Despite changes, not much different in the state Legislature

Aaron Deslatte and Kathleen Haughney[ck_comma] Tallahassee Bureau | Orlando Sentinel | 11/07/2012

Despite a four-year push by voting-rights groups and Florida Democrats to change the rules of redistricting, Tuesday's newly drawn electoral maps produced familiar wide-lens results — leaving the Florida GOP still in commanding control of the legislative agenda in Tallahassee.

And South Florida's Democratic delegation is left powerless.

But there were still a few changes that will have an impact.

The "super-majority" grip Republicans have held in the Legislature since 2010 has vanished. And expected House Speaker Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, may have lost his seat.

Despite nearly 500,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans statewide, Republicans were poised to hold onto 76 of their 81 seats in the 120-member Florida House and lost only two seats in the Senate to keep a 26-14 majority.

But across the state, legislative contests produced razor-thin victories and competition previously unseen in years. And even that subtle shift could make an outsized difference in the laws that get passed, experts and lawmakers say.

Since 2010, Florida Republicans held super-majorities in both chambers that could allow them the threat of mowing over Democrats if necessary. By losing those two-thirds majorities, Republicans may have to work harder to court some Democratic support on controversial issues.

"When you start seeing the pendulum shift, some of that right-wing, far-out agenda is not going to get advanced," said incoming House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. "Our job is to be the loyal opposition, but we'll have more resources to stop that agenda."

On the other hand, the dramatic turnover in membership is also likely to reshape issues and agendas. For the first time in a decade, all 40 state Senate seats were up for election at the same time, and there were only 25 returning senators.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, now have a stable of inexperienced lawmakers to corral and emboldened Democratic opposition to accommodate. Gaetz said the loss of the super-majority "hammer" will have less impact than the turnover in his chamber.

"For the first time in a long time, you're going to have 40 senators show up with the voices of voters ringing loudly in their ears," Gaetz said.

Weatherford said the shift won't change the GOP agenda under his watch.

"If 'red meat' means creating a better business climate, then yeah, we're going to have a lot of that," he said.

The ramifications of this year's legislative redistricting played out with several high-profile and shocking results.

Dorworth, who is in line to be House Speaker come 2014, was in a relatively safe Republican district. But the results are so close that there will likely be a recount. Currently, Democrat Mike Clelland holds a 37-vote lead, but Seminole County elections officials will meet Thursday to look at more provisional ballots.

The district drawn for Dorworth forced Central Florida Republican Scott Plakon to move into a neighboring Orlando-area district that was more competitive. Karen Castor Dentel, a teacher and sister of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, was able to capitalize on that with a nearly 6 percentage point win.

In South Florida, redistricting forced the matchup of two sitting state senators, Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. Both political parties dumped money and resources into the race. The seat was key to Republicans, who needed it to hold onto their supermajority in the Senate. But the district favored Democrats and Sachs came away with a victory of more than 5 percentage points.

Democratic strategists point toward 2014 and beyond when the full impact of the Fair Districts amendments may be felt. Florida was one of the last states in the country to approve its redistricting maps in April, giving candidates only a couple months to decide when and where to run.

"There were literally dozens of races within a few points," said former Miami Beach legislator Dan Gelber, a lawyer for the Fair Districts Florida group suing to invalidate the state Senate and congressional maps. "That's what the standards were supposed to deliver – competition rather than candidates drawing safe seats."

In other developments, Metro Orlando got its first Hispanic state senator in Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and its first openly gay legislator in state Rep.-elect Joe Saunders, D-Orlando. or 850-222-5564. or 850-224-6214.

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