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Get the latest coverage of the 2022 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida Democrats are bracing for 'culture wars' as they lay out their legislative priorities

Florida state Rep. Fentrice Driskell sees hope with the passage of House Bill 7051. Image: Florida Channel
The Florida Channel
“What we can expect from Republicans in this session will be culture wars that distract us from the real issues at hand,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said during a news conference.

Fentrice Driskell, a representative from Tampa and policy chairwoman for the House Democratic Caucus, said her party will focus on “pocketbook issues" such as property insurance rates.

Outnumbered by Republicans and bracing for conflicts over what they call “culture war” issues, Florida House Democrats laid out some of their top priorities Monday on the eve of the 2022 legislative session.

“What we can expect from Republicans in this session will be culture wars that distract us from the real issues at hand,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said during a news conference.

Driskell, who is policy chairwoman for the House Democratic Caucus, said Democrats will aim to focus on “pocketbook issues that people care about the most.”

“Property-insurance rates, they’re too high,” Driskell said, as an example. “I hear that everywhere I go in my district. People are concerned with property insurance rates. The Republicans have run that into the ground, and they need to own that failure “

Lawmakers are expected to consider making changes to the property-insurance system during the 60-day session, after having tried in recent years to address issues such as curbing litigation over insurance claims.

The session will formally kick off Tuesday with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' annual State of the State address. DeSantis has traveled the state in recent weeks releasing a series of proposals that will play a large role in setting the agenda for the session.

One of the issues Driskell labeled a distraction is a priority of DeSantis to cement in law a ban on teaching critical race theory in public schools. Critical race theory, which many Democrats argue is not taught in Florida classrooms, is based on a premise that racism is embedded in American institutions.

“I’m very concerned, I think our caucus is very concerned, about the governor’s recent pivot to making teachers some sort of boogeyman in his crusade to become the presidential nominee,” Driskell said, referring to widespread speculation that DeSantis could run for president in 2024.

Rep. Ramon Alexander, a Tallahassee Democrat who will become the party’s House leader after the November elections, said proposing such a law about critical race theory strengthens the argument for teaching about institutional racism.

“The mere fact that an institution could utilize laws to stop the truth from being told is a justification that we still have structural and institutional racism in America. So, we’re going to focus on making sure that our teachers and our public school system have the resources that they need,” Alexander said.

Democrats also are taking aim at another DeSantis proposal aimed at creating a state office that would investigate election-related crimes.

Echoing many Democrats’ criticisms after Republican lawmakers passed a controversial elections bill last year, Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, said the governor seeking further changes is “political theater” — particularly because the 2020 elections were run smoothly in the state.

“These so-called election investigators are unnecessary, and will be costly to Floridians. And (it’s) a big change to the way these investigations have already been done in the past. We already have state attorneys who investigate crimes like this, but Gov. DeSantis wants to take the authority away from the locals and give it to Tallahassee,” Davis said.

Affordable housing, abortion access and immigration policy are other issues that Democrats say will be priorities as they seek to bill themselves as the party of everyday Floridians, while trying to prevent losing key House and Senate seats in the 2022 elections. The session will include redrawing all House, Senate and congressional districts.

“All Floridians, regardless of your background, your ethnicity or your creed all have a seat at the table,” Alexander said. “We should not be alienating people and finding so-called boogeymen to distract us from reality. We want to focus on issues that help all Floridians.”