interested in the hard work of finding real solutions that shape Florida’s future than enflaming hot-button issues that stir up school board hearings and fire up partisan turnout.

The Democrat Party’s power has atrophied in the last 25 years, to the point that Democrats mostly hold news conferences in the Capitol’s fourth floor rotunda or speak at rallies on the Old Capitol steps — while the Republicans do whatever they want in the House and Senate. The legal tab for defending what the Republican-run Legislature produces then gets passed on to the taxpayers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been more autocratic than any modern predecessor, commanding legislative compliance on issues ranging from congressional redistricting to discussion of sexual topics in public schools.

The governor is also endorsing a large slate of school board candidates in selected counties.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth speaking at a news conference with Governor Jeb Bush on the initial Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election.
Attorney General Bob Butterworth speaking at a news conference with Governor Jeb Bush on the initial Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election.

Butterworth’s fledgling effort is not partisan, though, and it extends beyond the Legislature. He is concerned about the far-right wave flooding the courts, where DeSantis appointees bear the Federalist Society seal of approval, and to city and county administrations, where local decision-making is routinely overridden by pre-emption from Tallahassee.

When Key West tried to restrict the size and frequency of cruise ship dockings, only to be bigfooted by the state, Butterworth said he was stirred to action. He said the Leadership Council will create a web site and suggest its selected candidates in the next few days.

Butterworth won four statewide elections as attorney general, serving with two Republican and one Democratic governor — Bob Martinez, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush — then headed the Department of Children and Families under Gov. Charlie Crist, when Crist was a Republican. He’s also been a mayor and circuit judge.

There are lots of organizations and corporations in education, tourism, agriculture, environmental and many other interests that endorse candidates or ballot initiatives every election year. Butterworth’s idea is novel in representing good government and clean campaigning, as concepts more important than gaining power for the sake of power.

Former state Sen. Winston “Bud” Gardner, a Brevard County Democrat, served in the state House and Senate when his party still ran the Capitol, but power was trending toward the Republicans. He posted a little note this week in a Facebook group aptly titled “Former Florida Legislators for Good Government,” a non-partisan forum of political enthusiasts discussing the people and events of Florida politics in a civil, informed manner.

“The guardrails for Democracy are down in Florida with Republican control of the governor’s office, both houses of the Legislature and now with the politicization of the judiciary, the Supreme Court of Florida,” Gardner wrote. “There is no longer room for civil discourse and compromise to solve issues important to the citizens of Florida. We can’t even look to local government to solve community problems without the governor and Legislature overruling local decisions.”

Gardner served on the Brevard school board from 1973 to 1978, then in the Legislature 1978-92, working with governors of both parties and coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats in the state Senate. Like Butterworth, he served in a time when Florida politics was a rough sport, but issues weren’t debated by smearing opponents with groundless personal attacks.

Butterworth set up a political committee to raise funds for the Florida Leadership Council at 1742 W. Flagler St., Miami, 33135.

More from Bill Cotterell:

More: Senator Rick Scott’s ‘Gestapo’ rhetoric was way off base 

More: DeSantis’ action against state attorney Andrew Warren has its precedent

More: For DeSantis, Crist and Fried, ad campaigns show candidates' vulnerabilities 

More: GOP ought to quit same-sex marriage fight 

Gardner said the Leadership Council has so far decided to back Sen. Lauren Book’s re-election in Broward County and challenger Ashley Gantt in her Democratic primary race against Miami-area Rep. James Bush III. He said a half-dozen Senate candidates and 14 House contenders are still under consideration as the group gets started.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at bcotterell@tallahassee.com

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Imagine running on issues rather than slinging mud | Bill Cotterell