Sunshine State Detente

Article excerpt

After nine rounds of tied voting, lawmakers in Florida dreamed up a way to balance the power in the Senate.

As Florida senators struggled to break a 20-20 partisan tie and pick a new president last November, Republicans began sporting a black and white lapel button.

"118 years," it said. "What's a few more hours?"

At that moment, it had been 118 years since a Republican led the Florida Senate. And now that the chamber was deadlocked with no sign of a defection, it looked more and more certain that the long dry spell would come to an end.

It did. But it took two more days, not a few more hours.

"You have either elected two presidents or you haven't elected any," quipped Senate Secretary Joe Brown after the first of nine 20-20 votes that repeatedly demonstrated each party's loyalty to its choice, and each party's resistance to giving up the power.

After two days of negotiations a Republican did indeed end up in the president's chair. Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville will serve until Oct. 11, when his resignation -- signed, sealed, unanimously endorsed and profoundly prayed over -- becomes effective, giving the job to the Democrats.

With one regular session on the books, this much is known. Senators behaved pleasantly toward one another, a vast improvement over the poisonous relations during the 1992 war over reapportionment and taxes. The session produced no unending plague of tie votes. And no political coup emerged to topple the delicate balance of power worked out in November.

The Florida Senate left town without tackling workers' compensation reform and other insurance problems related to Hurricane Andrew.

The Senators, strokes of statesmanship, it might be argued, all happened last November.

The election produced the unprecedented tie. Even before the last of the political cliffhangers over who would prevail teetered to an end, rumors of coalitions and defections filled the Capitol.

Both parties had chosen their leaders in caucuses before the election. The Republicans, choice was Crenshaw, a 48-year-old Jacksonville investment banker and son-in-law of former GOP Governor Claude Kirk. The Democrats tapped Pat Thomas, a 59-year-old Southern-style politician and insurance man from the small town of Quincy just a few miles down the road from the capital.

When the election ended in a tie, the conventional wisdom was that neither man would serve as president.

After the tie, Crenshaw claimed the support of Senator Betty Holzendorf, a colleague from Jacksonville who Republicans said would vote her hometown over her Democratic party. Democrats denied she was committed to Crenshaw in the event of a tie. But just to make sure, they spirited her off to a South Florida condominium to keep her from Republican swains.

Democrats hinted that a coalition of moderate urban senators would emerge to elect a Democrat. And the freshmen who arrived in town on the winds of change threw another wild card into the mix.

Nine rounds of voting proved the conventional wisdom wrong.

Thomas said a constituent remarked that the series of 20-20 votes was the Senate's finest hour, proving honesty and fidelity. "In that period of time, they tried to steal 'em and buy 'em and swap 'em and love 'em and nobody left," he said.

Both parties realized they would have to set up a lasting framework to govern under detente. It took awhile.

Senators rushed around buying new shirts, dresses and underwear as they stayed in town beyond the one day they expected. Senator Robert Wexler of Boca Raton worried about his pregnant wife and her fast-approaching due date. Lobbyists, gathered outside the chamber, proposed settling the matter with a coin flip until someone suggested that flipping a coin for anything of value might constitute illegal gambling.

Crenshaw, who played basketball at the University of Georgia, suggested deciding the matter by shooting free throws. …