Yearly Roundup: New Districts, New Voting Problems, New Economic Hope
In an election year and a redistricting year, you might have expected this. The biggest stories of 2012 ended up being an election and redistricting.
A third ongoing story also pervaded the year's news: The economy continued its long, slow rise from the ashes of the recession, and by year's end the rebound – while facing the possible stomach-punch of a fiscal cliff setback – appeared to be solid.
Unemployment is down dramatically from a year ago; home sales are back, as are home prices; and consumer confidence is up for most of us.
For political junkies, the election competed with the precursor to the election, the once-a-decade redrawing of political lines, for the biggest news of the year. In retrospect, the remapping of political boundaries had a stunning effect that likely few truly expected: It seems to have re-jiggered the boundaries in a way that allowed the minority party, Democrats, to gain some ground, to make the election a little bit fairer.
That was the goal of a couple of constitutional amendments that were in effect for the first time this year. Voters in 2010 approved the amendments, called "fair districts" for short, which essentially required legislators to remap the state's politics in a way that sought to avoid protecting incumbents or political parties.
Impossible, most of us said. And a true measure of whether it worked may also be impossible.
But one thing was clear – a number of Republican legislative incumbents in the House were drawn into the same districts as fellow GOP members, and some were drawn into districts that nearly assured they'd lose. Gone from the Legislature after Election Day, arguably as a result of redistricting, were big-name Republican lawmakers Scott Plakon and Chris Dorworth, who had been in line to become speaker in 2014. A number of other Republican lawmakers also lost, with Democrats gaining seats in the Legislature for the first time in years.
The same was true in Congress, where national tea party superstar Allen West lost to neophyte Democrat Patrick Murphy, despite being one of the biggest fundraisers in the country. Credit in part the new district West had to run in. Another tea party favorite, U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams, was also victimized by the establishment Republicans drawing the lines – they put her in the same district as long-time incumbent Republican Rep. John Mica, who won.
In a stunner, Republican Cliff Stearns, who was elected to Congress in 1988 the same day the first George Bush was elected president, was ousted, in part, because he had to run in a revamped district. Stearns lost in the GOP primary to Ted Yoho despite a fundraising advantage of 16-1. Yoho went on to win the seat in November.
Democrats didn't hail the redistricting plans when passed – in fact they went to court over how the Republican majority drew the maps. Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said the GOP had failed to implement the will of the people. While the state Supreme Court forced lawmakers to redo the Senate maps, the House plan as drawn by lawmakers was approved, and the congressional map withstood a court challenge.
But in the end, Democrats appeared to benefit more from the new districts than the Republicans.
In the November election, Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate, though Republicans still have a 26-14 advantage. Democrats picked up five House seats, narrowing the GOP margin in that chamber to 76-44. They also gained seats in Congress.
Republican legislative leaders at first fought and tried to nullify the Fair Districts amendments. And it is hard to assess the degree to which the amendments ultimately worked.
A key difficulty is that the amendments are predicated on intent. Lawmakers can't draw districts that favor incumbents – but if an incumbent wins, who is to say whether it was because of the way the district was drawn or not? Whether they tried to draw districts to help themselves or not is in the eye of the beholder (a judge, or Supreme Court justice, in this case).
Despite their initial anger at the amendments and attempt to invalidate them, Rep. Will Weatherford and Sen. Don Gaetz, who were generally in charge of redistricting efforts, eventually said they would try to follow them. Whether the redistricting process is fairer may ultimately take several years to determine. If legislative representation comes to more closely resemble other measures of political preference, such as party registration and how people vote in statewide and national elections, then perhaps at the end of a decade or so, the determination can be definitively made.
Election Day - Er, Days
Whether owing largely to redistricting or not, the Democratic success in November was the main political story this year for most casual observers.
And Democratic President Barack Obama's winning of the state's electoral votes was the apex of that year-long story, and a big surprise to a number of people on both sides of the political spectrum who thought the race might be closer.
Democrats replicated their strong registration push and get-out-the-vote effort from 2008, doing something that conventional wisdom said would be unlikely with the economy having been in the tank the last few years.
The state's senior U.S. senator, Bill Nelson, also benefited from the Democratic effort, easily defeating Republican Connie Mack.
But Obama's Florida win this time wasn't needed – it turned out he won plenty of electoral votes across the country, and Florida's mattered only in the margin of victory.
With that lack of drama, the story of a Democratic presidential candidate winning for a second election in a row in swing state Florida was overshadowed by the fact that it took us a few days to know exactly what happened.
Yet again, Florida voters seemed to have trouble voting, and officials seemed to have a problem counting votes.
As was the case in 2000, when Florida burst onto the late-night election joke scene in a big way, it was really only a few counties where there were problems. Most Floridians either voted early with no problems, or showed up on Election Day and cast a ballot in a generally unremarkable way.
But for some voters, and it was a large number because the trouble was most pronounced in heavily populated counties, particularly Miami-Dade, the election wasn't so easy.
Voters reported waiting, in some cases, seven hours – nearly a full work day – to cast a ballot. Lines were unbelievably long on Election Day, even though voters had been able to vote early on eight days leading up to the election.
Afterward, there were calls for investigations of what went wrong, and a few are ongoing. Gov. Rick Scott determined that three questions need to be looked at closely: whether local elections supervisors need more flexibility in setting up polling sites; whether the ballot was too long and difficult for people to read; and whether the state messed up when Republican lawmakers passed – and he signed – a bill that reduced early voting from 14 days in 2010 to eight this year.
That last one was an extraordinary admission: Rarely in recent memory has a leading member of the majority party suggested that a high profile reform measure – especially one that was so heavily criticized by the other party – might have been a mistake.
But that's exactly what Scott said.
For two years, Republicans in Florida have said that the 2011 changes to the election laws were needed to help prevent fraud, wouldn't keep legal voters from voting and were benign in every way. Democrats warned the whole time that the changes would make it harder for legally registered voters to cast ballots.
Scott may have sold his GOP colleagues, who have so adamantly suggested the changes were needed, down the political river. Scott didn't make any commitments but said that the number of early voting days is certainly something worth re-examining.
"People are frustrated in our state," Scott said. "We've got to restore confidence in our elections."
If there was a voter of the year it was the newly registered Hispanic. Latino voters not only registered heavily as independents – making them up for grabs – but they registered in huge numbers. And then they voted in huge numbers, largely for Democrats.
Democrats worked hard for that Latino vote, aiming much of their ground game at Hispanic communities. Republicans have generally acknowledged they didn't, and that was a big part of the difference in November.
Economy, Back Again
In the latest numbers this year, Florida's jobless rate stood at 8.1 percent. While not great when compared to the go-go days of the late-90s or mid-2000s, it looks pretty good when considering that it was over 10 percent just a year ago.
The unemployment rate is now at its lowest point in Florida since 2008, good news for Scott who has staked his whole governorship on getting the state back to work. So far, whether he can really claim the credit or not, he's looking good. The jobless rate has dropped and jobs are being created.
Unfortunately for Scott a lot of people say the state's economy is coming back just as the nation's is – a recent poll showed many Florida residents don't credit Scott with the turnaround.
Consumer confidence was up near the end of the year, though after the election about half the people – presumably those who wanted Mitt Romney to be president – got a little less optimistic about the future. But people's perceptions about their own personal financial status are much higher than a year ago.
Home prices have also risen, as sales have picked up. Real estate fueled earlier Florida booms, and economists say now that a housing recovery is within sight, the state is just about back on its feet.
There was one major caveat as the year came to a close: the fiscal cliff talks in Washington. If a deal isn't reached, the economy could go back into a stall.
Charlie Crist, Back Again
When was the last time that the year's most fascinating politician was someone who is not in office or technically running for office --- and lost his last election after having to leave his party because he would have likely been defeated in a primary?
If 2011 was the year of Marco Rubio in Florida, Charlie Crist was undoubtedly the most intriguing political figure of the year. Even those who hate Crist – and that's much of the Republican political establishment – have to admit his reincarnation as a Democrat, his re-emergence as a magnet for media attention, and his continuing popularity among the general non-political crowd has been astonishing.
Crist made a number of interesting moves, from changing his registration to Democrat to endorsing Obama for re-election. He also managed to get himself inserted into the lineup of speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., even though he hadn't yet become a Democrat.
Just as when he was a Republican governor of the state from 2007 to 2011, Crist generally was able to read where the political winds were blowing – getting out ahead of a Democratic wave year in a way that would benefit him.
In December, we learned that Crist's re-emergence appears to be for real. A Quinnipiac University poll found that Crist had a 47 percent favorable rating – higher than Gov. Scott, who remains mired in the mid-30s in approval. And more than half of voters at the end of the year told pollsters they didn't think Scott should get a second term, which must have been interesting to Crist and anyone else contemplating a run against the governor.
"Obviously, the governor has almost two years to go until the election and anything is possible, but he faces a herculean task in changing public opinion to his favor," Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown, said after the survey's mid-December release.
Other Big Stories
As the year began it wasn't clear whether the federal health care overhaul would be in place come the end of the year. But it is because of two things: first, Florida and other states lost a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the law and second, the president won re-election, defeating Romney who had promised a repeal.
For what amounts to an arcane overhaul of insurance law, the Affordable Care Act has grabbed the attention of the American people like few other new laws in history.
To their credit, Floridians also widely debated another controversial law this year, with discussions in town halls, on radio talk shows, on Facebook and in letters to the editors about the 2005 "stand your ground" self-defense law.
The reason for the examination was tragic, however. The shooting early in the year of an unarmed African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer under disputed circumstances, not only exposed the continuing racial divisions embedded in criminal justice in the state, but also raised questions about when and where Florida residents are allowed to shoot each other.
A year-long examination of the stand-your-ground law by a special panel appointed by Scott ended with a draft report that suggested few major changes. But by the end of the year the talk of gun culture had shifted dramatically after the December school shooting in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six teachers and staff.
First Openly Gay Lawmakers
The year may be remembered by advocates for gay and lesbian people as the year in which Florida voters, for the first time, sent openly gay legislators to represent them in Tallahassee. It wasn't just one: Florida voters elected Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, and Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando.
Both ran largely on other issues but said they'd be proud to help advance issues important to gay Floridians, too.
"If people want to ask me about being gay, I'll talk about that," Richardson told the News Service. "If you want to talk to me about the budget, I'll talk about that."
Passings Of Note in 2012:
-Sam Gibbons, a legend of Florida politics who served three decades in Congress and was chairman of Ways and Means, died at 92 in October. The Tampa Bay area Democrat never lost an election and was considered the "father of the University of South Florida."
-Doyle Conner, who was the state's agriculture commissioner for 30 years, from 1961 to 1991, died in December at age 83, Conner became speaker of the Florida House at age 28 and remains the youngest person to hold that post in the state's history.
-Bill McBride, who ran for governor in 2002, losing to Republican Jeb Bush after defeating Janet Reno in the Democratic primary, died at 67 in December. McBride was married to Alex Sink, who lost the governor's race in 2010.
-Phil Lewis, who was Senate president from 1978 to 1980 and served in the Senate for a decade, before becoming a member of the Board of Regents, died Sept. 4. He was 82.
-Ken Sorensen, who served in the House from 1998 to 2006 and then worked in the House for Speaker Marco Rubio, died in July at age 77.
-Former House Republican Leader Jim Tillman, who represented Sarasota County from 1967-1974, died in July. He later worked as a lobbyist.
David Royse is a reporter for The News Service of Florida.