Face to Face: A Conversation with Chris Smith


The minority leader of the Florida House of Represenatives discusses state politics and what it'll take to get Democrats out of minority-party status.

Q. You're about to become minority leader of the Florida House of Representatives, a chamber dominated by Republicans. You're a Democrat. Where's the win-win here?

A. This year, one of the best wins comes through committee votes. A lot of issues have been decided in committees now, and Republicans are starting to get into their little subgroups. So now our committee votes are meaning a lot. Some of your major issues have been decided by one or two votes in committees. At one point, the speaker [of the House] was so scared of committees that he added people to the State Administration Committee to make sure that his [telecommunications] bill got through.

A lot of issues are decided in committee by Democrats. We're determining a lot of the agenda here.

Q. Now, will that strategy have to change next year when you get a new speaker?

A. No, I think it'll be more effective because the incoming speaker is less totalitarian. He will have more open rein, giving his members more room to vote their conscience.

You get a certain way when you reach big numbers. When we had 80 members, you had the North Florida Democrats vs. the South Florida Democrats, the blue dogs vs. the yellow dogs.

Now the Republican are at that point where the arch-conservatives are against the moderates. They're picking fights and they're fighting each other on issues.

Q. Let's get a clear definition of your new job. What is the role and responsibility of a minority leader?

A. A lot of my work this year is political. I've got to raise all the money for House Democrats for a program called House Victory. I have to develop the strategy and decide where to spend the money around the state, which races to invest in, how much to invest and when not to invest. I run the entire political operation. I have a staff of six in offices near the Capitol.

Q. Talk about the elections for a minute. Does the party have a shot to make gains in the upcoming House races?

A. My goal -- and I've told everybody -- is that I'm concentrating on five races. I'm going to put as much money as need be, as much as $500,000 total, to win five seats.

The goal is to get us back to over-40, to stop [the Republicans'] two-thirds majority. As long as I can put my candidate on the same footing as the Republican, then I have an opportunity to win.

Q. Where do you see your best chances to win?

A. They are in north and central Florida. South Florida is pretty well-defined. The places where we have Democrats are represented by Democrats. The places we don't, by Republicans. The swing seats are your north and central Florida seats, where Democrats haven't been voting for Democrats.

Q. You talk about raising money. What steps have you taken to do that?

A. I've toured the state, much to the chagrin of my wife. I've pushed boxes in a paper plant in Jacksonville. I've dug out phosphate in Live Oak. I've handled Coca Cola products in Tampa. I've gone around this state and met with major corporations and major donors face-to-face.

I don't do the Tallahassee make-a phone-call-and-try-to-get-a-check. I've been from Miami-Dade County to Pensacola, meeting with people, discussing my philosophy and what I'm trying to do. That has gone extremely well in terms of fund raising.

Q. How so? How much?

A. We've got good numbers. I've exceeded last year and my sights are on the [fund-raising] record for Democrats.

Q. I'm pushing the question because back in the days of Democratic House Speaker-designate Willie Logan, from Opa Locka, the knock against him was that a black Democrat couldn't raise any money.

A. That's been pushing me -- the ghost of Willie Logan. Last year, we raised a total of $2.2 million. I've far exceeded that. The record for Democrats, even when we had control of the House, was $3.2 million and I'm closing in on that.

Q. The perception is that the business community is solidly Republican. How do you persuade that community to consider Democrats?

A. Businesses go against other businesses in Tallahassee. In that type of fight, both sides have given money to Republicans; it's good to have a few votes over on the Democratic side. A lot of times, we're the swing vote in a business vs. business fight.

For example, you've had an issue pitting the electric utilities against Publix and the big retailers. That's a business vs. business fight. The consumers aren't in it. In those situations, we can be the swing votes on those issues.

Q. In the past, the job seemed like herding cats. What makes this group of Democrats any different?

A. Everyone in here now was elected into the minority. It was hard when you were in the majority as Democrats and then found yourself in the minority. You're not sitting up front anymore, you're not committee chair anymore, you're not the big dog anymore. A lot of people couldn't deal with that. So, they were cutting deals all over the place to feel important.

More importantly, though, we've been able to see a few victories. We've been able to get bills out of committee and managed to kill a few in committees by locking down members and standing together. On those occasions when we do band together, we get results. So, this caucus now has matured as a minority.

It's not the turmoil caucus. We've had a lot of turmoil during the last four or five years, because you have people who want to be in the majority. That was a problem with other minority leaders, they all wanted to be speaker. I'm never going to be in the majority. I'm not going to be speaker. When I take my sights off of scoring a touchdown and set my sights on making a first down, that's where we'll make changes.

Q. Where do you see any potential on issues next year?

A. Definitely the social issues that we've lost on recently are coming back, because moderate Republicans are starting to feel the heat and are starting to watch their votes. There may be more issues that will come back to us and pit moderates against conservatives, and at that point, I think, the Democrats can band together with the moderates and get some things done.

Q. Everyone points to criticism of partisanship in the Legislature. Do you see any of that changing with the new leadership coming in next year?

A. Well, there's a chance that Democrats will be able to band together with Republicans a little more. I'm not saying that there will be true bipartisanship. Hopefully, my caucus will still band together, not so much against Republicans, but against bad issues.

Q. I'd be remiss in not asking how your new post will help South Florida and your district.

A. It will bring some stature back to Broward County. It will bring the ability to bring some issues back to Broward County.

Broward was the big dog back in the time of [state Rep. Fred] Lippman, [state Sen. Jack] Tobin, [House Speaker Tom] Gustafson and [state Rep. Anne] Mackenzie. Once we lost the majority, we kind of went to the back of the bus.

But, with me coming in as minority leader, it has had an impact, even among Republicans who respect the title. I've been able to affect some things, like getting that League of Cities amendment [which gives cities in Broward County much more power to determine development issues] on without any debate.

Q. You used the football analogy earlier, but when it's all said and done, do you think the first downs will help?

A. Yes, definitely. The pendulum swings to both sides. I've got to start the swing back to our side.

We win a few seats this year. Next time, there are about four or five Republicans who are sitting in heavily Democratic seats -- Frank Farkas over in Pasco County and Ken Sorenson down in Key West and Leslie Waters over on the west coast. There are a lot of Republicans who are entrenched now in Democratic seats who are going to be termed out next time. If I come back with 42, and the next person takes it up to 49 or 50, and the next person moves it up to 53, in a few cycles, we'll be back on top.

But you have to start somewhere.


State Rep. Chris L. Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, has become a state capital veteran in a short period of time. Next year, the 34-year-old attorney will assume the post of Democratic Leader in the Florida House of Representatives. His challenge will be to craft Democratic House members into an effective group to advocate and enact laws in a chamber that is overwhelmingly dominated by Republican legislators.

Born in Fort Lauderdale, he was elected to the Florida House in 1998 and re-elected to serve three two-year terms.

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