Mike Haridopolos and the meltdown

at 01:00 PM ET, 05/11/2011


Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos expresses disappointment over a last-minute impasse. (Steve Cannon - Associated Press)
Asked in March about his campaign against Sen. Bill Nelson (D), Florida Senate president Mike Haridopolos pointed to his performance in the legislature. “I think I'll be judged on how I do my current job," said Haridopolos. "My job is to be the spokesman and keep the trains running on time.”

A few months later, his first session in the job is over, and it ended with an ugly legislative meltdown.

Haridopolos was out-manuevered in the final days of the session by more liberal Republicans who stymied him on some conservative proposals. On one measure, he was outvoted 32 to 6. The night the session was supposed to end, disputes with the state House forced lawmakers to stay on to break the logjam.

The trains did not run on time. Will it take a toll on Haridopolos’ Senate bid?

Though he told the Post he was happy with the session overall, Haridopolos was admittedly downbeat at the end of this past weekend’s impasse.

“To end this way is a major disappointment to me personally,” Haridopolos said after the long budget battle with the House finally ended. “I've had far from a perfect session. I've learned a lot in the last 60 days. … I'll try to do my best to do better next year.”

Republican strategist Phil Vangelakos, who is unaligned in a Senate primary that also features former U.S. senator George LeMieux and former state senator Adam Hasner, compared Haridopolos to former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd , whose 2004 U.S. Senate bid started out strong but ended in ignominy as fellow lawmakers and donors turned against him.

“The Senate president goes into the session with a lot of money in his campaign account and comes out having to spend more money than he reckoned, just because he has to buy that political capital back,” said Vangelakos.

What’s clear in looking back at the legislative session is that it wasn’t the conservative triumph that Haridopolos and newly elected Gov. Rick Scott (R) had hoped for. It was, in fact, marked by compromise.

Scott asked lawmakers to cut almost $5 billion from the budget; he got $700 million in cuts. He wanted $1.7 billion in tax cuts and got $308 million. The House and Senate could not agree on immigration legislation that Haridopolos wanted.

Other state senators accused House Speaker Dean Cannon of trying to hamstring Haridopolos’ Senate run during the session, using Haridopolos’ concerns about an impasse to get more of his own priorities passed. (Haridopolos called Cannon “a valued partner and close friend” who, he points out, is supporting his 2012 campaign.)

On the other hand, there were plenty of successes for conservatives on controversial issues. Growth-management laws in place for the past 30 years were overturned. Cuts were made to public schools and health-care funding. Welfare recipients now have to pass drug tests to receive benefits. Teachers lost tenure and their pay is now tied to students’ test scores.

Conservative activists, of course, wanted the legislature and Scott to go further. On some high-profile issues, that pressure pulled Haridopolos to the ideological right. He broke with the governor on eliminating corporate taxes, saying he wanted to focus on creating jobs. Under threat of a veto, he agreed to a compromise. He initially opposed the governor on refusing money for high-speed rail, before changing his tune.

Little was done legislatively to create jobs, although Republicans argue that creating a more business-friendly environment will lead to jobs.

“This is certainly not the ‘jobs, jobs, jobs' that the public expected,” said Republican state Sen. Dennis Jones (R) told Florida newspapers. “If we added everything up, we're probably in the negative this session for jobs, not the positive.”

Serving in a leadership role in any legislative body is almost always a disaster for someone with higher political aspirations. (There’s a reason Kansas Sen. Bob Dole resigned from the chamber in 1996 when the presidential race heated up.)

The legislative demands of getting things done often runs directly into conflict with the ideological purity that activists who make up much of the primary electorate demand. That seems to be the story of Haridopolos’ first session as Senate leader.

As to whether his performance has any long-term impact on his chances of being the GOP nominee for Senate, it’s anyone’s guess.

“At this point in the campaign, it’s as much a campaign for donors as it is for voters,” said Jaime Miller, a former executive director of the Florida Republican party. “Most voters aren’t paying attention yet, but donors are.”

Up until now, Haridopolos hasn’t had any trouble raising money. Will that flood of cash slow at all in the wake of his struggles this session?

 
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