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Politics / Issues

Weekly Roundup: 'Whistling Past The Graveyard'

State Legislature

Evidence of widespread Republican angst cast a shadow from the nation's capital to the Sunshine State this week.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner on Friday rocked the political world with his announcement that he is resigning from his seat late next month.

Succumbing to pressure from conservatives, Boehner's decision to call it a day came at the height of an intraparty GOP Game of Thrones over a possible government shutdown.

The Ohio Republican said he had planned to serve as speaker only until last year but held onto his post "to provide continuity" to his caucus and the U.S. House.

"It is my view, however, that prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution," Boehner said in a statement.

Florida Republicans are just as fractious.

The ongoing battle over the Florida Legislature's congressional map, rejected by the state Supreme Court, dragged on in a Tallahassee courtroom this week. Republican lawmakers' failure to reach consensus on the map during a special session last month is giving political observers the heebie-jeebies as they ponder the Legislature's ability to craft a new Senate map next month.

Meanwhile, veteran state lawmaker Nancy Detert announced she intends to quit the Senate two years early and head home in pursuit of greener pastures on the Sarasota County Commission. Detert, a moderate Republican, pinned her decision, in part, on future GOP legislative leadership that she sees as "intolerant, inflexible and too rigid."

And Republican Party of Florida leaders reached a compromise of sorts on a plan that originally would have forced presidential wannabes to show up at a party fall fete or be kept off the state's primary ballot in March. Some GOP critics of the original plan, the brainchild of the state's party chief, likened it to blackmail.

Many Republicans find the fractiousness disturbing.

"The party is deeply divided on the issues and plagued by a surplus of demagogues on the one hand and a deficit of effective leaders on the other. These dangers are compounded by the lack of discipline that comes from large majorities," J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a longtime Florida GOP operative, said. "We put the best face on all this by calling all it a healthy clash of ideas and telling ourselves that all will come out right in the end. My grandmother would have called that whistling past the graveyard."

FUSSING AND FEUDING

The drama over Florida's congressional map played out in a Tallahassee courtroom yet again this week.

Legislative aides who drew a map of congressional districts backed by the state House defended the plan Thursday, even as they conceded that other alternatives might also have positive qualities.

The testimony came on the first day of a hearing before Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who will decide which of seven plans --- or which combination of aspects of those plans --- will be recommended to the Florida Supreme Court to break a logjam over lines for the state's 27 congressional districts.

What happened in the courtroom also underlined the complexity of the legal challenge, in which the House and Senate --- both controlled by Republicans --- have offered competing proposals for how the districts should be drawn. A coalition of voting-rights organizations and a group of voters known as the "Romo plaintiffs" have their own ideas.

"It just makes it a little longer, but it is kind of pleasurable to watch the House and Senate fuss with each other," said David King, a lawyer for the voting-rights organizations that have spent years locked in a legal battle over the map.

The House has backed using a "base map" drawn in seclusion by aides before a special redistricting session held by the Legislature last month. That session collapsed over differences between the House and the Senate over how much lawmakers could change the base map, which was drawn in response to a July Supreme Court decision striking down current districts for violating a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.

But the voting-rights organizations and the Romo plaintiffs have argued that the proposals put forward by the Legislature redraw the lines in a way that actually makes Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo's Miami-Dade County seat safer without endangering Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a popular GOP politician in South Florida.

"Let me be clear: Our job was not to draw the best way; it was to draw a compliant way," House staffer Jason Poreda said under questioning from a lawyer for the voting-rights groups. "I recognize that there could be other ways to have drawn that district, but it doesn't impugn the way that we decided to do it."

DETERT HOMEWARD-BOUND

"No-nonsense Nancy" Detert, a straight-talking Republican with an independent streak, announced her widely anticipated decision to leave the Senate in 2016, and she timed Thursday's announcement in advance of a special session next month to draw new Senate districts.

"I got to thinking, 'I would like to put it behind me and put it to rest once and for all, but probably it's a good idea to do that before we start drawing maps,' " Detert, R-Venice, told The News Service of Florida. "Because then, I would have had more questions about whether I'm drawing a map to benefit myself --- everyone will know the answer is no."

Her plans have been closely monitored because of their potential impact on the bitter race to become Senate president after the 2016 elections. The race pits Detert's longtime ally, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, against Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Detert said she didn't expect her departure to change the outcome.

Detert supports abortion rights and has opposed school vouchers. She also chairs the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee and sits on the board of the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida.

Detert, who has served in the state Legislature for 15 years, has earned kudos for pushing laws to help foster children. While senators typically have four-year terms, redistricting in 2012 caused Detert to have a two-year term and then to run again. That also made her eligible to serve 10 years in the Senate until 2018, rather than the standard eight.

Despite her successes, Detert said the time is coming when an independent streak like hers will be a greater liability in the Legislature.

"I've been able to do a lot of great things thanks to the leadership I've had in the Senate," she said. "But when I look to the future, I don't see an atmosphere I could flourish in. … I think we have leadership coming in that is intolerant, inflexible and too rigid."

SUNSHINE, OR ELSE

Florida Republican leaders walked back a proposal that would have required GOP White House hopefuls to show up at the state party's "Sunshine Summit" in November if they wanted to make it onto the 2016 presidential primary ballot.

A revised rule, approved by the RPOF's executive board in 35-1 vote Friday, will give candidates three options if they want to participate in Florida's winner-take-all GOP primary in March: Show up at the fall meeting, pay a $25,000 fee or gather petitions from voters.

State Chairman Blaise Ingoglia originally wanted to require candidates to submit their qualifying papers for the primary at the Sunshine Summit or be banned from the ballot.

The rule approved Friday "gives clear options to candidates while empowering the grassroots of our great party," Ingoglia said in a statement.

As late as Wednesday, Ingoglia defended his original proposal.

The GOP candidates need to throw some red meat to the party faithful in Florida this year if Republicans want to win back the White House, Ingoglia implied in an op-ed published on the website Context Florida.

"In 2016, Florida will have unprecedented influence in the general election as the largest, most diverse swing state in the nation. Republicans cannot win the White House without winning the state of Florida, and to win, we need the grassroots of our party active, engaged, and motivated," he wrote.

But some Republicans thought the strong-arm tactics could have backfired by providing perfect cover for anyone but former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio or Donald Trump --- the current GOP frontrunner, who also has Florida ties --- to boycott the state, and spend their campaign cash elsewhere.

Keeping candidates who probably wouldn't fare well in Florida off the ballot would do them a favor by allowing them to avoid the embarrassment of a poor showing, according to Stipanovich.

"It gives me the perfect excuse not to do what I don't want to do anyway. So, thank you, baby Jesus," he said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The wrangling over congressional redistricting continued as Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis heard testimony in the drawn-out legal battle.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I think it is short-sighted, if not selfish, for the party leadership to consider depriving Republican voters in Florida of their full ability to influence the selection of America's next president because of some silly desire to hold a debate." --- Veteran GOP operative J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, on a proposal that would have required Florida GOP presidential candidates to attend a state party function in November to appear on the primary ballot next year.