By Jerry Waxman
Word got around a few weeks ago that U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights (wow! That’s a mouthful, and no acronym!) will be holding a field hearing, its first ever, anywhere in Tampa, Florida on Jan 25th. The purpose for this hearing is to examine the impact of Florida’s new voting law, HB1355, which restricts early voting and makes it nearly impossible for third party groups such as the League of Women Voters to help people to register to vote by imposing steep fines for even the slightest infractions of the new rule. It turns out that this was done at the urging of Florida Senator Bill Nelson who voiced deep concern about the new legislation.
Nelson has been hard at work since before the legislation was passed, writing letters to Governor Rick Scott asking him to veto the pending legislation on May 5, 2011 and again on October 25 asking him to reconsider and repeal it. He has written several letters to major newspapers across the state warning of the negative impact of this legislation. After being ignored by Scott Senator Nelson reached out to Senator Durbin and asked him to hold hearings on the issue. He also on Nov. 3rd wrote to U.S. Attorney General asking the Justice Dept. to get involved.
Durbin, meanwhile had been holding hearings on voter disenfranchisement since the beginning of September. Florida is not the only state involved. Twelve states have already passed similar laws in the past year and others have pending legislation. Nelson testified before Durbin’s subcommittee on Sept. 8th about his real concerns. Durbin also sent Scott a letter but received no reply Durbin agreed with Nelson that hearings had to be held and the request was approved by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.
During the ensuing weeks progressive groups in Central Florida were discussing attending the hearings and adding their voices to the witness list. Occupy Orlando, which maintains a friendly relationship with these groups, was also prepared to have individual members attend. What was not apparent, however, was any statewide organized effort to be a factor at the event. Finally, about ten days prior to the event Michael Steimle of the Florida Democratic Party (on Facebook) sent out information about their planned rally before the hearings. Well, someone at the state party level finally woke up from their collective stupor and realized that this is a BFD and that they should do something about it. After all, HB 1355 is aimed specifically at people who most likely vote for Democrats, and it is a direct slap in the face to all who fought the civil rights battles back in the 50’s and 60’s and all who fought in our wars for our right to vote as well as our other hard fought for freedoms.
Phone calls came from Tony Scelzo who works with AFSCME retirees who was counting on getting as many people there as possible. Clare Flannery, Senator Nelson’s Assistant Press Secretary sent lots of information regarding what would be discussed during the hearing, including a partial list of witnesses who would be testifying. Durbin’s office was handling the details and anyone who wanted to testify had to be cleared by them.
The rally was scheduled to begin at 11:30 AM in front of the Hillsborough County Courthouse.TV news trucks endlessly wrapped around the corner. CNN was there and was interviewing high profile civil rights activists like The Rev. Gerald Bracy and his wife LaVon, who are civic activists in Orlando. By the time 11:30 rolled around there were over 500 people in attendance with only a handful of Tea Partiers holding signs saying “Pink Slip Bill” and defending HB1355. One other protester in the crowd was shouting that he had voted for Obama in 2008 and that Obama had betrayed all progressives. He was put in his place by Tony Fransetta, a fiery 76 year old Korean War disabled veteran who is head of the half million member Alliance for Retired Americans in Florida. Fransetta was also the first speaker on the rally program, introduced by Allison Morano, Vice Chair of the Florida Democratic Party, who also acted as emcee. Our camera was not ready so we missed the first two minutes of video but here is Fransetta speaking passionately.
Morano then introduced in succession Jen Fenn, head of the Florida Young Dems, Dominique Gellin, a UCF student who is head of all Florida College Dems, former state representative Bob Enriquez who spoke of minority representation, State Rep. and incoming House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, who spoke about the legislative battles over HB1355, State Rep. Mark Pafford who also addressed HB 1355 and State Rep. for the Tampa area Betty Reed who told the crowd “Not This Time.” The most passionate speech was given by the Rev. Charles S. McKenzie Jr., state coordinator for the Rainbow Push Coalition spoke about the civil rights battles of the 60’s and the signing into law of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson and the continuing struggles by minorities to vote. Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith closed the proceedings stating that it’s a hard act to follow the Rev. McKenzie, yet he did vow to continue fighting the legislation.
After going through the courthouse security check over three to four hundred interested spectators went upstairs to the ninth floor to attend the hearings. The Judicial Conference Room barely holds over one hundred and fifty people, so most spectators had to wait in the overflow rooms or in the hall. Once in the hearing room (yes, press credentials needed to be shown) the whole press corps was cordoned off into what appeared to be the jury area. Fighting for space, in order to set up cameras was like a Capture the Flag game or the basement sales at Alexander’s. They were like sardines standing up in their can, yet everyone was helping each other set up and offering extra cables to those who needed them. Once everything was set up, Nelson’s Press Deputy handed out a press packet and shortly afterwards one of Durbin’s staffers handed out a voluminous packet that both stated the hearings purpose and his prepared remarks, as well as the names, qualifications and prepared remarks of the seven panelists chosen to testify. It seems the only thing left to chance were the answers that the panelists would give during the Question and Answer period and based on the prepared statements you could bet that the questions weren’t going to be too probing
The whole event took on the feel of a professional touring company doing a staged play reading of a familiar show. There was the proper air of (harrumph, harrumph) solemnity. No one expected the specter of Senator Johnny Iselin bursting in and declaring that there were exactly 57 communists in the Supervisor of Elections office, and no one expected Dalton Trumbo to plead the fifth. No Joseph Welch was going to protest the ruthless questioning of these witnesses. No Alexander Butterfield was going to shock us with his revelations under questioning and no Woody Allen was going to tell them to go (expletive deleted) themselves. No, the folks who orchestrate these things have learned their lessons well and after years of rehears….er..practice have honed this into a finely tuned art. This is not a fact finding mission-they already know the facts. They know beforehand where they are going with this and they know within one or two percentage points where the conclusion is. This is strictly a show for the public to let the public know that they are doing their job with all of the (harrumph, harrumph) officiousness and solemnity they can muster.
Senator Durbin opened the proceedings and did mention that he had invited Republican members of the subcommittee to join him in the hearings. They did decline, however they recommended one witness who will appear in the first panel. Durbin also invited Governor Scott to testify but received no reply. The prepared remarks briefly outlined the complaints about HB1355 and he talked about the history of fighting for voting rights in the country. Senator Nelson then had the opportunity to give his opening remarks. Here’s a video of the opening remarks. The first panel was introduced: Ann McFall, Supervisor of Elections in Volusia County, Michael Ertel, Supervisor of Elections in Seminole County and the Hon. Bruce Smathers, former Florida Secretary of State. The only panelist in the first three who chose to defend HB1355 was Ertel, a Republican. Here’s a video of their prepared statements. McFall spoke about the noted case of a teacher who faced steep fines by helping her students to register. She also noted that the state legislature had not consulted any of the Supervisors for input into HB1355. Ertel tried to ease the situation by noting that he offered to deputize all of his school principals to avoid third party involvement. After the panelists gave their remarks they were subjected to a round of questions. During the round of questions Ertel drew hoots from the gallery as he tried to evade direct questions. McFall, also a Republican, said that there is no evidence whatsoever of voter fraud, which is the basis of the legislation.
The Second round of panelists were Dr. Daniel Smith, Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida; Daryl Parks, President of the National Bar Association; Brent A. Wilkes, National Executive Director, League of United Latin American Citizens, and Sara Pemberton, President, Florida College System Student Government Association. Parks, Wilkes and Pemberton addressed the difficulties and hardships faced by students and minorities that the new law imposes. Smith, however used statistical data to graphically show how restrictive HB 1355 is. His statistical evidence was in direct opposition to Ertel’s testimony. During the question and answer session all panelists confirmed their testimony to the delight of the gallery. Durbin, as the sole member of the subcommittee agreed with their findings as did Nelson. End of the (harrumph, harrumph) staged readi…..er hearings.
What happened in the press conference after the hearings was much more revealing. Senator Durbin was asked if there was direct thread between HB1355 and similar legislation in 35 states. His reply was in the affirmative, stating that there is real evidence that ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) a conservative not-for-profit heavily financed by the Koch brothers and other conservative groups is behind these legislative actions. When asked if the President could do something about it, he partially deflected the question by saying that the president could have the Justice Department get involved to see if these laws are in violation of the Voting Rights Act, and he could not speak for the administration. He did, however, falter a little when he could not remember the full name of the acronym ALEC. He treated the name as though it was a first time revelation. For the citizens of Florida it may be a first time revelation but every senator and representative in Washington knows who they are and how they operate and they have known it for a long time. The question is was it a dramatic trick or just an honest lapse as everyone is prone to do at times? Most likely it was just an ooooops moment. Give this readi…er hearing 4 stars. Had it been more spontaneous it would merit five (harrumph!).