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Mike Abrams: Two state Senate combatants shake hands

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Every time I feel like I am on the verge of giving up on our current political environment, something happens that reminds me that the system will survive and work the way it is meant to.

On Wednesday, Florida Sen. Joe Negron was elected by his colleagues to be their leader, Senate president. But here’s what really warmed by heart and brought a smile to my face: A few weeks before, Negron and state Sen. Jack Latvala announced they were going to end their competition for the Senate presidency and work together. Some will find this strange, since both senators are often viewed as difficult and abrasive by the Capitol lobbying corps.

To me that is high praise.

For the past three years, the two were locked into an intense, divisive and costly struggle for the Senate presidency. Every issue from redistricting to appropriations seemed to be fought through the prism of the leadership race. Every time a Senate seat became available, it evolved into a costly proxy fight between Latvala’s and Negron’s allies. The Senate, long known for its collegiality, was becoming as divided as the Middle East.

When the Negron/Latvala agreement was announced, speculation focused on whether Negron committed the powerful Appropriations Chair to Latvala in return for his support for the Senate presidency. If this was just a transactional political trade, there is nothing new about that. What interests me is that this relationship can be so much more because of the two personalities involved.

In the interest full disclosure, my firm, Ballard Partners, advocates before the Florida Legislature. However, I write this as a former state lawmaker who wants to see good government in action.

Negron and I worked together for five years in the policy group at the Akerman Senterfit law firm. Our mere proximity could have been a source of innuendo and embarrassment to this highly regarded law firm. However, I saw up close how protective Negron is of his ethical reputation. Our work together led to a growing and valued friendship. He is a true policy wonk and wants to make legislative decisions based on understanding every arcane part of the legislation and its implication for the people of Florida.

On the ideological spectrum, he can be a libertarian conservative, but also flexible and willing to find common ground. One of his closest friends in the House was Democratic Rep. Dan Gelber, who was his ideological opposite but teammate at nightly pick-up basketball games.

I have only gotten to know Latvala these past few years, but I have admired his legislative astuteness from afar. His mastery of the rules and understanding of the issues allowed him to be a one-man wrecking crew to legislative cronyism. I have watched in amazement – and sometimes, amusement – how in spite of  impossible odds he has stopped bad public policy or made it better.

The question is can he implement an agenda? Time will tell. Ironically, one of his best friends in the Senate was now retired Sen. Ron Silver, a liberal Democrat from North Miami Beach.

This race could have easily ended a year ago, but the power of their personalities and faith in their own intellect would not allow it. I asked them both, Why now? Negron said the chronic bickering became too exhausting, meaning to me that Joe enjoys governing more than raw politics. Latvala said he was tired of every statement or policy choice being judged on the politics of the Senate presidency rather than on its merits.

I see an added benefit: A protracted, exhausting battle like this could inject a healthy dose of humility into their governing styles. Additionally, because the Senate has only 40 members, every vote counts, so you have to add Sen. Oscar Braynon II, Democratic minority leader-designate to the mix. He is well respected and gifted in his own right, and Republicans ignore him at their own peril. I don’t think Negron will.

Joe Negron and Jack Latvala, by dint of personality, might produce the strongest leadership team we have seen in the Senate in decades. I would expect to see the Florida Senate advocating meaningful policy change rooted in the intellect of their leadership. Short of a Democratic majority, that is enough to pick up my day.

Mike Abrams is a former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, former state legislator and now is a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.

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