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Divided and Diminished, Florida Democrats Choose West Palm’s Pafford to Lead in House

| November 18, 2014

Mark Pafford.

Mark Pafford, in an image of himself he posted on his Facebook page, next to the Philae space probe. Pafford and Democrats in Florida might as well be as distant from power as that comet. The image, which Pafford briefly used as his profile picture, was soon taken down.

House Democrats presented a united front Monday, unanimously electing Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach as their leader for the coming legislative session in a meeting that still showed hints of the divisions that have plagued the caucus in recent months.


“We have many differences amongst us,” said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens. “But we are united behind Mark Pafford this evening.”

The election of Pafford, who has been leader-in-waiting for a little more than a year, brought an end to a dispute among Democrats that has raged off and on for just as long. Pafford was selected after House Democrats deposed Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, in the wake of a fundraising clash with the Florida Democratic Party.

But after Democrats lost six seats in elections earlier this month, some members pushed instead for Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach. Taylor pulled out of the race earlier Monday, saying he couldn’t work with the leadership of the state party.

In his remarks to the caucus Monday, Pafford said he was willing to work with legislative Republicans, who now hold a two-thirds majority in the House and can essentially rule with a free hand. But Pafford also said his party had to be willing to challenge the majority when necessary.

“We can work across the aisle and do great things when it comes to great ideas, helping people,” he said. But in other cases, Pafford said, “we need to fight tooth and nail for those people. We all have it in us.”

Still, there were signs of tension. Members cheered outgoing Rep. Reggie Fullwood of Jacksonville, who will be forced to win his seat again in a special election after a paperwork snafu. Fullwood would have been unchallenged this fall if his qualifying papers had gone through, but he has since drawn a special-election primary challenge from Jacksonville City Council member Johnny Gaffney.

Taylor has said the party shouldn’t choose sides in a primary fight.

“That’s just more of the same,” Taylor said of the cheers for Fullwood. “That’s what I’ve been seeing throughout this process. Individuals should be able to support people who they feel like they want to support. But as a leader, you have to be very cautious, because the same member that you’re campaigning against will be the same member that will be here in this caucus.”

Pafford said the support for Fullwood was a sign of personal affection for a colleague.

“Reggie is a friend of a lot of people here,” he told reporters. “As we said, this is a family. And Reggie has been part of our family.”

Meanwhile, in a speech to the caucus, Rouson warned against shunning members who don’t toe the party line. An undercurrent of ideological differences has flowed through the battle over leadership, with Rouson and Taylor often associated with the more moderate wing of the party.

“Are we inclusive or not?” Rouson said. “Are we tolerant of caucus members’ opinions or not? Do we accept the liberal Democrat, the moderate and the conservative because they are Democrats? Our actions will determine whether we are an irrelevant debating team or a collaborative, substantive political force with a policy agenda embraced by the majority of Floridians.”

Rouson also took a veiled shot at Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant, who blasted those backing Taylor’s rebellion as “bed-wetters” who “need to shut up” in an interview last week with The News Service of Florida.

“We were not elected to come here and be told to shut up,” Rouson said.

But talking to reporters after the meeting, Pafford said he felt like the party would continue to unite.

“I think we naturally come together when we need to come together, and that’s a great thing about being a member of a minority caucus,” he said.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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