Minority Madness

While the world roosts outside the state capitol in Tallahassee, Democrats huddle on the third floor just trying to cope. Roughly 30 representatives, most hailing from South Florida, sit around a long table in what they call the caucus room, the largest space in the House minority's suite of offices. Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach leads the meeting. Behind her hang the American and Floridian flags, and a sign running the length of the wall, which reads, "WE'RE ON YOUR SIDE." Unfortunately for the Democrats, the people who really matter in Tallahassee -- Republicans -- aren't on their side. So outnumbered 77 to 43, they do what comes naturally for the powerless. They complain.

"I really don't want us to become victims," Rep. Wilbert "Tee" Holloway, of Miami, cautions, "or to start thinking like victims about what is happening to us."

Another member chimes in: "They are talking down to us. We're not idiots!"

"Why are we going to whine?" yells another. "We can't be victims!"

"I know that the Republicans aren't going to call us in for anything," says Roger Wishner, a freshman representing Sunrise and Plantation, "even though we have years of experience."

Frankel tries to console them by mentioning that she's planning a retreat so they can all get away from Tallahassee for a day or two. Dan Gelber, a freshman member from Miami Beach, jokes, "I'm sure there is a support group somewhere that can help these traumatized people."

"I hear your frustration -- I feel totally useless up here," announces Ron Greenstein, a second-termer from Coconut Creek. "This is the type of bonding we need, and I think mentoring is a good idea."

Welcome to Democrats Anonymous. Members aren't dealing with a new problem, just its most recent manifestation. The trouble began four years ago, when Republicans seized control of the legislature. Then in 1998 Jeb Bush was elected governor, making Florida the first Southern state ruled by GOP legislative and executive branches since Reconstruction.

Embattled House Democrats have watched in dismay as their opponents have deep-sixed affirmative action, besieged abortion rights, attacked death-row inmates' right to appeal, and slashed social programs. They also have been helpless in the face of corporate tax breaks, Big Sugar's authoring of environmental laws, and passage of property legislation that has tickled developers pink.

On this day they are dealing with perhaps their most significant whipping ever: House Speaker Tom Feeney, Jeb Bush's 1994 running mate, is planning to strong-arm George W. Bush into the presidency by naming a GOP slate of electors. Frankel calls it the "ultimate partisan act." This isn't a resolution, the Democrats complain, it's a coronation. They also call it arrogant, illegal, and a robbery of the people's right to have their votes count.

On December 12 the Republican-led special session passed Feeney's measure, but it was incidental to history. The U.S. Supreme Court had trumped the legislature by ending the manual recount of votes, making Bush president by default. But in the days leading up to the special session, South Florida's 24 beleaguered Democrats (including 11 Broward reps, 5 from Palm Beach, and 8 from Miami-Dade), who make up more than half of the minority, followed a lemming-like path to failure.

Five days in their midst provided a peek behind the walls of history, where the Democratic minority did more than just act as the loyal opposition. It cried for help.

In Tallahassee crucial information often filters down to the Democrats through offhand remarks and slips of the lip. At the whim of the majority, minority members also often find out what's going on in the legislature by watching television. "We're just waiting to be called to special session," says Greenstein. "We get so much confusion. We get 50 different rumors and about 100 different stories, and I caused about 10 of them."

A big, graying, 49-year-old former air traffic controller dressed in a blue suit, Greenstein is the minority's jester. A moderate Democrat who is liberal on social issues but pro-business and fiscally conservative, he's a master glad-hander and snappy small-talker. He does his best to keep the wheels turning and sometimes votes with the Republicans on financial matters. "Up here, it's like kids in a sandbox," he says. "You have to learn to play well with others or you get thrown out."

Greenstein says his late mother, Tillie, likely wouldn't be proud of him for abandoning his FDR-liberal roots. Tillie, who died two years ago at the age of 82, was known as the "queen of Sunrise Lakes." She was president of the West Broward Democratic Club and controlled the votes of about 10,000 elderly condo dwellers. She also helped her boy win a commission seat in Coconut Creek in 1987. Even before that victory, he'd discovered what it felt like to be flattened by a Republican: He was one of more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers fired by President Reagan in 1981.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman