Rob Gurwitt is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
When you're in the legislative minority--really in the minority-- sometimes the only weapons you have are your words. Among Democrats in the Florida House of Representatives, who command only 39 of the body's 120 seats, the choicest of those words often come from Susan Bucher.
Last year, when the Republicans who run the House and Senate disagreed so sharply among themselves that they ended the regular session without passing a budget, Bucher (whose last name is pronounced "Booker") commented dismissively, "They've blown up the budget process. We've done nothing for 60 days. What's to blame? Boy egos." When the Republican leadership pushed through a bill granting an exemption from hospital-building regulations to a Central Florida developer who happened to be a major GOP donor, Bucher suggested the contributions and the legislation were linked. "I guess [hospitals] have found a cheaper way" than submitting to the regulatory process, she said.
A few months ago, when the House health committee allowed only two minutes of debate on a bill creating a new profession of "anesthesiology associate"--a move backed by the Florida Medical Association and opposed vociferously by certified nurses--Bucher really let loose. "It is just amazing," she steamed, "what contributions have purchased here today... I believe strongly that patients will die. I think this is a bad bill that was financially greased through the system."
At that point, the Republican co-chairs of the House Rules Committee announced they'd been asked by Speaker Johnnie Byrd to look into Bucher's behavior and consider the possibility of formally punishing her. The press responded with a flurry of articles about what appeared to be an effort to muzzle an outspoken member of the minority. Democrats took to wearing stickers on their lapels reading "Free Susan." Bucher, who represents a heavily Democratic district around West Palm Beach, found herself the subject of attention not usually lavished on back-bench members of any legislative minority.
In truth, it's a bit unclear just what was being investigated. One Republican, Rules chairman Dennis Ross, says his inquiry actually stemmed from an earlier incident, in which Bucher had been accused of using profanity in dealing with aides at the state's Department of Children and Families "She was berating and [mis]treating staff members of the state of Florida," Ross insists.
Democrats don't buy that explanation. House Minority Leader Doug Wiles, who met several times with Ross, says nobody ever related the inquiry to Bucher's treatment of agency staff. Instead, he says, "Susan was singled out as much because of her solid preparation and her debating skills as anything else."
Wherever the truth may lie in that episode, it remains a fact that Bucher, who is 45, has been something of a thorn in the side of the Republican majority ever since her arrival as a House member after a special election in 2000. She had already spent seven years as a staff member for her predecessor before winning his seat after he died. In a House in which three-quarters of the members are new, thanks to term limits, that makes her one of the more experienced legislators around. Because she vigilantly studies legislation proposed by the majority and then asks pointed questions, says Wiles, "Susan probably knows more about the bills than their sponsors in some cases, and that's very intimidating for some of these members."
For her part, Bucher seems unrepentant. "I don't have the votes, so my only defense is to read carefully what they're proposing and ask questions to shed the light of day on what they're proposing to do," she says. "Information is power. And you can ask anyone, I'm not very social. I didn't go there to make friends; I have friends at home."
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