CAN DEMOCRATS TAKE ADVANTAGE?

Filed under FLORIDA, FRONT PAGE, NEWS, POLITICS

A profane rant from a South Florida Republican senator gives Florida’s Democrats a chance to test their new leadership.

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AND STAFF REPORTS

TALLAHASSEE – Calling his presence a “distraction” days after apologizing for a public tirade that included racially charged and vulgar expletives uttered in the presence of two experienced Black legislators, Miami Republican Frank Artiles resigned from the Florida Senate on April 21.

The Florida Legislature was abuzz with the prospect that a state senator who went on a racist tirade against Black legislators would tell the world that such talk is “business as usual” in its hallowed halls.
(CHARLES W. CHERRY II / FLORIDA COURIER)

Artiles’ exit just two weeks before the scheduled May 5 end of the legislative session will lead to a special election in District 40, a heavily Hispanic seat that leans Democratic. With his resignation, his constituents will have no Senate representation for the last two critical weeks of the annual lawmaking session.

Gov. Rick Scott will announce details of the special election in the coming weeks.

The winner will serve Artiles’ remaining Senate term, and the special election will test the ability of the new leadership of the Florida Democratic Party to turn out voters who elected a Hispanic Republican state senator, but voted decisively for Democrat Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.

Apology, resignation
Artiles – a tough-talking, U.S. Marine veteran who earned the moniker “Frank the Tank” from fellow lawmakers – stepped down amid a Senate investigation into reports that he had insulted two Black colleagues, and others, last week at a members-only club in the shadow of the Capitol.

Artiles has faced widespread condemnation for a rant that reportedly included calling Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, “girl,” a “bitch,” and a “f—ing ass—-.” Artiles also reportedly used the word “niggers” or “niggas,” though he contended that he did not direct the word at anyone in particular.

‘Very sorry’
“It is clear to me my recent actions and words that I spoke fell far short of what I expect for myself, and for this I am very sorry. I apologize to my friends and I apologize to all of my fellow senators and lawmakers. To the people of my district and all of Miami-Dade, I am sorry I have let you down and ask for your forgiveness,” Artiles wrote in a resignation letter to Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Artiles earlier admitted to berating Gibson at the Governors Club. Gibson said he also used the word “niggers” when referring to Republican senators who backed Negron in a leadership race, although Artiles later said he referred to the president’s backers as “niggas.”

Gibson and Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who heard most of Artiles’ remarks at the club, said Artiles also used a derogatory term to refer to Negron.

Resignation ‘appropriate’
“He made the right decision. As he has noted, both on the (Senate) floor and in his letter, all of us are accountable for our actions and comments. I think it is an appropriate resolution,” Negron told reporters at a press conference.

Negron ordered the investigation after Thurston, who serves as chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, filed a formal complaint seeking Artiles’ expulsion from the Senate.

Similar comments?
Artiles’ resignation was a marked reversal from a stance taken less than a day earlier by his lawyer, Stephen R. Andrews. Andrews argued that the senator’s remarks were protected by the First Amendment and raised the specter of detailing similar comments by other senators if the matter were sent to the full chamber for a vote on possible sanctions.

Gibson issued a brief statement following Artiles’ announcement.

“This has been an ordeal that no one should have to endure. I wish him well in all of his endeavors,” she said.

Thurston, who withdrew his complaint against Artiles after the senator resigned Friday morning, said that seeking the ouster of a fellow senator was something neither he nor Gibson relished.

“So it’s hard to say ‘victory’ when you don’t want to do something like this, but at the same time it’s something that has to be done so all of society knows we’re moving beyond where this is acceptable,” Thurston told The News Service of Florida.

A rising star
Artiles – who garnered national news coverage for sponsoring a measure in 2015 that would have banned transgender people from using bathrooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates – defeated former Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard in a bitter election fight in November.

Artiles’ resignation completes a stunningly swift fall from grace. After six years in the state House – in his first year he was forced to admit he didn’t live in his district – Artiles ran for the Senate last year and was considered an underdog in a Southwest Miami-Dade district that strongly supported President Barack Obama in 2012.

But the district, which includes Kendall, South Miami and Westchester, also is 67 percent Hispanic. That favored Artiles, a Cuban-American, against Bullard, an African-American, who struggled to compete with the Republicans’ fundraising apparatus.

Backed by the Republican Party and by political committees controlled by key GOP senators, Artiles overwhelmed Bullard in fundraising. He raised $850,000 compared to Bullard’s $199,000 and won easily, with 51 percent of the vote. Bullard had 41 percent, and an independent candidate got the rest. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district by 57-40 percent.

Dems to be tested
The Florida Democratic Party, which has been under withering criticism for years for its inability to win state elections, is now under new leadership. Stephen Bittel, a Miami-Dade party activist, beat Bullard and other candidates after a spirited campaign earlier this year.

On Wednesday, Bittel hired Sally Boynton Brown as the state party’s president (formerly known as the executive director). 

An Idaho native, Boynton Brown has a degree in communications from Idaho’s Boise State University and managed political races in the state before becoming the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party. She ran for the Democratic National Committee chair and lost last month to current national chair Tom Perez.

Boynton Brown has no experience in Florida electoral politics. 

And according to various press reports, Bullard is undecided as to whether he will run for the District 40 Senate seat again.

Dara Kam of The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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