Politics

Southern Discomfort

When they come to power in the South, Republicans often find a new enemy: each other.
by | October 2002

As the Florida legislature lurched toward the close of its regular session this past March, it was a singularly miserable place. On the House floor, one representative stood up to excoriate the Senate for refusing to consider an education reform package pushed by the governor. "I don't think the Senate has been honest in dealing with us at all," he fumed, "and I don't want to do anything that will help them out." Meanwhile, over in the Senate, one of the leaders was still seething over the governor's refusal to back a move to repeal the state's sales-tax exemptions. "I don't believe our governor has the proper respect for the legislature," he said. "Perhaps it's because our governor never served in elective office up here. He doesn't know about the give-and-take that is necessary."

It sounds like a classic case of partisan bickering, except for one inconvenient fact: All of these people are Republicans. The GOP has controlled both houses of the Florida legislature since 1996, and the governorship since Jeb Bush's election two years later. The feuding is internal. It just happens to be as nasty as when the two parties fight with each other.

Life is proving stressful for Republican majorities in more than one southern state. In Virginia, where the GOP also controls both chambers, there was far more conflict last year, between the legislature and the Republican governor, than there was this year, with a Democrat as governor. In Texas, where Republicans hold the governorship and Senate and are expected to take control of the House this November, tensions are emerging as GOP legislators argue about how to run things once they have the gavel. In all these states, majority status has brought with it rivalries and factionalism that didn't exist during the long decades out of power.

In Florida's case, things actually went pretty smoothly for Republicans during the first couple of years after the revolution. After Bush became governor in 1999, he and the legislature enacted a major tort law rewrite to favor business, adopted school vouchers and school performance standards, essentially abolished affirmative action in state procurement and university admissions, and reshaped the judicial nominating process to impose more executive control. It was as if all the pent-up backbench frustration with the growth of state government had molded the GOP into a policy-making juggernaut.

But if Florida Republicans knew the formula for collaboration and accomplishment, they forgot it quickly. This year, discord became the rule rather than the exception. The Senate and the House divided over redistricting, how to regulate banking and insurance and whether to eliminate a huge pile of accumulated sales-tax exemptions. Bush found himself stymied on several fronts by Republican legislators, most notably on a bid to privatize state personnel operations. And contests for the House speakership and Senate presidency beginning in 2004 spilled over into angry Republican primary battles this fall.

You can find all sorts of theories in Tallahassee for this descent into wrangling, from the mutual dislike shared by Bush and outgoing Senate President John McKay to speculation that lawmakers were using policy fights as a tactic to angle for favorable new districts. But there may be another, simpler explanation: Republicans in Florida, like their counterparts in Texas, Virginia and other Southern states, are facing the inevitable strains of growing up.

It is easy to forget that the GOP in the South, as a governing party, is barely out of its infancy. In the wake of the partisan realignment touched off by Ronald Reagan, Southern Republicans started winning governorships and U.S. Senate elections in the 1980s, but the GOP did not become a well-rooted political force in the South until the following decade. Democrats still held more than three-quarters of all Southern legislative seats into the late 1980s and didn't drop to 60 percent until 1998.

"This is a party whose modern roots do not go back very far," says David Colburn, who runs the Reubin Askew Institute on Politics and Society at the University of Florida. "Many of its members were brought into the party in the '90s, and they basically have not had much experience in governing. So it's a party that's in the process of maturing. When they first took control in Florida, the economy was strong and they had this sense that all was right with America and Florida: They were in charge and they knew how to govern more efficiently, more economically and more responsibly than the Democrats. But what they're finding out now, in a period in which you don't have a robust economy, is that these issues are quite difficult."

What makes these internal conversations worth noting is the role that Southern Republicans have come to play in shaping national politics, and especially in setting the GOP so squarely on a conservative course. As the GOP gains experience as a governing party, it must grapple with ideological, institutional and regional differences that could be ignored when Republicans were an insurgent minority focused on taking power from the Democrats. It is far too early to say yet what this means for the GOP's ideological profile in the South--and, hence, nationally--but it does seem fair to say that states such as Florida, Virginia and Texas offer some insight into how Republicans will tackle the problem.

One thing seems certain: Embarrassing factional disputes are not threatening newly won majority status, at least not in the short run. Florida, Virginia and Texas remain intensely competitive in statewide contests, but the GOP is unarguably in the ascendancy at the legislative district level. Not only do Republicans hold convincing majorities in both the Florida and Virginia houses (almost 2-to-1 in the latter), but redistricting in both states (as well as Texas) tilted in a Republican direction this year, suggesting the party will be hard to dislodge from legislative power for quite a while.

For their part, Democrats do not present much of a challenge, at least in organizational terms. In Florida, both the Democratic party itself and its strongest allies, the state AFL-CIO and the teachers' union, have all but announced that they've given up on the legislature. "They've said they can't afford to spend much on legislative races, so they've pretty much ignored them," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "Democrats in this state are renowned for going out and recruiting candidates and signing them up and then just walking away and not helping them much."

In Texas, Democrats have had to confront not only the conservative nature of the electorate but the fact that in five of the six presidential contests since 1980, the GOP has had a Texas Republican named Bush on the ticket. "What that meant," says Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas, "was the Republicans poured money, energy and resources in here--a huge influx of money, talent and organization."

In Virginia, Democrats spent the 1980s and early '90s ignoring the significance of rapid growth in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., Richmond and Virginia Beach. "They'd been in power basically ever since Reconstruction ended," says Bill Wood, director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. "The last time Republicans had held either house of the legislature was in 1885. So the Democratic hierarchy didn't think they had to have any new ideas. Whereas the Republicans worked hard on issues across the board that had tremendous appeal in these suburbs--especially crime, taxes and education."

They also worked hard to recruit electable standard-bearers. S. Vance Wilkins, a veteran of the Virginia House of Delegates who later became its speaker, was legendary for showing up in the homes of promising young politicians around the state, after driving hours to get there, to persuade them to run for the legislature as Republicans. Like his party-building counterpart in Florida, former GOP chairman Tom Slade, Wilkins was far more interested in initiative and political talent than in ideology. "He didn't have the luxury to be holding people to an issues litmus test," says Preston Bryant, a member of the Virginia House who once worked for Wilkins. "We were scrapping to get a majority."

Not surprisingly, the result has been Republican legislative delegations far more diverse than the Southern GOP's conservative national profile would suggest. In Texas, Florida and Virginia alike, the mix includes significant numbers of Christian conservatives, anti- tax activists, former Democrats who temper their fiscal conservatism with a commitment to supporting education and public safety, and suburban moderates who vote as social liberals.

This has made for some interesting party dynamics. In Texas, for instance, the state party apparatus is dominated by conservatives-- many of them religious conservatives--who have included in the GOP platform calls to withdraw from the United Nations, install the Ten Commandments in all public buildings and "dispel the myth of the separation of church and state." Most Republican legislators, on the other hand, routinely ignore the party's planks; many of them belong to the centrist, business-oriented coalition of Democrats and Republicans that has run Texas for years.

Conservatives tried and failed at this year's state party convention to find a way of holding GOP legislative candidates to the platform, and it is unclear how long their satisfaction at seeing Republicans win office will continue to outweigh their ideological frustration. "The social right is critical to Republicans' electoral success," says Jerry Polinard, chairman of the political science department at the University of Texas-Pan American, in Edinburg. "One wonders how long they will be willing to do the footwork and not get paid off in policy."

In Florida, where the Senate presidency rotates every two years, the incoming president, Jim King, has already been chosen, but there is a pitched battle over the position for 2004 between moderates and conservatives. Tom Lee, a moderate, had been chosen by the caucus to follow King, but he is being challenged by Dan Webster, a religious conservative and former House speaker. Although moderates seem fond of Webster personally, and concede that he was a less doctrinaire speaker than they'd expected, they're worried about his Christian Right allies. The split within the Senate carried over into this fall's primaries, in which Lee's faction and Webster's faction went after the other's supporters at every opportunity.

Republicans in the Florida House and Senate were barely on speaking terms this spring after Senate President McKay made an ambitious bid to rewrite the state's sales-tax code and eliminate some $9.8 billion worth of exemptions--many of them favoring business--that had been added over the years. The House, led by Speaker Tom Feeney, joined with Governor Bush in blocking the move, essentially calling the whole idea un-Republican. "A lot of us didn't mind looking at the sales tax," says one House conservative, "but his idea was just to get rid of everything."

This next year the leadership will be different, but it's unclear whether relations will be any better. Like McKay, incoming Senate President Jim King is a committed Republican moderate--pro-choice on abortion, willing to help Democratic senators pursue their legislative goals, ready to countenance higher tax revenues for such goals as public education. The incoming House speaker, Johnnie Byrd, is from the same conservative mold as Feeney. "Relations between Byrd and King are cordial right now," says one Republican familiar with the legislature. "But they have the potential to be explosive."

In both Florida and Virginia, some of the sharpest disagreements have turned on institutional differences between the Republican-run Senate and Republican governors. Virginia's session this spring, for example, went much more smoothly with a Democratic governor--Mark Warner replaced Republican James S. Gilmore III in January--than under full- fledged GOP control. "Our problem in 2001 was that we had the governor interfering with the legislative process," says state Senator Ken Stolle, a leading Republican moderate from Virginia Beach. "He indicated that he wanted certain things out of the session, and wasn't going to accept anything less than that. He did everything in his power to keep the House and Senate separate…. This year, even though we had horrendous problems, we had a governor who did not try to pit one house against the other."

Florida's Bush, although less belligerent than Gilmore in his personal style, has found himself embroiled in similarly angry legislative confrontations. Part of the reason is that Bush's agenda is inherently controversial, including as it does drastic changes to the schools, reengineering of public higher education and an end to affirmative action--stands that play well in hard-core Republican constituencies but pose problems for Republican legislators in more marginal districts.

"Every time you turn around, there's a big fall-on-the-sword issue," says one Republican whose sympathies lie with moderates in the legislature. "These are hard-hitting, career-busting issues. Senators in moderate districts who want to move them along also have to move along an agenda of things that are important to voters in their districts. Bush has failed to work with the Senate in providing a fair exchange. He doesn't bargain. Anyone who's been around the process knows that 'My way or the highway' is not the way to do business." Nor has Bush helped matters by upending the legislature's traditional prerogative of earmarking money for projects in members' districts; his vetoes of these pet projects have created chronic animosity and what a Senate insider calls "an ongoing feud" between Bush and the Senate leadership.

Ironically, the mix of ideological disagreement and institutional pride may prove to be most disruptive in Texas, depending on the outcome of next month's elections. It is ironic because the Texas legislature, unlike those in Virginia and Florida, has never been marked by a deep partisan divide. Both the House and the Senate have histories of bipartisan legislating, with members of the minority party allowed to chair committees.

"We have a bipartisan business coalition at the center of the legislature," says Buchanan, "and it has been more important that you're a part of this coalition than that you're an R or a D." Indeed, it was George W. Bush's embrace of that tradition as governor--which he carried so far as to campaign for Democrats who were part of the centrist coalition--that made him popular in Texas. Yet it is this tradition that some Republicans are trying to abolish--and other Republicans are equally determined to preserve.

Should Republicans take over the Texas House, conservative Tom Craddick is hoping to win the speakership. But he will face a challenge from the current speaker, Pete Laney, a right-of-center Democrat, and a fair number of Republicans are openly uneasy about voting against Laney, who has enjoyed strong support on both sides of the aisle. Craddick didn't help the situation this year when a conservative political action committee closely allied to him funded primary challenges to moderate House Republicans.

Craddick says he would appoint Democrats as committee chairs, just as Laney always appointed Republicans, but the party remains divided. And this angers the conservative wing of the GOP, which treats it as a foregone conclusion that a Republican majority should choose a Republican speaker. "I think it would be folly and foolish to even consider a Democrat speaker with a Republican majority," says GOP Representative Talmadge Heflin, a conservative from the Houston suburbs. "Will the same spirit still exist in the House under a Republican speaker? I say yes, but I think there will even be a more open process."

The Texas Senate is facing its own challenge to tradition. The state gives its lieutenant governor more powers than the office possesses anywhere else in America, and one crucial power has always been the prerogative of running the Senate, setting its agenda and naming committee chairs, among other duties. The Senate must vote on this arrangement every session, and can alter it at will, but since until recently the lieutenant governor and the legislative leaders have all been Democrats, the question has rarely come up.

Now, however, there is a strong possibility that Texas will elect a Republican Senate along with a Democratic lieutenant governor, John Sharp. In that case, GOP senators would face the prospect of granting broad authority to a Democrat that they could just as easily keep for themselves. There is speculation that should Sharp win in November, an effort would be made by Republican conservatives to change the rules and strip away the lieutenant governor's power. Senate Republican moderates are dead set against this. "Long ago," says one of them, Jeff Wentworth, "the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats decided it was good for Texans that we leave partisan politics at the front door of the capitol. If we were to allow the kind of partisan posturing that Congress does on a daily basis to play any significant role in our dealings, we wouldn't get our job done."

The internal politics of the Texas legislature is not a hot topic among state voters--whatever happens, it's an issue that will mostly interest Austin insiders. And in truth, much of the bickering within Republican ranks throughout the South has so far mattered more to the players than to their constituents. But that won't be true forever; in the long run, voters are not favorably disposed toward parties that fight endlessly among themselves.

And so, in Texas as in any state where they take over, Republicans will need to meet one more important challenge: They will need to get along with each other. Some of them in Virginia and Florida have learned that lesson painfully in the past couple of years. Others will discover it soon. "The first two or three years of the majority, there's this belief, 'We're all in this together,'" says Florida lobbyist Ken Plante. "Now, little by little, Republicans are formulating their own concepts of what it means to be in charge, so you're getting that little war going on. It's common and normal."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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