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The First Florida Coalition Puzzle

Post # 248, Bob McKnight's Florida Commentary

Effective Coalition building requires trust and respect across the aisle. That is why it will not work today.

A new book called Realigners by Professor Timothy Shenk of George Washington University is about building effective coalitions in politics. The Professor argues that coalitions can be effective and in some cases changed politics world wide. But they require trust and respect among the participants. That is the rub today. There is little trust and almost no respect across the aisles in federal and state houses of government.

At the start, effective coalition building takes adroit planning. All sides must feel they won in the coalition. The cost in terms of financial and political capital must be acceptable. There must be ample time for the coalition to masticize and develop so that it is fully effective. In many cases, changes must be made after starting to ensure the best possible results.

I had experience with what may have been the first Bi-Partisan Legislative Coalition in the Florida Legislature. It dealt with the issue of water management. In 1974, a new law mandated a review of Florida's five water management districts, and their sub basins. The districts were configured along the water boundaries and had ad valorem tax funding for construction, maintenance and operation. As the state grew exponentially, the politics and management of the districts also grew. I was appointed to the Select House Committee as the lone representative from voter rich south Florida by veteran Chairman Bill Fulford from Orlando.

The Water Management Coalition started as the brainchild of State Representative Curt Kiser, Republican of Pinellas County who was not a member of the Committee. Since I was a Democrat from Miami, our two counties could command close to 1/4 of the total votes in the legislature. I felt our major need in urban South Florida was to ensure that we got our fair share of the ad valorem tax revenue (from our hundreds of condominiums, for example). I had a vision of a string of recreational and passive parks along the miles next to the water management canals. Curt in exchange wanted to ensure that his county had proportional membership on the Board of the Water Management District, controlled by the farm and cattle oriented Democrats. Neither Curt nor I told the leadership of the House or even the Committee of our plans to form the Coalition, but waited until floor debate to spring our plan. The secrecy worked beautifully and we garnered a majority vote to have our issues adopted by floor amendments. The leadership was stunned and approached Curt and I about a extracting from us consessions in the coalition debate.

About 6 years later in the Florida Senate, Dean Dempsey Barron copied our Coalition building in aligning his Democratic colleagues with disgruntled Republicans to form a conservative group to take control of the Florida Senate. It was not as peaceful as building the water management coalition, but it was far more powerful, because of Barron's legislative clout. He formed a lock down 26-14 majority of Democrats and Republicans to control the operation of the Florida Senate for the rest of that term.

Coalition building is essentially forcing a vote on bi-partisanship, which I feel was the vision of our framers of government. But, it will not work without trust and respect across the aisle. That is why it will not work today.


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