Fentrice Driskell is ready to take on the 'triumvirate-controlled' GOP legislature and governor
Fentrice Driskell of Tampa became the first Black woman to serve as Democratic leader in the Florida House of Representatives.
The newest Democratic leader in Florida's House of Representatives is a first: Fentrice Driskell of Tampa becomes the first Black woman to hold the post. She spoke with WUSF and said even though the number of Republicans are nearly double the size of her minority caucus, there are plenty of reasons why Democrats are speaking up.
WUSF: Being the head of the House Democrats isn’t the most enviable position out there for a Florida politician. You’re badly outnumbered. (Republicans have 74 representatives, Democrats 42). What’s your mindset on becoming the new House minority leader?
Fentrice Driskell: I see it as an opportunity. Like when I look at our caucus, even though we may be smaller in number, we're around 42. Right now, I see not just those who are serving in the minority, but I see leaders of their community. I see people with a lot of heart and passion. And they're just like me in the sense that they know coming to Tallahassee each and every time we are outnumbered, but they come back every day and they fight. Who does that? And I think my caucus is so strong - we may be small, but we're strong, and we have a lot to offer.
"But we stay and we fight because it's important that we serve as that line of defense between what this triumvirate-controlled Republican legislature and executive branch want to do. We know that we're the last line of defense."
Driskell: And so in serving as a minority party, I always say it's our goal to push for transparency, to push for accountability, to try to make bad bills better. So no, we're not able to stop every bad bill, we're not able to pass the big sweeping sorts of things we want to see in Florida legislation. But we stay and we fight because it's important that we serve as that line of defense between what this triumvirate-controlled Republican legislature and executive branch want to do. We know that we're the last line of defense. And it's important to have that, because right now, things in Tallahassee are just so far out of balance. And then that's how you get some of the bad bills we've been seeing. So I actually see it as an opportunity issue.
WUSF: How do you go about motivating your colleagues to stay united? You have to have a united front with your numbers. Do you think that's a difficult thing? Or do most Democrats seem to be on the same page and want to be united against what you call this "triumvirate" of Republican power in Tallahassee right now?
Driskell: I've only had the opportunity to serve in this role for about a week now. So it's interesting to see what we can do and how it can evolve how my leadership style will evolve. What I think is important, is making sure that people feel a sense of belonging and that they feel united in that fight. It sounds like a very simple thing, but just articulating what are our goals? And also thinking about what success means and how do we define that? So if success won't mean that we get Medicaid expansion passed, right, because we just don't have the numbers to do that. What does success look like for our caucus?
WUSF: Rep. Driskell, you have the honor of being the first Black woman elected in this position. How does that make you feel? And do you believe that you bring maybe a voice that has not been heard in this position?
"Even though I may be the first, I know that hopefully, I won't be the last and I can draw inspiration from others. Hopefully, other young Black women will see my example and know that if I can do it, then hopefully they can do it, too."
Driskell: I'm very proud and honored to be the first Black woman to hold this role. And I know that I stand on some strong shoulders, including some right here in Tampa Bay, the honorable Sen. Arthenia Joyner, who was the first Black woman to serve as Senate Democratic president. And so even though I may be the first, I know that hopefully, I won't be the last and I can draw inspiration from others. Hopefully, other young Black women will see my example and know that if I can do it, then hopefully they can do it, too.
WUSF: You say that you're kind of a backstop, trying to prevent some more of the extreme Republican views from becoming law out there. But what about the issues you think that you can get passed?
Driskell: Floridians are not able to access high quality affordable health care and the numbers that we should we have to look at Medicaid expansion, Florida sends up more dollars to the federal government in that program than we draw down. So we're a donor state, meaning that other states are using our taxpayer dollars to provide their residents with health care.
I don't need to tell you that Florida is in the midst of an affordability crisis when it comes to housing and property insurance rates are through the roof. So we need to look at real solutions there. For too long my colleagues across the aisle have raided our affordable housing trust fund, and have left it frankly, just running on fumes. And all the while Florida has been experiencing growth. And now we've got an affordability crisis. So we need to reverse course on that and correct it.
And then the last piece is safety. And you can look at that a number of ways. I think the way that's on everybody's hearts and minds right now is what can we do to prevent other mass shootings here in Florida. And we have got to take a hard look at that, whether it's expanding the red flag laws so that guns don't get into the hands of the people who should not have them, mental health resources and making sure that our schools have the resources that they need to harden our schools and keep our kids safe.
WUSF: In the wake of the shootings in Buffalo and Texas, before those shootings happened, the governor came out with a plan to basically do away with concealed carry laws, which means anybody can pack a weapon and you don't have to have a permit for it. Is this something that you believe is one of your priorities to try to prevent from happening?
Driskell: Absolutely, because that is what the people of Florida want. You know, this governor, I'll hand it to him. He's very much in touch with his base, but he's not in touch with everyday Floridians. And so when you look at what the data show, most Floridians support expanded background checks. Most Floridians would not want concealed carry, they want to strike the right balance between allowing lawful gun owners to possess their weapons or their firearms. But they also want to make sure that guns don't wind up in the hands of the wrong people.
So it's not really constitutional carry, it's permit-less carry, it's untrained carry, you can think of it as criminal carry because you've got to think about where those weapons would end up. I think in the wake of a school shooter or anything like that, it's incumbent upon all elected officials and local leaders to try and bring the temperatures down. Try not to make this such a political issue. Let's really focus on what we need to do to keep our communities safe.
WUSF: What’s your take on the state of the Democratic Party here in Florida? the numbers seem to be decreasing. What do you think the Democrats need to do to get their message out?
"For my party, specifically, we have to simplify. Simplify the message and communicate in a way that really resonates with people's values. You know, don't be afraid to talk about freedom. I love talking about that. And liberty, right? No party has a monopoly on those American values."
Driskell: The first is that I'm noticing the trend where we're seeing more and more non-party affiliated voters or independent voters, so I think there's a story to be told not just with respect to Democrats, but with Republicans as well, which is that people get tired of the rhetoric, I think they get tired of the fighting and, and just the temperatures being so high. So I think, again, we all as elected officials or those in politics have to take a look at that in terms of what the people really want.
But for my party, specifically, we have to simplify. Simplify the message and communicate in a way that really resonates with people's values. You know, don't be afraid to talk about freedom. I love talking about that. And liberty, right? No party has a monopoly on those American values. So you know, every Floridian deserves the freedom to be healthy, prosperous and safe. That's what I fight for. That's what my caucus fights for. We just got to keep it simple so that the message can reach the people and resonate with the people.