By BRENT KALLESTAD
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Although Republicans have been widening their majority in the Florida Legislature for better than a decade, Democrats are hopeful of cutting into that margin a bit on Election Day.
The GOP enjoyed veto-proof majorities in both chambers last session with a 28-12 advantage in the Senate and 81-39 cushion in the House. The Democrats need to pick up six seats in the House and two in the Senate to prevent a veto-proof Legislature.
“Our goal is to break the Republican’s super majority,” Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said. “It’s a very realistic goal.”
One of the most intriguing races involves former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, who is attempting a political comeback in central Florida by challenging first-term Republican state Rep. Jimmie Smith while two Senate incumbents, Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff and Democrat Maria Sachs, are meeting in a hotly contested South Florida race because of redistricting.
The outspoken Argenziano, who also served as on the state’s Public Service Commission, is attempting to become the first independent to win a legislative seat since Lori Wilson of Cocoa Beach did it 40 years ago. Argenziano was previously a Republican. She angered some in the GOP by voting against power company rate increases.
“I’m American above party,” Argenziano said recently. “These guys (legislators) are just tearing apart what good Republican and good Democrats worked on for several years.
“It’s like the Koch brothers came to Florida and said ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” she said, referring to the industrialists who have financed many GOP and tea party activities. “I just can’t sit still.”
Argenziano said the Republican Party left her, charging that GOP leaders “have no allowance for honest people, and they demand members just follow and shut up.” She was admonished by then House Speaker Tom Feeney in 2001 after sending a 25-pound box of cow manure lobbyist Jodi Chase after the two had clashed over nursing home legislation.
Her former party isn’t taking Argenziano’s unprecedented challenge lightly.
“We’re certainly helping Jimmie Smith the same way we’re helping all other Republican nominees who have major opposition and certainly Nancy is major opposition,” said Frank Terraferma, director of House campaigns for the Republican Party. “We consider her a Democrat — it’s really like running against a Democrat.”
Argenziano had initially hoped to run for Congress as a Democrat, but a judge ruled against her challenge of a Florida law that prohibited her from switching parties within 365 days before qualifying.
Other contests that could be interesting, if not close, include one in the greater Jacksonville area where former state Rep. Aaron Bean, a Republican, is up against Democrat Nancy Soderberg, a former Clinton administration official and United Nations ambassador, who moved to Florida in 2004.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has noted Soderberg has received fundraising help from former President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bean, meanwhile, survived a nasty GOP primary battle with incumbent state Rep. Mike Weinstein. It’s also an area where the Obama campaign has a ground machine in place to turn out its voters in a majority Republican district.
Democrats also hope they can claim a House seat that opened just last month when Republican State Rep. Mike Horner of Kissimmee resigned abruptly after his named turned up on the client list of an Orange County prostitution ring. Democrat Eileen Game will instead be opposed by Mike LaRosa, who was named by Republicans to replace Horner, who could win without his name being on the ballot. Any vote for Horner will be awarded to LaRosa under provisions of the state’s elections law.
Two former chamber leaders are also seeking comebacks, one after an absence of over two decades.
Former Democratic House Speaker Tom Gustafson from Fort Lauderdale is seeking to return to the Capitol after an absence of 22 years, but will have to get past first-term Republican Rep. Bill Hager of Boca Raton while former Senate President Tom Lee of Brandon faces political newcomer Elizabeth Belcher of Seffner, a Democrat. The seat opened up when Sen. Rhonda Storms resigned to bid for the position of property appraiser in Hillsborough County.
Lee, whose political career appeared over six years ago when he was defeated by Alex Sink for the Cabinet position of chief financial officer, ousted tea party Rep. Rachel Burgin in the Republican primary in August.
Another former Senate president who has already returned to that body, Sen. Gwen Margolis of Miami Beach, is facing a strong challenge from Republican John Couriel
Several other former members of the Legislature are seeking to return while one incumbent, maverick Republican Sen. Mike Fasano seeks to extend his legislative career by moving back to the House where he started 18 years ago. Fasano, R-New Port Richey, easily won a primary challenge and faces a write-in candidate in November.
Republicans are also pouring money into state Rep. Dorothy Hukill’s bid to move up to the Senate in a close contest in central Florida battle with Volusia County Council Chairman Frank Bruno, a Democrat,
Ten members of Florida’s 40-seat Senate have been elected on virtue of not being opposed on Nov. 6 while 45 of the 120 House seats were settled before Election Day.