Florida House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach is nearing the end of a two-year stretch in what one of his colleagues called the “worst job in the Capitol.”
Being in charge of vastly outnumbered House Democrats means tilting at windmills almost every day. Pafford’s won-loss record rivals that of the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ longtime opponents.
But the liberal-leaning Democrat said he’s proud to have given his party’s 4.5 million voters a voice – even one that is steadily drowned out by a conservative majority.
House Republicans hold 81 of the chamber’s 120 seats.
“I wasn’t sent up here to pass bills, but to speak where I can and represent my constituency,” said Pafford, 49, first elected in 2008. His district includes Wellington, Loxahatchee Groves and Royal Palm Beach.
He is term-limited this year and says this is his last go-around at elected office.
Pafford’s early political vision — promoting policies that enhance environmental causes and boost the lives of poor Floridians — has been tempered by the system.
“But you know, voters back home have never blinked,” Pafford said. “They believe that having a minority voice is very valuable. When you have that kind of support behind you, you can keep going.”
Legislature sailing through the Florida House over Democratic opposition this year includes advancing the open carrying of firearms and guns on campus by concealed weapons permit holders, hydraulic fracturing, and anti-immigration
Just last week, the House approved a ballot question on term limits for judges and Florida Supreme Court justices – a move decried by critics as payback by Republicans angry with courts that have challenged some of the Legislature’s more sweeping policy moves of recent years.
Again, House Democrats formed an easily surmountable barrier.
Democrats, however, have swung mightily against each of the measures – and as budget talks begin in earnest this week in Tallahassee, Pafford will spearhead efforts to prod ruling Republicans to boost spending on schools, social services and many coveted hometown projects.
It’s an uphill fight.
“I’m happy with what Mark Pafford has done. But I’m not happy with the Legislature,” said Sam Oser, an activist with the Century Village Democratic Club of West Palm Beach, a community within Pafford’s district.
“It’s too much like Congress. And what they’re passing, sometimes it’s just insane,” he said.
House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa acknowledged that “it is difficult when you are a distinct minority in any chamber.
“But my Democratic colleagues have been very open with us….and debate remains professional,” she said. “I’d say our interpersonal relationships are very positive.”
When told that many Democrats view the House as an autocratic, top-down chamber, where most action is decided by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and a few lieutenants, Young paused.
“I can’t tell you why they’d say that,” she said.
The more moderate Senate has put the brakes on many of the House’s more controversial stands this session. And court-ordered redistricting is likely to tighten Republicans’ 26-14 seat majority in the Senate – meaning Democrats there may become more influential even as the House remains overwhelmingly Republican.
Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Florida by 300,000 voters. But the Legislature, governor’s office and Cabinet seats are all controlled by the GOP, with the House expected to remain solidly Republican for years to come.
“It looks like the worst job in the Capitol. It’s a thankless job,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, said of Pafford’s leadership post.
Clemens is in line to become Senate Democratic leader following the 2018 elections.
“Mark has given his heart and soul to the job,” Clemens said. “And he’s gotten very little back for it. But I think he’s earned the undying gratitude of people who didn’t have a voice.”
For his part, Pafford has tried to instill some history in House Democrats.
The Democratic suite on the third floor of the Capitol includes black-and-white photographs of party leaders and events from the 122 years following Reconstruction when Democrats controlled Florida government.
The Legislature has now been in Republican hands for 20 years. And Pafford fears the party’s role as a minority is becoming engrained.
“People don’t remember that a Bob Graham or a Lawton Chiles was once in the Legislature,” said Pafford. “We’re losing an institutional memory that I’m hoping we can keep alive.”
Pafford also said he is proud of bringing some stability back to a caucus. And some scrap.
Pafford had to fight for the leadership post – first being selected in 2013 following a revolt among caucus members who unseated Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, as leader.
After House Democrats lost six seats in the 2014 elections that also saw the re-election of Gov. Rick Scott, Pafford drew heat and a leadership challenge that he managed to fend off.
“I wish we could’ve been a more powerful, relevant caucus in the House,” Rouson said. “But in his own way, Mark has done what he can do. I know he is frustrated.”
After eight years in elected office, Pafford said he is ready to work outside politics. In private life, he is chief executive officer of Florida CHAIN, the health care advocacy organization that has been central in enrolling Floridians for coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“It’s consumer driven advocacy,” Pafford said of his job. “And at this point, I realize that with the right knowledge and right commitment, you can achieve more success from the outside than on the inside.”
Staff writer George Bennett contributed to this story.