Legislative History Facts
The Senate President presides over the Senate, acts as party leader, appoints committee members, and influences legislation in a number of ways. This highly desirable post is a demanding test of will, skill, and wit. Negotiating passage of a legislative program generally requires working effectively with legislators on both sides of the aisle. Especially since the 1992 "Eight is Enough" constitutional amendment limited service in either house to eight years, legislators have moved frequently between houses.
Seeking the House leadership in the "old days" was an artful political process that unfolded slowly, often behind the scenes, as potential leaders made their plays for the position. The leadership task has been further challenged in recent decades by single-member district representation and term limits.
Born a slave in Virginia, Josiah Walls (R-Alachua), in 1868 became the first of several African Americans to serve in the State Legislature - briefly – during Reconstruction. A century would pass before Joe Lang Kershaw (1968) and Gwen Cherry (1970) (both D-Miami) would reopen the doors to stay in the House of Representatives.
Ranching may have been Florida’s first industry, beginning with breeds imported by the Spanish and English settlers. Ranchers were active in politics early on, favoring open range policies. Keeping animals off private property was the landowners’ responsibility, and where railroad tracks crossed open land, the railroad paid if their train struck a cow. Though fencing made roundup easier for cattle dipping in the 1920s to fight Texas tick fever and treatment for screw worm infestation in the 1930s, cattle still roamed onto highways. In 1949 laws were passed to restrict livestock from "running at large" on public land.
All but a handful of Florida’s governors honed their political skills in the State Legislature. Many served in both houses, including Park Trammell 1913-17 (D-Polk), Charley Johns, Acting Governor 1953-55 (D-Bradford), LeRoy Collins 1955-61 (D-Leon), Reubin O’D.Askew 1971-79 (D-Escambia), Bob Graham 1979-87 (D-Dade), Lawton Chiles 1991-98 (D-Polk), and Buddy MacKay 1998-99 (D-Marion). Among those who served as House Speakers were William S. Jennings 1901-05 (D-Hernando), Albert Gilchrist 1909-13 (D-DeSoto), Cary A. Hardee 1921-25 (D-Suwannee), Daniel McCarty 1953 (D-St. Lucie), and Farris Bryant 1961-65 (D-Marion).
The Florida Constitution sets forth the individual rights of citizens as well as creating state and local offices and apportioning power among them. Florida’s sixth and current Constitution was ratified in 1968, with additional amendments approved subsequently by the voters.
Before reapportionment, the approximately 15 percent of Floridians living north of Ocala elected more than half of the state’s lawmakers. Though by 1950 South Florida’s population was surging, the state’s upper half kept the upper hand in the Legislature. For as long as every county had one vote, the state senators from rural counties held tight the reins of power, successfully opposing civil rights legislation as well as reapportionment that would have based power on "people instead of pine trees." They became known as "the Pork Chop Gang." The struggle was characterized as one between the "old Florida" rooted in southern traditions of rural life , and the more progressive "new Florida." Their reign was brought to an end in the 1960s with court-ordered reapportionment and the adoption of the 1968 Constitution.
The struggle for fair representation was long and difficult. It took the U.S. Supreme Court to bring fair representation to state legislatures. Until the 1960s, legislative districts were determined not by population but by county boundaries. Lawmakers from the more populous southern counties found it impossible to win any significant gains in representation. In 1962 the U.S. Supreme Court broke the dominant northerners’ choke-hold, allowing a U.S. District Court in Tallahassee to order a fair reapportionment.
Traditional ceremonies such as the swearing in of members, memorials, daily devotions, and moments of silent prayer honor religious practice while respecting religious freedom. On June 23, 1845, after a quorum was declared at the first session of the House of Representatives under statehood, the Rev. Joshua Phelps, a Tallahassee Presbyterian minister, was invited to "engage in prayer," thereby establishing a custom still practiced today.
Florida’s Cuban and Latin American trade ties go back to the time of its Spanish domination. Still, not until the 1980s was there significant Hispanic-American representation in the Legislature, beginning with the election in 1982 of Roberto Casas and Ileana Ros to the House of Representatives.
Legislative service has proved an intensive training ground for many who later became officers of the state at the Cabinet level. Two former House members, H. Clay Crawford and R.A. Gray, served lengthy terms as Secretary of State. With one exception, their successors have been members of the House (Sandra Mortham) or Senate (Thomas B. Adams, Richard B. Stone, Bruce A. Smathers, Katherine Harris), or both (George Firestone). Commissioners of Education Ralph D. Turlington, Douglas Jamerson, and Tom Gallagher were House Members, and Betty Castor and Jim Horne were Senators. Early Commissioner of Agriculture Benjamin McLin was a Senator, while his successors, Nathan Mayo, Doyle Conner, and Bob Crawford served in the House. Crawford was also in the Senate as was his successor, Charles Bronson. Treasurer and Insurance Commissioners J. Edwin Larson, Philip Ashler, Tom Gallagher, and Bill Nelson served in the House. Larson served in the Senate as well, as did Bill Gunter. Gunter and Nelson were later elected to the U.S. Congress and Nelson to the U.S. Senate.