With a solid majority of Republicans gathered together Tuesday for an organizational session of the new, post-election Florida Legislature, a progressive grabbed a rare opportunity to take the floor.
He was state Rep. Kionne McGhee, a 40-year-old Miami-Dade County attorney and college adjunct professor who has served in the Legislature since 2012. On Tuesday, he officially took his position as Minority Leader for the House Democrats, and he used his platform on the House floor to talk about some of the issues that Democrats fought for in 2018, though none of them will likely come to fruition in 2019: tighter gun control, better teacher pay, fighting discrimination and providing health insurance for more of the state’s needy families.
McGhee told the 120 assembled lawmakers in the Florida House of Representatives how he grew up the hard way, that he was labeled as mentally retarded and dyslexic as a child, how he lost a brother and father to gun violence, and lived in the dark at times in a housing project because his family couldn’t afford the electricity bill.
His twenty-minute speech was twice as long as the one given by Florida’s new House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami-Dade County Republican who made a career building his family’s brand, Oliva Cigars.
But as McGhee spoke, most legislators listened respectfully.
As has been the case for the past two decades, the agenda for the 2019 legislative session will remain heavily conservative – with Republican Governor-Elect Ron DeSantis, a majority Republican Cabinet and large Republican majorities in the Florida House and Senate.
Yet the incredibly close statewide election shows that half of Floridians are not in step with the right-wing agenda. On Tuesday, McGhee spoke to those Floridians:
– Mentioning how everybody in the House chamber has been positively affected by at least one teacher in their lives, he argued that all public school teachers deserve a starting annual salary of $50,000. That was a central promise made by Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum, who garnered nearly as many votes statewide as his Republican opponent, DeSantis.
– McGhee called for Florida to expand Medicaid to provide health insurance for more of the state’s needy.
“A democracy can only exist,” he said, “when there are healthy people to move it to that more perfect union.”
His words elicited cheers from Democrats in the back rows of the chamber – but nowhere else.
– He spoke about gun control. McGhee said that while Democrats appreciate the right to bear arms in the U.S. Constitution, “I do not believe for one second that our founders envisioned a reality where there will be weapons of mass destruction” that would kill “our young, innocent children.”
“We must ban those weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
The Legislature passed some measures on guns last year after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, but stopped short of banning the assault-style weapons which make it possible for a shooter to murder multiple victims in minutes.
Republican State Sen. Bill Galvano, the new Florida Senate president, said last week that he is open to looking at more funding for mental-health programs and improving school security, but he has no appetite to impose further gun regulations.
– McGhee spoke about cleaning up Florida’s polluted waterways and passing the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.
The bill has been brought forth every year in the Legislature since 2009 and has attracted bipartisan support, but has never made it to a vote.
The Florida Senate now has 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats; the House has 73 Republicans and 47 Democrats.
Besides Republican Senate President Galvano, a Bradenton attorney, the new leaders include Speaker of the House Oliva and, in the Senate, the Democrat’s new Minority Leader Sen. Audrey Gibson, who is a paralegal and community liaison for a Jacksonville law firm.
The Legislature won’t officially convene for its 2019 60-day session until March, but lawmakers will be in and out of Tallahassee all winter for committee meetings. You can view that committee schedule here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect number of Republicans and Democrats in the Florida Senate. The correct number is 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats. The Phoenix regrets the error.