Although Florida Democrats failed to improve their numbers in the state Senate in 2016, Jeff Clemens is very optimistic that in two years their power will increase.
“It just so happens that the way it plays out, the Democrats that are up for election in 2018 are in safe Democratic seats, so with the Republicans having to go defend as many as eight seats, there are opportunities,” the Lake Worth Democrat said Thursday night in St. Petersburg.
“Whether it’s the two seats in Pinellas, whether it’s the two seats in Miami-Dade, one in Tampa, one back in Alachua County, even in places in Polk, believe it or not. There are opportunities. So, I’m looking forward to it.”
The 46-year-old is now the Senate Democratic Leader-designate after current head Sen. Oscar Braynon serves out his current term. Part of his responsibilities are recruiting candidates for the 2018 cycle, and he says it’s rare for an incoming Senate Democratic leader to like his odds.
“Whether it was (Dwight) Bullard in ’16 or (Maria) Sachs in ’14 and ’12, we’re always on the defensive.”
Of course, after all, 40 Senate seats were redistricted ahead of the 2016 election, Democrats had flights of fancy about gaining more seats.
Instead, they stayed at 15, to the Republican 25.
“Yeah, you can’t sugarcoat it. It was disappointing,” Clemens said of what happened in November. “And there were seats we really felt were going our way and four weeks out; all the polls started to slip from us.
“So you lick your wounds, and, like I say, you try to find the silver lining. And to me, the silver lining is that I don’t have anybody to defend, and I can go out and be aggressive, and so we will. We’ll have candidates in all those seats, and you never know what happens in an anti-Trump 2018 wave.”
Clemens was in St. Pete to speak to the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee, where there were not nearly enough chairs to accommodate the members filling the conference room holding their monthly meeting at the Marriott Hotel on Roosevelt Boulevard.
While it’s impossible to know what the political terrain will be like in 2018, Democrats statewide are indeed heartened by the massive rallies that took place last weekend.
The trick is to harness that energy, Clemens said.
“The people are angry that things that they counted on for their health care, for their right to choose, that those kinds of things are going to be stripped away, and so the big challenge for Democrats is how do we harness that energy,” he added. “And as far as I’m concerned, you use shoe leather. You get out and knock (on) doors, and you talk to people. I’m a big believer in field and word-of-mouth, and we’re never going to have as much money as the Republicans do in our state elections, so you have to go out and work, so the hope is that this energy translates into work.
“The big difficulty is keeping it going for two years. People are upset now. We just have to make sure we don’t become numb to it. Which is a big risk.”
Regarding policy in the upcoming Session, Clemens hopes to accomplish more on the environment. He is quite aware that Senate President Joe Negron’s priority is to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges and increase water storage capacity. On Thursday, Republican Rob Bradley filed SB 10, which would bond money backed with Amendment 1 funds to purchase land south of the lake for water storage. But Clemens says he worries about having such a laser-focus on just one aspect of Everglades Restoration could be to the detriment of other projects, such as dealing with blue-green algae that have fouled the state’s coastline.
Clemens is again serving on the Criminal Justice Committee, a panel that he says is one place where Republicans and Democrats have been able to work well together. Nevertheless, many of the bills that have come out of that committee in the past few years haven’t advanced very far, but there is much talk about that changing in 2017.
“We hear a lot from the House about how they want to be better stewards of the taxpayer’s money, you have to look no further than Georgia or Texas, where they’ve had very conservative legislatures, and they’ve found ways to divert people away from prison,” he said.
“It saves money. It’s good for the economy. It doesn’t put a felony on somebody’s record, and of course in Florida, we strip a lot of rights from people who commit felonies, it gets them back into work.”
And there aren’t many other places in the budget to save taxpayer dollars, Clemens said.
“This is one of the few ways to do it, because you can only cut education or cut health care so much, the prison industrial complex is where you can actually cut the amount of dollars you spend and get better results.”