Who’s Conservative, Who’s Liberal? American Conservative Union Rates Florida's Legislators

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: December 6, 2012 3:55 AM
Al Cardenas, 2012 State Legislative Ratings Guide

Chairman of the ACU Al Cardenas, left

The nation’s oldest and most prominent conservative lobbying organization released Wednesday its second annual ideological ratings of Florida’s Republican and Democratic legislators.

The American Conservative Union (ACU) – well-known for its annual rating of federal legislators since 1970 – rated state lawmakers for the first time in 2011, with Florida among the five states reviewed. This year, 15 states were rated, including Florida. The new ratings reflect members’ voting records during the 2012 session. The ACU designates a legislator “conservative” when he votes at least 80 percent of the time in accordance with the position taken by the organization on certain pieces of legislation. The ACU also awards special designations to “Defenders of Liberty” and “True Liberals,” lawmakers who score 100 percent and 0 percent respectively.

Dozens of conservative-rated lawmakers streamed into the House majority office Wednesday afternoon to pick up their awards and pose for photographs with ACU Chairman (and former Republican Party of Florida Chairman) Al Cardenas.

All 80 Republicans who served in the state House of Representatives during the 2012 session achieved conservative status. Sixty-two of them earned the “Defender of Liberty” award, including Speaker of the House Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and each of his projected successors: Steve Crisafulli of Merritt Island (2015/16 sessions), Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes (2017/18), and Jose Oliva of Hialeah (2019/20). Speaker pro Tempore Marti Coley of Marianna and Majority Leader Steve Precourt of Orlando also earned the ACU’s highest honor.

The Republican record in the Senate was more mixed. Of the 28 GOP members serving in the Senate, 22 of them are designated conservatives, just three of them “Defenders of Liberty”: Mike Bennett of Bradenton, Miguel Diaz De La Portilla of Miami, and Ronda Storms of Brandon. Senate President Don Gaetz of Destin and his projected successor, Andy Gardiner of Orlando (2015/16), each achieved a conservative rating. Between the two candidates for the 2017-2018 Senate presidency, Jack Latvala of Clearwater made the conservative cut, while Joe Negron of Stuart fell short, scoring a mere 71 percent.

Other Republican senators who failed to be rated “conservative” included Nancy Detert of Venice, Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Alan Hays of Umatilla, Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach, and Steve Oelrich of Gainesville. Each scored 71 percent.

Negron would have achieved conservative status had he not received negative marks for being the only Republican to vote against HB 1205, a statute requiring state employees to be drug tested. Negron, like many conservatives, is a self-described libertarian.

Former Rep. John Patrick Julien of North Miami was the only Democrat to rank among the Legislature’s conservatives, with a score of 82 percent.

Nineteen of the House’s 39 Democrats – including House Minority Leader Perry Thurston and Minority Leader pro Tempore Mia Jones -- received a “True Liberal” rating. None of the Senate’s Democrats scored that low (i.e., 0 percent).

Julien aside, the highest rated Democrats were Sens. Gary Siplin of Orlando (67 percent), Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay (60 percent), and Jeremy Ring of Margate (57 percent).

ACU Chairman Cardenas told Sunshine State News the Florida Legislature is one of the most conservative in the nation. Asked how this state of affairs could be reconciled with Floridians swinging to the far-left Obama-Biden ticket in the last two presidential elections, he attributed the disparity to a distinction in voters’ priorities where different levels of government are concerned.

“Eighty percent of Americans would prefer to have a government that’s fiscally conservative,” Cardenas said. “But some of those same people get distracted on either social issues or foreign policy issues at the national level. If voters just voted on fiscal issues, Mitt Romney would have won by 10 points. Even the safety net issues [Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps) are really at the federal level.”

Not that the ACU is socially liberal. Cardenas says his organization believes human personhood begins at conception and should be legally protected, and that marriage should be legally defined in heterosexual terms. He tells the News that, while under an originalist interpretation of the Constitution these are properly considered states issues, the popular mind often thinks of them as matters the federal government ought to have jurisdiction over.

Sunshine State News caught up with two of the Legislature’s most conservative members.

Rep. Matt Hudson of Naples, who received the “Defender of Liberty” award for the second year in a row, insisted that, while he listens to anyone who wants to voice an opinion on a piece of legislation, he doesn’t submit to any one interest group’s litmus test.

“I don’t look at the positions [ACU has] when I vote on a bill,” he tells the News. “I vote on principle and on my conscience and on what’s right; and it just so happens that this group believes the same way I do.”

Rep. Charles Van Zant of Keystone Heights agreed.

“I didn’t even think about [these ratings] until my aides told me to get down here to pick up this award, and I’m glad to do it,” he says, recalling his personal esteem for Cardenas and the work of the ACU. “I have a set of parameters: I read a bill in its entirety, I read the bill analyses, and then I pray. That’s how it’s always been with me.”

Hudson says he hopes citizens acquaint themselves with the ACU’s ratings guide and let it inform their votes.

“I think this guide is very valuable. I think that by and large the voters don’t know all of the things that we [legislators] get the opportunity to vote on, and the impacts those votes can have on Florida’s public policy,” he tells Sunshine State News. “So when a group like this provides a guide that shows the major pieces of legislation and how a legislator has voted on them, I think it allows voters to determine whether or not their representative is truly their voice. If he’s not, the voters should find somebody else.”

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

Comments (2)

10:06AM DEC 6TH 2012
This article stinks. Giunta doesn't bother to note who's in office now and who's out (hint: two of the three "Defenders of Liberty" are no longer in Tallahassee). Giunta mindlessly insists the ACU stands for social conservatives but doesn't note that one of the "Defenders of Liberty" is pro-choice. The name calling is unprofessional. Since Americans have now twice voted for the "far-left" Obama-Biden ticket, are we now "far-left"? I'm also curious to know who the Senate President will be after Andy Gardiner is done in 2016 since Giunta has Negron and Latvalla vying to be Senate President after 2018 leaving two years with no Senate President.
8:21AM DEC 6TH 2012
"Defenders of Liberty," ho haa. Destroyers of opportunity and the middle class more like it.

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