On Jan. 1, 2013, few people had ever heard of the Dream Defenders.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll was still in office, and any rumblings about her future were confined to rumors that she might not be Gov. Rick Scott’s running mate in 2014. And Charlie Crist was still a private citizen.
Scott was known as the governor opposed to anything and everything to do with the federal Affordable Care Act. And 45 percent of voters disapproved of the governor’s job performance, compared to 36 percent who approved.
As the state enters 2014, virtually all of that has changed. The Dream Defenders became the story of the summer in Tallahassee. Carroll was forced to resign because of her one-time association with an alleged illicit gambling operation. Crist is a newly minted Democratic candidate for governor. Scott endorsed the Medicaid expansion that was one of the central pieces of the Affordable Care Act, even if he didn’t push very hard for it.
But some things, it seems, aren’t so easily changed. Scott’s disapproval rating stands at 47 percent in the most recent Quinnipiac survey, though 42 percent of those polled now approve.
Here are five big Florida politics and government stories from the year that was. The list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, and the rankings are certainly up for debate. But these are the things that many people will likely remember about 2013.
1. Charlie Crist goes full Kafka, will run as a Democrat
Former Republican governor Crist had already undergone most of his metamorphosis by the time 2013 dawned. Crist bolted from the GOP in 2010 to run as an unaffiliated candidate for the U.S. Senate, then joined the Democratic Party in late 2012 after backing President Barack Obama’s bid for re-election.
Instead, a very different waiting game was under way: whether and when Crist would announce that he was going to challenge Scott for his old job. The “whether” wasn’t much in doubt. Crist ended speculation about the “when” in November. He filed for office Nov. 1 and held a rally three days later to make it official.
“When the people give you the honor of being the governor, you aren’t the governor of any one party,” Crist said. “You’re the governor for all Floridians. No matter what they say, it is not a sin to reach across the aisle. It is your obligation to work together. So yeah, I’m running as a Democrat and I am proud to do it.”
Crist started the race with a healthy advantage over Scott—he led by seven points in the first Quinnipiac poll after his announcement—but the match is far from a cakewalk. In a precursor for what is expected to be a brutal advertising campaign, Republicans spent much of 2013 unloading what seemed to be thousands of pages of opposition research on Crist months before he entered the race.
“Charlie Crist has now officially filed to run for the position he once abandoned,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry said after Crist filed. “When Florida needed Charlie Crist the most during difficult economic times, he ran away. If he really wants to be Governor now, why did he quit the first time?”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s half-hearted attempts to stamp out rumors that he might run for governor just as often poured gasoline on them.
With 2014 opening, Crist’s only credible primary opponent is former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich of Weston, who is a decided underdog. Barring the unexpected, Crist is on track to face off against his successor in November.
2. Jennifer Carroll leaves amid firestorm
On March 12, a skit at the annual comedy event put on by the Capitol press corps parodied what might happen if Scott tried to drop Carroll from the ticket ahead of his bid for re-election. The next day, Scott’s office announced that she was gone.
Carroll quit in the wake of a multi-state racketeering investigation into St. Augustine-based Allied Veterans of the World. State and federal authorities arrested 57 people associated with the nonprofit, accused of posing as a charity while running a $300 million illegal gambling ring through dozens of Internet cafés around the state.
Carroll co-owned a company that provided consulting services to Allied Veterans while she was a member of the House. She dropped her ties to the company after she was selected by Scott as his running-mate in 2010. Carroll was never charged with any crime.
“My decision … to resign as Lieutenant Governor represents my unwavering commitment to the great state of Florida,” Carroll said. “I simply refuse to allow the allegations facing a former client of my public relations firm to undermine the important work of the Governor and his administration.”
Carroll’s resignation was in some ways eclipsed by the Legislature’s unusually swift response to the gambling sting. Lawmakers hurriedly passed a measure banning Internet cafés and shutting down so-called “senior arcades” popular with the elderly in Broward and Palm Beach counties and in Southwest Florida. Scott signed the measure into law less than a month after the May arrests.
Carroll later said she was asked by a Scott aide to resign shortly after she was visited by investigators probing the gambling ring.
“In my military time, when the commander in chief makes a demand or a request, you say ‘Aye, aye sir,’ and you march on. And that’s what I did,” the retired Navy officer told The Associated Press.
Carroll stepped down after an at-times tumultuous two-year tenure.
After criminal charges against an employee led to allegations last year that Carroll was caught in a compromising position with another female aide, Carroll outraged the LGBT community when she suggested she was too attractive to be gay. She later apologized.
Shortly after Carroll’s departure, Scott said he would wait until after the legislative session that had just begun to appoint her replacement. And so the Capitol waited until the session ended. And then waited. And then waited some more.
By the end of 2013, Scott—and the state—had gone nine months without a lieutenant governor. Rumors reporting that the position would go to state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, came up empty. A short list of four names leaked out late in the year, but two of those mentioned quickly withdrew from consideration. The position remains unfilled.
3. To expand or not to expand on Medicaid
Scott built his political career largely on opposing Obama’s health-care law, sponsoring commercials to blast the act months before he decided to run for governor and before it was even passed by Congress. That made it all the more stunning when, in February, the former health-care executive stood in the Governor’s Mansion and announced that he supported Florida expanding Medicaid temporarily, a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act.
“We have a choice—and it’s not an easy choice—but my job is to worry about every Florida family,” Scott said, portraying the issue as one of conscience.
Few House Republicans saw it that way. From the beginning, House Speaker Will Weatherford signaled that his chamber would be fiercely opposed to growing the Medicaid rolls, arguing that such a move would eventually tax the state’s budget if federal funding didn’t come through. And conservative activists called Scott’s endorsement of the Medicaid expansion that would draw down billions of dollars in federal funding a betrayal.
“Will Medicaid expansion cover me for the knife (Scott) just buried in my back?” Henry Kelley, a Northwest Florida tea party leader, said in a Twitter message.
Kelley and others didn’t need to worry. The House and the Senate quickly tossed Medicaid expansion overboard, while floating different alternatives.
The Senate wanted to tap into the federal money and offer private coverage to the same people who would otherwise be part of a Medicaid expansion. Those people have incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $26,951 for a family of three.
The House countered with a state-funded plan to offer $2,000 subsidies to people whose incomes are up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level and meet certain guidelines such as being parents of children. Those people would be able to buy coverage through a long-planned state health online marketplace known as Florida Health Choices. A family of three with an income of $19,530—100 percent of the poverty level—would qualify.
In the end, neither side budged enough to get a deal done. And Scott—as Democrats pointedly noted—seemed unwilling to spend much, if any, political capital to force the Legislature to act. All the proposals for increasing insurance coverage died.
4. The impossible dream on gun laws
No one quite knew what to think when a group of about 100 students and protesters made their way to Scott’s office on July 16, calling for changes to the state’s self-defense laws.
The protesters were reacting to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. As the evening hours wore on, about 40 protesters stayed on past 5 p.m. and vowed to spend the night.
The last of them left 31 days later.
At a time when the summer doldrums are usually at their worst for Capitol reporters, the Dream Defenders showed a knack for generating media attention and bringing attention to their cause: a special session called to overhaul the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law and ease zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools.
When lawmakers refused to call a special session, the Dream Defenders held a “People’s Session.” Harry Belafonte and the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Tallahassee to wish them well.
Jackson connected Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Martin to dozens of other unarmed African-Americans killed by police, security guards or “vigilantes,” in Jackson’s word.
“Trayvon was a canary in the mine,” Jackson said. “There are many more birds in that mine.”
Protesters eventually left after forcing the state to poll legislators to see if they wanted a special session. Lawmakers did eventually hold a subcommittee vote on a bill to repeal Stand Your Ground—and killed the measure on an 11-2 vote.
“We stand and defend what is ours,” said Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness. “ ’Stand your ground’ is core to our American way of life.”
5. We hardly knew ye. Or ye. Or ye.
High-ranking officials have not lasted long in Scott’s administration. At least 12 department heads hired in the three years Scott’s been on the job have resigned. The governor is on his third chief of staff and still has a vacancy in the lieutenant governor slot.
Scott’s revolving door seemed to worsen in 2013. At one point, the lead positions in charge of public schools and higher education were both vacant. Both were filled by the end of the year, but the transitions did little to ease an appearance of turmoil inside the Scott administration.
The quickest and highest-profile fall from grace befell Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, a rising star in the school accountability movement when he took over in Florida. But the ghosts of his old job in Indiana soon came back to haunt Bennett, who resigned in August after fewer than eight months on the job in the wake of reports that he tweaked the Indiana school report card formulas to help a school founded by a political contributor.
A state report in Indiana, issued after Bennett had already quit the Florida job, later found the grade changes were “plausible,” and the policy behind the changes “was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances.” Bennett was eventually replaced by Pam Stewart in her second stint as interim education commissioner. Before Bennett was hired, Stewart filled in after his predecessor Gerard Robinson, who served for a little more than a year, stepped down. Stewart is now education commissioner, the fourth since Scott took office.
Bennett’s departure followed on the heels of the resignation of DCF Secretary David Wilkins. Wilkins quit in July amid criticism of the agency’s handling of four children whose deaths critics said could have been prevented. Since then, the state has commissioned a study of 40 deaths of children known to the department when they died of abuse or neglect.
Wilkins had also battled the state’s 19 community based care organizations, which deliver local child-welfare services, saying he was trying to make the local agencies more accountable.
Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo has announced she will stay on the job through the end of the 2014 legislative session.
And State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan left in August for a similar post in Pennsylvania. Though there were fewer immediate signs of trouble in Brogan’s relationship with Scott, the governor had ruffled some feathers by pushing the Florida Board of Governors to keep tuition rates down and increase its emphasis on the science, technology, education and math degrees that he believes will power the new economy.
The board quickly turned to Marshall Criser, a fixture of the state’s business and political establishment, to fill the post. Criser, the son of a former president of the University of Florida and member of the UF board of trustees, had served as president of AT&T Florida since 2005 and has had a role in government relations in Florida for telecom giant or its state predecessor, BellSouth, off and on since 1989.
Quote of the year: “You can’t dip them in milk and hold them over a candle and see the United Nations flag or Barack Obama’s face. They’re not some federal conspiracy.”—Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, responding to the concerns some conservative activists have about the Common Core education standards.