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Tensions Remain Among Florida Senate Democrats Amid New Leadership

man scratching his head in front of a Republicans vs. Democrats sign
Sen. Gary Farmer Is A Trial Lawyer Who Challenged His Removal As Florida Senate Democratic Leader Two Months Ago - And Hasn't Quieted Down

Ousted Sen. Gary Farmer recently used stark language to refer to his colleagues, and he questioned their motives on key votes.

It’s been nearly two months since Senate Democrats in Tallahassee changed leaders. They ousted Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, as their leader in the final days of the legislative session. He was replaced by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, a fellow Broward County lawmaker.

Farmer is an outspoken trial lawyer who challenged his removal and lost, but he hasn't quieted down. At a recent town hall meeting in Deerfield Beach, he used stark language to refer to his colleagues, and he questioned their motives on key votes.

"As Democrats, we’ve been in the minority for so long. I think for many it’s created almost a Stockholm syndrome-like effect or a battered wife effect,” Farmer said. “I think for some of our Democratic members in Tallahassee, that frustration over being in the minority has led them to behavior that has them throwing votes to Republicans, sometimes on controversial issues, in the hopes that they can pass a bill or get a little appropriation done here and there.

Farmer continued, "So you kind of have to compromise your principles just to have personal success. The problem with that is then we’re not really a Democratic caucus. We’re the Republican J-V caucus.”

Farmer's criticism did not go over very well with some caucus members. “I’m very disappointed.” Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, says she was offended by Farmer's reference to hostage-taking and domestic violence. “What we’re suffering from is, we can’t get more people.”

Berman says Farmer was the problem because, as the incoming caucus leader, he failed to pick up a single seat. In fact, he lost one by a scant 32 votes in a Miami-Dade race that is now clouded by alleged election fraud. That resulted in thearrest of former Republican Sen. Frank Artiles.

Headed into next year’s cutthroat redistricting session, the Senate has 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

Book is the obvious target of Farmer's criticism because she’s one of three Democrats with chairmanships under Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, which creates a façade of bipartisanship.

Her foundation, Lauren’s Kids — which educates adults and children on preventing sexual abuse — is dependent on Republican largesse for annual appropriations in the budget ($2 million next year alone). Her father, Ron Book, is one of the Capitol’s busiest lobbyists. His clients pay well for his access to Republican legislative leaders.

“The way you get things done in Tallahassee is you work across the aisle. It doesn’t mean you allow yourself to be walked all over,” Sen. Book said. “I don’t believe you have to burn the place down all the time like leader Farmer does. We just have a different style.”

The record shows that Book sided with Republicans on several controversial bills that most Democrats opposed. This was a recurring source of frustration for Farmer throughout the session, culminating in Book’s non-vote on a bill legalizing home-based businesses. It passed on the session’s final day.

Book recently came out swinging against Gov. Ron DeSantis as the caucus blasted him for a “purely political” decision to send Florida law enforcement officers to the U.S. border with Mexico to manage an immigration crisis.

Book’s 16-member caucus will shrink to 15 with the departure of Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, who must resign to run for Congress. Thurston holds a safe Democratic seat, but his chair will likely be empty when the next session starts in January — adding to Book’s huge challenge to fire up a demoralized group and gain ground in a redistricting year when all 40 Senate seats are up for election.

Copyright 2021 WFSU

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.
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