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Fight on the Senate Floor: Dempsey Barron vs. President W.D. Childers

By: Robert W. McKnight | Posted: July 16, 2014 3:55 AM
Robert W. McKnight

Robert W. McKnight

In 1978, Sen. Phil Lewis, D-West Palm Beach, took office as Senate president. The very first appointment President Lewis announced was to make his opponent for the presidency, Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Miami Beach, the important chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. 

Although there was a potential rift building in the Senate among the numerous new, more progressive senators being elected and the veteran, more conservative senators (some with ties to the old Pork Chop Gang), the Lewis appointment of Gordon sent a unifying message to the senators. 

The senators were aided by one of their own, former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes, taking office as Florida’s new governor.

The key senators -- Dempsey Barron, D-Panama City, W.D. Childers, D-Pensacola, Pat Thomas, D-Quincy, Buddy Mackay, D-Ocala, Dan Scarborough, D-Jacksonville, Curtis Peterson, D-Eaton Park, Gordon, and especially Republicans John Ware, R-St. Petersburg, Warren Henderson, R-Sarasota, and Jim Scott , R-Fort Lauderdale, all seemed content with their committee assignments and their role. There was peace in the Senate.

Two years later, President Lewis retired and W.D. Childers took over the Senate presidency after multiple near-mutinies among Childers’ fellow Democrats. After each of those battles, Senate strongman and dean Dempsey Barron re-secured the presidency for Childers.

But unlike President Lewis, who had a sharp mind and a forgiving personality, Childers often lacked attention to detail and appeared vindictive. Most Capitol observers felt that Childers' term would be tenuous at best.

The 1980-1982 term was especially important because the 10-year reapportionment of the Legislature and Congress was Priority One for both parties during the period.

To everyone’s surprise -- especially Barron's -- Childers picked senators without legislative experience to chair many committees. It was apparent that conservative President Childers got last-minute advice from someone other than Barron -- and it turned out to be liberal Sen. Jack Gordon. The Republicans were not consulted at all, so the seeds were planted for an internal rebellion.

Barron had previously cobbled together conservative coalitions among disgruntled Democrats and all 12 Republican senators. Simple math told Barron he needed to peel off nine Democratic senators to take control of the Senate from Childers. As it turned out, Barron got 14 Democrats to go with the 12 Republicans to total a whopping 26-14 margin, which -- being exactly two-thirds -- could block any bill from passing (a two-thirds vote is required to roll over a bill to third and final reading).

President Childers' reaction was expected and immediate -- fire all chairmen disloyal to him. 

But because there were 19 committees and only 14 senators loyal to Childers, the only alternative was to appoint multiple chairmanships to individual senators. I, for example, as a member of Childers’ team, became the chairman of the Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) Committee, in addition to the Appropriations Committee funding HRS, which I already chaired. 

Virtually all processing of bills was put on hold. Perhaps most eerie were the lobbyists -- they were absent from the halls of the Capitol -- not knowing with whom to work to represent their clients. 

Yes, this is the point at which the touted fist fight occurred on the floor of the Senate between Sens. Barron and Childers. Actually, no punches were thrown, although there was some pushing and shoving between the two senators. The skirmish was broken up by the burly former Gator center, Ed Dunn, D-Daytona Beach.

After several days frozen in place, Childers and Barron met to hammer out a joint working arrangement between Childers’ 14 chairmen and Barron’s 26-member majority. It was tense and disagreements easily arose. But the imperative legislation such as the budget did pass. 

The election following Childers’ presidency resulted in a clear majority for the Barron slate, now headed by Sen. Curtis Peterson. Peterson was aided by the support of Sen. Harry Johnston from the moderate group of senators, over to the Peterson team. Although there were still vestiges of the coalition during Peterson’s presidency, consensus began to set in again. It didn’t hurt Peterson’s term that Barron was back in charge.



Robert W. McKnight served in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives during the 1970s and 1980s. He has written two books on Florida politics, available at Amazon.com; and now provides regular political commentary trademarked as “The Golden Age Quorum Call” in the Tallahassee Democrat and Facing Florida, a public affairs television program airing on ABC, CBS and FOX stations. He can be reached at bob@flpoliticalcommentary.com.


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