As state Sen. Paula Dockery prepares to leave the Florida Legislature after 16 years, she’s been taking a “lap of honor” around her district. The Lakeland Republican got a reputation for fierce independence in the Senate but also clashed with GOP leaders such as Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Budget Chairman JD Alexander as she helped defeat some of their priorities.
First elected to the House in 1996 and then to the Senate in 2002, Dockery worked on major environmental and water legislation. She also became known for her unsuccessful fight to build a high-speed rail system in Central Florida — and for her dogged opposition to the SunRail commuter line in the Orlando area.
Dockery, who ran for governor in 2010 before withdrawing, fought GOP leaders this year about the creation of a new state university in Lakeland. Also, she crossed powerful lawmakers by helping defeat a proposal to privatize more prisons and a highly controversial education measure known as the “parent trigger” bill.
Dockery is now a political commentator on an ABC affiliate in the Tampa Bay area and writes a column for Florida Voices.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Paula Dockery:
Q: You’re leaving the Senate because you’re term-limited, along with such independent Republicans as Dennis Jones and Mike Fasano. What does that mean for the upper chamber?
DOCKERY: I think last session is going to be the end of an era in terms of independent thought and the Senate bucking leadership on a few key issues that several members felt very strongly against. I think you’re going to see a Senate that resembles the House more, where leadership sets the agenda and everybody falls into place. I’m hoping that some members behind the scenes, without seeming to buck leadership or question leadership, are able to work some compromises into bills that may not be good for the citizens of the state.
But I think you are going to see the end of that era of independence. And it’s sad on the Senate side, because the Senate was always supposed to be a more deliberative body. They were supposed to slow down policy that may not have been properly vetted.
Lately, my work has been more trying to stop bad bills, like prison privatization and the parent trigger bill.
Q: How has the Legislature changed since you were elected 16 years ago?
DOCKERY: People were a little bit more independent. They had their own opinions about issues and they would try and understand a little better what the issues would mean. And you’d have Republicans and Democrats working together because even if you had a bill that everybody kind of agreed on, it’s only in that process of going back and forth and debating it that you might find something that you didn’t really intend that somebody could correct or improve. And that was a good process.
And we moved to a process where leadership kind of said, “Here’s the language we want. We’re going to push it through.” And if you belonged to the majority party, you were just handed talking points and you were supposed to go along with what they wanted you to say on the issue. And the minority party would talk about why that’s a bad issue. But nobody was using too much independent thought of their own to improve a bill or to defeat one if it really didn’t deserve to be put into policy, into law.
Q: Will you run for public office again?
DOCKERY: [When I was first elected] we worked well together. There were some issues we’d battle on, but it was a good process. Good legislation got passed. We didn’t end up with so much legislation in the court system, because we had good staff telling us what might meet constitutional problems. And that’s changed now. It’s not so civil, we don’t allow the free exchange of ideas, and if I were to re-enter the political process, I’d like to do it when it’s starting to swing back to that civility.
Q: Should Charlie Crist run for governor in 2014?
DOCKERY: I think the current governor is really having trouble connecting with people. His poll numbers have consistently been bad. They’ve tried TV ads, they’ve tried various methods of getting his poll numbers up. He’s changed positions on policy, the most recent being education, to try and mollify some of the people – teachers, for example – who have really taken a dislike to him and his policies.
So it’s a ripe opportunity for Democrats. I know Alex Sink wants to run again…I think she had her best opportunity to win last time, when she was able to raise money as [Chief Financial Officer] and had what many perceived as a flawed candidate with some baggage to run against…[but] she’s really not a very strong campaigner. So I don’t know if the Democrats will think that’s their best opportunity. I think she could do a good job running the state. I just don’t know if she could get there.
Charlie Crist had a good record as governor. I think his problem would be in the primary, with Democrats saying, “Hey, wait a minute, we may want to win the governor’s race, but you haven’t paid the dues.” He’s a great campaigner, but I don’t know how much money he can raise as a Democrat…And I know a lot of Republicans are very bitter, very angry. They feel like he’s a traitor.
I tend to think when you paint somebody in your party as a RINO [Republican in Name Only] and say you don’t want really them as part of your party, that you can’t be too mad when they leave the party. There’s a lot of disaffected Republicans who feel like the party has left them. They don’t consider themselves Democrats. They want to stay Republicans…And he may be the person who can speak for them, but even they view him a little bit as a political opportunist.
Q: As a member of the media now, what’s your take on the capital press corps?
DOCKERY: When I first came in, the media – especially the print media – was in a much better financial position. And so a newspaper might have a reporter who was an expert on transportation, an expert on education…So when a reporter stuck a microphone in a legislator’s face and asked a question, they knew the subject matter. And a legislator couldn’t get by with an incorrect answer because they’d be pressed on it.
Now you have reporters who are supposed to cover all subjects, and when they ask a legislator a question, they don’t really know if what the legislator is telling them is factually correct or their opinion or what-not. So you don’t have those probing, follow-up questions…and that’s very dangerous in the legislative process.