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State House leader Fentrice Driskell on why the Democrats did poorly at the polls

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Octavio Jones
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WUSF Public Media
Rep. Fentrice Driskell speaks on the floor of the state House of Representatives

Rep. Driskell explained the party's poor showing as, "We are the party of the people and we have to be better, I think, about messaging around that ... I think our message just got drowned out this cycle."

While the Democratic Party did better than expected nationwide during the recent election, they took an historic drubbing in Florida.

There will be no Democrats serving in a statewide office next year, and the party lost several seats in Congress.

WUSF asks Fentrice Driskell of Tampa — the incoming House Democratic leader — how the party will be affected by Republicans having a supermajority in the legislature, and how Democrats can start winning again.

What does having a supermajority for Republicans in the legislature mean to the Democrats? Does it really make that much of a difference in pushing your agenda through?

DRISKELL: It makes a difference in the sense that there are now procedural rules that the Republicans can rely on, where they won't need any bipartisan support at all, to pass certain procedural measures, and also certain types of substantive legislation, like if it was a tax increase, or something involving the Constitution requiring a two-thirds vote, they would no longer need Democratic input.

Democrats have persisted in the minority in the Florida Legislature for quite some time. And we still been able to be successful in terms of delivering on good strong policy to try and help every Floridian enjoy the freedom to be healthy, prosperous, and safe. And we will continue to do that, even though we're in a super-minority now.
-State Rep. Fentrice Driskell

So yes, that is a big and significant change, because it means that for the Democrats in the state of Florida that we represent, and by the way, I believe all state representatives represent all people regardless of party. But I think what, what is going to happen is that it's going to shut out Democratic voices from the process. We're really at risk of that. And so that is a major concern.

Democrats have persisted in the minority in the Florida Legislature for quite some time. And we've still been able to be successful in terms of delivering on good strong policy to try and help every Floridian enjoy the freedom to be healthy, prosperous, and safe. And we will continue to do that, even though we're in a super minority now.

So basically, it makes it harder to throw any kind of like roadblocks in a way to block some of the Republicans more egregious bills?

That's right. And so it really does take away one of the tools of the minority party to try to make sure that every Floridians voice is heard, especially Floridians who may have a Democratic or a center-left perspective. And so from that vantage point, it is very unfortunate that we're now in a super-minority, because I believe that every Floridian deserves the right to have their voice heard, regardless of their political party.

Democrats did much better than expected nationwide. But here it was probably the worst showing in the nation. Why do you think that is?

Well, I think there's some structural issues that need to be overcome by Florida Democrats, in terms of getting our message out to the people and making sure we mobilize them to the polls. Democrat stayed home in Florida, I think is what the data are starting to show. And that's problematic.

But you also have to look, okay, if we were dealing with the same issues in Florida as everyone else was around the country, what was the different factor here? And my assessment is that it's Gov. Ron DeSantis. I mean, he spent more money on his gubernatorial race, than I think any race in American history. In the gubernatorial race, he had roughly $200 million in his war chest and spent roughly $100 million of it, he was also sending money to their Republican Senate, state Senate campaigns and the state House legislative campaigns. And it was just very difficult to keep up with that, regardless of who was at the top of the ticket for Democrats in Florida.

So that's what made the difference, I think, in his particular brand of politics, which really, in my opinion, has a lot of bullying and strongman elements, you know, they are suppressing our stories, whether it's our LGBTQ youth or the ability to teach history accurately in schools, especially Black history, or whether it's curtailing abortion rights. I think people in Florida felt a little a little down and out with a lot of the policies that he's pushed, which have led people to feel disenfranchised.

On the other side of the coin, also, there's been a lot of criticism about the the state Democratic Party. There's been a lot of calls to replace Chairman Manny Diaz. Are you in favor of his replacement, and you think would make any difference?

The issues that were faced by the state Democratic Party existed before Manny Diaz was chair, and they will exist after he is chair. And so I think, you folks put a lot of focus and emphasis on that. But what we really need to do is have conversations around, you know, what are we going to do globally as a party around voter registration and year-round engagement?

I do think to the extent that there are larger conversations had really need to get honest about the structural issues that exist, regardless of who the chair is.

So what do you think Democrats can do to stay relevant out there?

"We are the party of the people and we have to be better I think about messaging around that. And messaging why folks should vote Democratic. I think our message just got drowned out this cycle"
-State Rep. Fentrice Driskell

Well, that's the thing. I think we need to be more proud of what we do and to be more positive around it. I lead off every caucus meeting by saying it's a great day to be a Democrat. And I mean that - look at what happened nationally, Democrats ran on their record and they won. And Democrats really do represent the sort of policies that people want.

But people don't want abortion restrictions. Look at places like Kansas and Kentucky that are far more red than Florida. And they rejected them. In fact, every state that had an abortion restriction on the ballot, rejected it. And so I think that, you know, Florida Democrats are the ones who push for those policies. We push for access to affordable high-quality health care, we push for protecting our environment and for our communities to be safe from gun violence. We advocate for affordable housing and lower property insurance rates.

We are the party of the people and we have to be better, I think, about messaging around that. And messaging why folks should vote Democratic. I think our message just got drowned out this cycle.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.