TALLAHASSEE — As the Legislature begins to deliberate policy affecting the whole of Florida, its members bring to the discussion identities and influences that look different from those of the state they represent.
Florida, for example, has an almost equal split between men and women but almost three quarters of lawmakers are male. And Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Legislature almost 2-1, but there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state — about 4.7 million to 4.2 million.
Researchers have written volumes on gender and party representation in lawmaking bodies, but now are starting to look at other demographics — such as occupation, religion and family status.
Indeed, besides their positions on specific issues, candidates for public office will campaign on what’s been called “identity politics” — touting their standing as a churchgoer, or a veteran, or a business owner.
Campaign contributions have been one measure of influence, but less is said on the soft influence of demographics and how it figures into the policies adopted by the Legislature.
That policy work begins in earnest this week, as senators and representatives meet in committees to set the stage for the 2014 legislative session. Other committee weeks are set through February; the session begins March 4 with the potentially divisive issues of gambling and tax relief already high on the agenda.
There are no hard and fast rules, and there are always exceptions to any pattern, but demographics, say those who study them, can help predict what a legislature is going to do.
“Politicians are people too, and just like the rest of us, their backgrounds and their experience shape how they view politics,” said Nick Carnes, an assistant professor of public policy at Duke University in North Carolina. “Sometimes, politicians do just what they think their constituents would want them to do, but sometimes they do what they think is the best public policy.
“They feel like they have discretion, so they look inward for guidance,” he added. “That’s where it really matters who they are, what they think government should and shouldn’t do.”
One frequently cited example is the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who enjoyed privilege and family fame but also was passionate about helping the disadvantaged and spearheading liberal causes.
And for their part, voters who aren’t clear on the issues often default to their feeling of sameness with particular politicians.
“They’ll say, ‘They have the same background I do,’ or ‘They grew up in the type of home I did,’” Carnes said. “That’s not a bad way to try and get a sense of someone.”
Occasionally, it’s hard to divine what lawmakers do for a living. House Speaker Will Weatherford has listed his occupation only as “businessman” and has kept private the details on exactly how he makes close to $100,000 a year in non-legislative pay. A few other Florida lawmakers use the same vague label, or call themselves consultant or entrepreneur.
“Just like if you meet someone at a party, you ask them, ‘What do you do for a living?’” Carnes said. “We ask that because we know we can learn a lot about a person based on what they do, what hobbies they enjoy, and then we can guess how they feel about issues that interest us.”
Florida has what’s referred to as a “citizen legislature,” with members serving in what are supposed to be part-time lawmaking jobs with part-time pay while working at full-time pursuits. Weatherford and his counterpart in the Senate, President Don Gaetz, are paid $41,000 a year, all other legislators earn $39,000.
Financial disclosure requirements are meant to ensure that lawmakers do not improperly benefit from their state service.
Other academics are skeptical about the influence of lawmakers’ individual attributes on a legislature’s decision making.
“Of course, in legislative bodies, often they don’t have the luxury of acting on those,” said David Hedge, a political science professor at the University of Florida, referring to pressure from party leadership and loyalty.
“We know there are things that would limit the impact of personal attributes of members on their behavior,” Hedge said. Lawmakers “often have to ‘park’ their attitudes and values and backgrounds, and do what others are telling them to do, and that’s really the tension for members.”
For instance, the state’s recently passed texting-while-driving ban had languished for years because certain committee chairs didn’t support it. But other outside factors also come into play.
“I like to think our opinions on things are pretty much a reflection of where we stand, but if I’m a member, I have all those outside of me — my constituents, party leaders, interest groups, the media — so often I have to put aside my own values and beliefs,” Hedge said.
But lawmakers also look to each other for policy guidance, and value the experience and expertise of colleagues, sometimes despite party differences.
State Rep. Dwight Dudley, a St. Petersburg Democrat and an attorney, mentioned learning from Rep. Halsey Beshears, a Monticello Republican, during debate on an agriculture bill. Beshears lists his occupation as “nursery grower.”
“We shouldn’t be all urban white guys,” Dudley said. “A cross section of population contributes to the ‘quilt’ that is the Legislature.”
Moreover, legislators who share a demographic with a group often relate best to its issues, such as a veteran on military issues, said Michele Swers, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.
That particular opportunity is dwindling, though, according to demographic information the lawmakers provide: Only a handful of current Florida House or Senate members have had any military service.
“For vigorous advocacy, you’re more likely to get that from a member of a group,” Swers said. “You want a legislature to have enough diversity of views so when you consider impact of policy, they have the experience to bring to the table.”
She too agrees, though, that after the debate, voting on policy often defaults to “partisanship and ideology.”
Another concern of researchers is the lack of working-class folks among lawmakers. Lawyers still make up a plurality of Florida House members.
“With so many lawyers, there are fewer people from other types of backgrounds, and the big one that gets left out are people who do manual labor and service industry jobs,” Carnes said. “When you think about the occupational backgrounds of our politicians, the big imbalance is that only white collar jobs are represented.”
He suggests that imbalance may be related to a recent legislative effort to pre-empt local laws on wage theft, when an employer illegally withholds wages due an employee, usually in an already low-wage job.
A bill, which critics said would have made it harder for workers to follow through on pay disputes, passed the House this year but died in committee in the Senate.
Carnes admits it’s harder for a utility linesman or shift manager of a fast-food restaurant to serve, let alone get elected.
A working person is “already at a disadvantage because you can’t take time off from work or you don’t have savings or you might not have a job to come back to,” he said. “Sure, if you’re a lawyer or a business owner, it’s still tough to take time off, but easier than if you’re punching a time card every day.”
Yet history shows that disturbing the status quo of legislator demographics can mean gains for disadvantaged segments of society. An increase in the number of blacks and women among lawmakers has coincided with adoption of laws on civil rights issues and women’s health matters, said Kerry Haynie, professor of political science and African American studies at Duke University.
“The occupations of legislators still matter in terms of how they behave in terms of certain types of issues,” Haynie said. Ultimately, he said, even in small ways, demographics influence the legislature, and thus the policy.
“And it says something about our society, about having more interests represented.”
So when it comes to race, sex, religion, education, jobs, and even newer demographics of sexual orientation and non-traditional families, Haynie suggests, “We need to ask how best to incorporate them.”