BY LLOYD DUNKELBERGER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Continuing to be dramatically outnumbered by Republicans, Democratic lawmakers on Monday picked new leaders in the Florida House and Senate to guide their caucuses for the next two years.
House Democrats picked Rep. Janet Cruz, 60, a Tampa health-care executive, to lead their 41-member caucus, which faces a 79-member Republican majority.
Senate Democrats tapped Sen. Oscar Braynon, 39, a Miami Gardens consultant, to lead their 15 members in a chamber with 25 Republicans.
House Democrats picked up two seats in the November general election, while Senate Democrats picked up a net of one seat.
‘Voice’ in Florida
“No matter what happened on Nov. 8, we as the Democratic caucus will still fight for our core principles, making sure that the middle class and working-class people have a voice in Florida,” Braynon said in his acceptance speech Monday.
Cruz, who is the first Hispanic woman to lead the House Democrats, outlined several issues where Democrats will make a stand, ranging from protecting the environment to supporting public schools to opposing discrimination.
“Rest assured: On those values, we will stand, and we will fight for the hard-working families of this state,” Cruz said.
In an interview, Braynon said he was disappointed that the Democrats did not gain more seats in the Senate during a presidential-year election. But he said the wave of support that carried Republican Donald Trump to the presidency was a factor.
“After what happened nationally and what happened across the state with the presidential ballot, he had coattails,” Braynon said. “I think we’re happy we came back with plus one.”
In recent years, the Democratic minority has been more of a factor in the Senate, where Democrats have joined with a bloc of moderate Republicans on issues like guns and the state pension system.
Braynon said he believes instances where Democrats can unite with some Republicans on contentious issues will continue.
“The Senate is a more moderate body,” Braynon said. “I think the Senate will continue to be that more moderate body.”
No Senate experience
Another challenge for Braynon will be the fact that 11 of the Democratic senators are first-time members of the chamber. Only four Democrats are returning members, with Braynon labeling them “the fighting four.”
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, another Democratic veteran, said he believes his caucus will be “playing defense” again on issues with the Republican majority.
But Clemens said the key factor for the next two years may not be the relationship between Senate Democrats and Republicans, which has been relatively cordial, as much as it is the relationship between Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.
Clemens said Negron, who attended Monday’s Democratic caucus, has talked about helping individual senators succeed with their agendas, while Corcoran, who has already outlined an ambitious reform package aimed at lobbyists and state spending, “wants it to be all about his success and implementing his personal vision.”
“I think that’s the difference between the two chambers,” Clemens said. “It’s going to be entertaining to see.”
Cruz, who has 22 first-time House members in her caucus, struck a conciliatory tone in remarks regarding Corcoran.
“While I know that we will have our fights as we should in a representative democracy, I truly do appreciate the efforts of my friend, Richard Corcoran,” Cruz said. “He includes us, the dissenting voices in this caucus.”
The Democrats on Monday also picked their No. 2 caucus leaders, tapping newly elected Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, as the leader pro tempore in the Senate and picking Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, as the leader pro tempore in the House.
The full Legislature meets Tuesday in an organization session where Negron and Corcoran will formally take over their chambers for the next two years.
News Service staff writer Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.