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Editorials

Democrats creep to relevance

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 12:36 AM

Florida Democrats have every right to be happy about the results of the general election. But they need to calm down a bit and face the reality that they've got a long way to go before they become a major player in Sunshine State politics again.

Yes, President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson were re-elected. And state Democrats picked up two seats in the Florida Senate and, so far, four in the House, thanks to Obama's coattails — prompting state party officials to boast that the legislative gains are their greatest in three decades.

And a fifth likely pickup in the House is a huge one. Lawyer and former Longwood firefighter Mike Clelland appears to have defeated Republican state Rep. Chris Dorworth, who has been tabbed as a future speaker. A recount is expected this afternoon in a nail-biter that Clelland leads by at least 123 votes.

State Democrats also picked up four U.S. House seats while defeating two Republican incumbents. The GOP still holds a 17-10 margin in the delegation.

But before Democrats begin to think they've won the Super Bowl of politics, here's the reality:

The party of such popular centrists as Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham still would trail Republicans 26-14 in the state Senate and 76-44 in the House. Although that's enough to break the Republican lawmakers' supermajorities needed to overcome a gubernatorial veto, it's hardly worth shouting about.

It is highly unlikely Democrats would have been as successful as they were without the districts that Republicans, including incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, drew during the redistricting process.

Republicans occupy the governor's mansion and the attorney general's office, and run the departments of Financial Services and Agriculture and Consumer Services — Cabinet positions. And state Democrats, for the most part, still field weak candidates — when they field them at all.

Considering these numbers, the Democrats' giddiness over Tuesday's results shows how far the party has fallen. There was nowhere to go but up.

Still, the Democrats' gains should make state government more responsive. For too many years, the GOP has had its way with legislation and the legislative agenda established by its leadership, which holds all the power. There has been little accountability, which is harmful to the state's residents and the legislative process.

A stronger Democratic Party actually would benefit the Republican Party, which has become increasingly arrogant in its use of power. Witness its creation of a costly 12th university when the state cannot adequately fund existings ones, solely because a powerful lawmaker demanded as much. Or its adoption of "election reforms" that made it more difficult to vote when there was no evidence of voter fraud.

The Republicans cavalierly destroyed the state Department of Community Affairs, the state's chief growth management watchdog, which tried to keep development from smothering resources and taxpayers.

And it was unconscionable that House Republicans tabbed Dorworth to be speaker in 2014 — considering the Lake Mary Republican's lack of qualifications, a litany of embarrassing financial and personal problems and his aggressive promotion of special interests.

Such decisions are hardly those of a party dedicated to personal accountability and fiscal conservatism.

So even Republican voters might welcome a Democratic Party that becomes at least relevant in Tallahassee, one that would offer new ideas and prompt stronger debate. This, in turn, will force Republicans to focus on the state's priorities and reflect on their core values.

Florida would be better for it.

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