As Election-Recount Acrimony Ends, New Two-Year Cycle In Florida Politics Begins

Nov 23, 2018

Florida’s political world is built around two-year cycles.

And the latest acrimonious, head-scratching cycle finally ended Tuesday when the state Elections Canvassing Commission certified the results of the Nov. 6 elections.

The acrimony, of course, did not end with the usual campaign attack ads and nastiness. It lasted nearly two additional weeks as ballots continued to be counted and recounted and legal fights raged.

As for the head scratching, a simple question: How, 18 years after the presidential recount, can Florida keep being the butt of election jokes? Yes, this year’s elections and recounts went smoothly in most of the state. But the images beamed across the country were all about the messes in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Nevertheless, the end of the two-year cycle also signaled the start of something new. Shortly after the state canvassing commission certified the election results, the Florida House and Senate gathered to swear in new leaders and newly elected members.

And, at least for a day, new House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, and new Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, emphasized a need for civility.

ONE FOR THE BOOKS

Florida Democrats spent the past eight years criticizing Gov. Rick Scott and itching to win the governor’s mansion for the first time since the 1990s.

But when the recounts were finished and the vote totals submitted, Scott and his Republican allies got the last laugh. Just like Scott got the last laugh when he came out of political nowhere in 2010 to win the governor’s mansion and in 2014 when he defended it.

By 10,033 votes out of nearly 8.2 million cast, Scott unseated three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and will head to Washington in January. That became official when manual recounts ended Sunday, three days after a machine recount showed Republican Ron DeSantis locking up the governor’s race against Democrat Andrew Gillum.

Scott, who said Nelson “graciously conceded” in a phone call, thanked Nelson “for his years of public service.”

While the recount process drew harsh accusations of fraud and political chicanery, numerous lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, Scott’s victory statement called for unity.

“My focus will not be on looking backward, but on doing exactly what I ran on: making Washington work,” Scott said. “I know change is never popular in Washington and that I’m just one person --- but we have to start somewhere.”

Nelson’s defeat marked the end of the 76-year-old Democrat’s lengthy political career, which includes 18 years in the U.S. Senate, a dozen years in the U.S. House, six years on the state Cabinet and six years in the Florida Legislature.

“Well, things worked out a little differently than Grace and I had hoped. But let me say, I by no measure feel defeated,” Nelson said, referring to his wife, Grace, in a statement Sunday afternoon. “And that’s because I have had the privilege of serving the people of Florida and our country for most of my life.”

Three statewide races --- for U.S. senator, governor and agriculture commissioner --- went to manual or machine recounts.

Democrats got a victory Sunday when Nikki Fried emerged from a manual recount with a 6,753-vote win over Republican Matt Caldwell in the race for agriculture commissioner. In winning the Cabinet seat, Fried became the first woman to be elected agriculture commissioner and will be the only statewide elected Democrat during the next two years.

Fried, a 40-year-old lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, said she intends to represent all Floridians.

“You chose a new vision, one that reflects the priorities of the people,” Fried said in a statement Sunday. “To everyone who didn’t vote for me, I will be your voice in Tallahassee too.”

Caldwell, a former state House member from North Fort Myers, formally conceded Monday, though he appeared to still be smarting from the recount process.

“All I have ever expected since Election Day is a full and fair accounting of all legal votes cast, and then respecting the will of the voters,” Caldwell said. “Unfortunately, as a result of the abject failures in Broward and Palm Beach, it has become clear that we may never gain an understanding of what transpired in the hours and days after polls closed, despite the exhaustive efforts of my legal team to get to the truth. To continue this legal challenge would likely require millions of dollars and months to complete without providing any more clarity.”

A NEW CHAPTER

Democrats made some gains in the Legislature during the Nov. 6 elections, though the House and Senate will continue to be controlled by Republicans.

And in the House, where the GOP now holds a 73-47 advantage, new Speaker Oliva made clear that he wants to pursue a conservative, small-government agenda.

In a speech during Tuesday’s organization session, Oliva briefly outlined goals for the House that include continuing to pursue school choice for families, protecting natural resources such as water and wildlife and reducing state and local regulations, which he said will help raise wages and lower housing costs.

“If affordable housing is important in your part of the state, speak out against costly planning and zoning decisions and the arbitrary use of impact fees for revenue,” Oliva said. “If we are truly committed to raising wages, we must challenge the endless taking of hard-earned wages through taxes, fees, surcharges, assessments and the like. If you want people to have more, begin by taking less.”

It was also clear new House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, didn’t exactly share those priorities. McGhee said, in part, lawmakers should push to expand Medicaid for about 800,000 people in Florida; teacher salaries should be “at least be $50,000 per year;” and the state needs a workforce act that protects members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. 

At the other end of the Capitol’s fourth floor, Galvano gave an organization-session speech that largely stayed away from detailed policy issues, though he said the Senate over the next two years will “build on our past decisions to keep taxes low, regulations reasonable and to set aside ample reserves, while making smart investments in essential government services.”

Both leaders also signaled they want to restore some calm after the elections.

Galvano told the Senate, where Republicans hold a 23-17 edge, there is little he can do “to stem the tide of modern-day incivility that has become so pervasive in an era of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.”

“But I can tell you that while I am serving as Senate president, the Florida Senate will have civility, transparency, candor and opportunity, including an opportunity for the people of Florida to be heard,” Galvano said.