As summer began to wind down in Tallahassee, at least one of the sources of inspiration or annoyance for the capital’s denizens wound down as well.
The Dream Defenders, who held the longest-lasting protests in recent memory at the state Capitol, announced they would move on. None of their goals had truly been accomplished, but the protesters argued that they would push forward with enough votes to oust Gov. Rick Scott in 2014, if it came to that.
More action, though, was already in the offing in Tallahassee. Scott announced a lawsuit against the state’s neighbor to the north, the latest skirmish in a three-way “water war,” and Democrats began plotting for campaigns that will provide fodder for more than a year.
DREAMING OF AN END:
“What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes wrote in the poem “Harlem.” “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore — / And then run?”
After a month-long occupation of the hallway outside Scott’s office, the Dream Defenders group decided that they had festered enough — and, if not quite run, were at least ready to leave. The last celebrity to visit them, civil-rights icon Julian Bond, applauded the group at its going-away press conference.
“It’s fitting that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is coming up in a few days,” he said. “That movement made this movement possible, and that movement — your movement — gave our movement its legacy.”
The sit-in protest began July 16, following the acquittal of Georgia Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The protesters asked for the state to repeal its controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law, which grants immunity to people who use deadly force if they have reason to believe their lives are in danger. Also they called for taking steps to end racial profiling and to get rid of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that the protesters said hurt children’s ability to get an education, often for trivial offenses.
While Zimmerman never used the Stand Your Ground law in his defense, instead relying on a more traditional self-defense claim, the discussion of the law often dominated the early debate over the case. And it often overshadowed the other changes the Dream Defenders said they were looking for.
Ending their protest after 31 days, the demonstrators pointed to a list of what they called accomplishments, even as critics could point out that they didn’t have much to show in terms of results. The group forced a poll of lawmakers that could have resulted in a special session to deal with Stand Your Ground. But it will end up well short of the 96 lawmakers needed to support a special session; by the end of the week the idea was losing by a 96-45 margin.
The protests prompted House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to announce a hearing on Stand Your Ground, but the chairman of the subcommittee that will hold the hearing has said he’s not inclined to change “one damn comma” of the law.
One thing protesters seemed to do successfully was to discourage Scott from showing up at the Capitol. The governor rarely appeared at his office during the protests. He also seemed content to allow the protests to run out of steam on their own, even as legislative leaders ran out of patience and called for the demonstrators to leave.
After the state had spent more than $400,000 on security for the protests — some of it in the form of overtime for Capitol police — Scott thanked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement “for providing a safe environment for people to exercise their First Amendment rights. We live in a great state, in a great nation, where everyone is free to express their views.”
But the Dream Defenders also vowed to be back Sept. 23, the first committee week leading up to the 2014 regular session. So had the sit-in ended, or had it merely been deferred?
DREAMS OF MY WATER:
While the protests raged on at his Tallahassee office, Scott made his way to the Panhandle on Tuesday, where he announced the latest escalation in a decades-long battle between Florida, Alabama and Georgia: a lawsuit at the U.S. Supreme Court aimed at getting more water released downstream from a lake that is used to slake the thirst of the Atlanta metropolitan complex.
For 23 years, the three states have bickered over how to divvy up the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin. Florida has argued that water use at the top of the system has reduced the downstream flow of fresh water to the Apalachicola Bay region, damaging that area’s oyster industry. Florida and Alabama say too much water is being siphoned off for Atlanta’s drinking water.
Last year, the Apalachicola Bay collapsed. The lack of fresh water combined with a historic drought to produce the lowest flows in 89 years — since they have been recorded. That followed a series of court rulings that sent the responsibility for regulating the flows back to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“It’s having a dramatic impact, and it’s because Georgia has taken our water,” Scott said. “The Corps of Engineers is not worried about us. That’s why Florida’s going to file suit against Georgia. Take this all this way to the Supreme Court.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal slammed Scott’s move in a statement.
“Governor Scott’s threat to sue my state in the U.S. Supreme Court greatly disappoints me after I negotiated in good faith for two years,” Deal said in a prepared statement. “More than a year ago, I offered a framework for a comprehensive agreement. Florida never responded. It’s absurd to waste taxpayers’ money and prolong this process with a court battle when I’ve proposed a workable solution.”
The Atlanta area uses 360 million gallons of water per day, according to Scott’s office, and Georgia’s consumption is expected to nearly double to 705 million gallons per day by 2035 — about the entire amount of water in the Apalachicola Bay.
Scott was able to announce less antagonistic news Friday, saying the state’s unemployment rate had held steady at 7.1 percent. In a video message, Scott chose to focus on the number of jobs created in July.
“In the month of July the private sector in Florida generated over 34,000 jobs,” Scott said. “That’s right, over 34,000 private-sector jobs. That’s the biggest growth in private-sector jobs in any month in the last two and half years.”
Scott also said the total number of new jobs during his time in office — 369,100 — was half of his claim that he would add 700,000 jobs to the state’s workforce in seven years.
Democrats were quick to remind voters that Scott suggested at one debate that the 700,000 would be in addition to normal economic growth, which would push the number he needs to hit much higher. They also gave credit to President Barack Obama for the job growth.
“Before Rick Scott took office, he promised Floridians 1,700,000 new jobs — he’s barely 20 percent of the way there,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in a written statement. “He has fallen so far short of his promises, his only choice is to take credit for jobs he didn’t create. The truth is that he’s been holding Florida back, with big tax giveaways for special interests.”
DREAMS OF THE DEMOCRATS:
Meanwhile, the state party with the fewest legislative seats and just one statewide elected officeholder began dreaming up ways to overcome both problems — though at least one of those efforts seemed to end up with an early wake-up call regarding just how difficult it would be.
On Thursday, Democrats announced they had their first candidate for a Cabinet post, or at least the first candidate that the party was willing to put any weight behind. Allie Braswell, the 51-year-old head of the Central Florida Urban League, announced he would challenge Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater in 2014.
Unseating any of the three Republicans who currently hold the state’s Cabinet posts looks like a tall order; each of them won by at least 13 percentage points in 2010, and all could benefit if Obama’s sagging approval ratings and the normal six-year itch for incumbent presidents generate another GOP wave approaching the one in 2010.
But Braswell was undaunted, touting his ability to slash a $14 million budget he oversaw as a technology executive at Disney to $11 million without cutting jobs.
“We can tighten the belt, and we can also help Floridians,” Braswell said.
The next day, though, reports suggested that the new candidate had not been quite as successful with his personal finances. The Florida Times-Union reported Friday afternoon that Braswell has filed for bankruptcy three times, most recently in 2008 in Orlando.
Braswell said he “used bankruptcy as a way to responsibly pay my debt” and that his financial problems would allow him to empathize with voters.
“Honestly, my story is of a regular guy,” Braswell told the Times-Union. “I’ve felt the pain that a lot of people feel.”
The only other Democrat currently on the statewide ballot is Thaddeus “Thad” Hamilton, who is taking another shot at the agriculture commissioner post after getting 2 percent of the vote as a nonpartisan candidate four years ago.
Democrats also felt hopeful about their chances to claim the Pasco County seat of former GOP Rep. Mike Fasano, who left the Legislature when Scott appointed him to the vacant tax collector’s office in that county. The seat is the only one in the GOP-friendly county with more registered Democrats than Republicans.
“Republicans have failed meeting the needs of the voters in District 36,” said Lynn Lindeman, chairman of the county’s Democratic Executive Committee, in an email. “They will pay the price; they should have listened to Mr. Fasano.”
But as of Friday, the party had not announced a candidate for the seat. Three Republicans had already filed.