TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Senate Democrats will vote next week on a replacement for former Sen. Jeff Clemens, who was slated to take over as caucus leader after the 2018 elections but who resigned Friday after admitting an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
Caucus members are regrouping after Clemens' abrupt exit but are divided about who should take over the leadership post.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat and one of three remaining senior members of the caucus, is amassing support but faces opposition from Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orlando and possibly others before next week's vote.
“I think this whole week we'll have people deciding whether they will or they won't. What I do know for sure is we will have an election next week to replace him. The other thing I know is that I am not in that field,” current Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Monday.
The race for the next leader, who will be instrumental in raising money for the 2018 elections, will also affect a heated contest about who will be at the helm of the caucus for the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions.
“Just technically, it opens up another slot that everyone who was running in `20-`22 was eligible for. And it gives people a chance to get their sea legs,” Braynon said.
Gibson and Sens. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach and Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale had lined up to seek the leadership position after Clemens' term was scheduled to end following the 2020 elections.
On Monday, Farmer said he was supporting Gibson as Clemens' replacement, and Powell wouldn't say whether he planned to get in the mix next week. Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation has indicated she isn't interested in the post at this time, and sources close to Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg say he's not in the running, either.
The search for Clemens' replacement comes after Senate Democrats were buoyed last month by Sen. Annette Taddeo's high-profile victory over Republican Jose Felix Diaz in a Miami-Dade County special election. Former Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, resigned from the Senate District 40 seat in April after a profanity-fueled and racially charged outburst at a private club near the Capitol.
Some believe that Artiles or his supporters were involved in the revelations about Clemens' affair with Broward County lobbyist Devon West, first reported Friday by Politico Florida. Artiles did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday.
Democrats downplayed any possible rancor related to the leadership race.
“We're all very energized by the Taddeo win, so the last thing we should be doing is lining up in a circular firing squad,” Farmer told the News Service.
Gibson, elected to the Senate in 2011 after eight years in the state House, Braynon and Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee are the longest-serving Democrats in the upper chamber.
Numerous senators interviewed Monday said they believed Gibson, a woman and senior member of the caucus, would be the best fit for the job, given the controversy related to Clemens.
“With the potential of a culture of harassment and mostly women being victimized by that, I think Audrey is especially qualified to be our leader at this time,” said Farmer, who's promised to help Gibson raise money and work on campaigns next year.
Gibson said she's garnered the votes of at least “a simple majority” of the caucus, including members who had pledged their support for her in the 2020 leadership race.
Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who previously served as House minority leader, called Gibson “the best candidate” who has “the background, the contacts and the Democratic principles to lead us,” especially as Democrats hope next year to flip several seats in a chamber where Republicans hold a 24-15 majority.
“I think we're at a point where the caucus is going to make a decision on what direction we're going to go in,” Thurston said. “I think it would be great for the state if, under Sen. Gibson's leadership, we were able to get closer to a 20-20 split in the Senate.”
Powell, D-West Palm Beach, would not say if he planned to challenge Bracy and Gibson.
“My number-one goal is to make sure that the caucus is unified and moving forward. Whatever that takes, that's what I'm going to do. I'm not going to say I'm running or I'm not running,” he said.
Powell called the loss of Clemens, who was elected to the Senate in 2012, “a tremendous blow” to the caucus. Both men are from Palm Beach County, and Powell said he considers Clemens a friend.
“He's one of our longest-reigning senators. We had Jeff. We had Oscar (Braynon). Montford. And Gibson. To lose one of our four standard bearers …,” he said, trailing off.
Powell said the caucus must “address what happened” and figure out how to move forward.
“I think right now it's kind of early to be jockeying for position. We lost a member. It's a painful episode. My number-one goal is to unify the party. I don't want to discuss leadership right now,” he said.
Despite the discomfort of a disgraced former leader, Clemens' hurried departure and division about who should step into his place, Democrats say they will emerge strengthened.
“There's no doubt that we can recover. I think the swiftness with which things happened enables us to be able to do that. If it had dragged on, if he stayed and things kept trickling out, that's one thing,” Gibson said. “He technically wasn't leader yet, anyway. He was leader-designate. And I know that we're just hot off the Taddeo race, which was a collective effort.”