The last time Florida’s lawmakers gathered for a special
session was last January, when Republican leaders summoned them to rush through
legislation that perversely “reformed” the Sunshine State’s death-penalty code.
Among the chief sponsors of that bill-designed to make executions easier,
faster and less vulnerable to appeal or post-conviction proof of innocence-was
Tom Feeney, the Orlando suburbanite who has since risen to become Florida’s
Apparently, Mr. Feeney and his colleagues couldn’t quite
contain their impatience to achieve “finality” in the matter of capital
punishment, just as they cannot seem to wait for any more votes to be counted
in the Presidential election.
A few months later, the
Republican legislative leaders found themselves defending their lethal handiwork
in the Florida Supreme Court. The justices brushed aside their blustering
threats and promises to strike down the new fast-track death bill as
unconstitutional. With that forthright action, the court earned the permanent
enmity of the Feeney faction. He was among the leaders standing before them and
yammering about “the public will” when one of the justices bluntly asked: “Do you think it’s the public will to execute
The answer to that question is no, of course. Nor is the
public eager for the Florida legislators to arrogate to themselves the
appointment of Presidential electors in their home state.
Yet neither the obvious popular distaste for legislative
interference on behalf of George W. Bush, nor the public desire for a full and
fair count of Florida’s ballots, is likely to dissuade Mr. Feeney from calling
a special session to ram through the Bush elector slate. The only event that
might forestall that anti-democratic action is a quick decision against Mr.
Gore in the Florida Supreme Court.
Florida Senate leader John McKay has taken a more cautious
approach than the zealous Mr. Feeney, but together they represent the kind of
politics that will probably characterize a Bush family restoration. Like their
Congressional counterparts, Mr. McKay is a dutiful lackey of business and
agricultural interests, while Mr. Feeney promotes the agenda of the religious
A few years ago, the author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen called Mr. Feeney “a right-wing
flake with a dubious track record.” To take just one example from many, Mr.
Feeney once tried to require the state to issue a special license plate adorned
with the slogan “Choose Life.” On another occasion, he tried to suppress the
dangerous practice of yoga among Florida high-school students.
Both Florida legislative
bosses are creatures of Jeb Bush, the governor who has affected to “recuse”
himself from the struggle over his state’s electoral votes, at least until his
signature is needed on a bill that will ensure his older brother’s victory.
One measure of Mr.
Feeney’s extremism was Jeb Bush’s decision to dump him from the Republican
ticket in 1998, after their unsuccessful experience running together four years
earlier. Ridiculed by then-Governor Lawton Chiles as “the David Duke of Florida
politics,” Mr. Feeney’s candidacy for lieutenant governor proved to be the
excess baggage that sank the younger Bush’s challenge to Chiles in 1994.
That campaign was a fervent crusade of ideas-mostly very bad
ideas. For someone who grew up under pretty soft conditions, Jeb Bush took a
hard view of those less fortunate than himself. Flanked by Mr. Feeney, he
promised to be tough on juvenile offenders and welfare mothers. “We should have
punishment being the overriding philosophy in how we deal with children,” he
said. And according to reporters who followed his campaign, he would shock
Florida’s country-club Republicans by revealing how welfare mothers could cadge
as much as $18,000 a year to feed their families by illicitly working for cash
while they received food stamps and Medicaid.
That ugly approach led to a narrow but well-deserved defeat
for the Bush-Feeney ticket. When Jeb ran again on a platform of what Dubya
later described as “compassionate conservatism,” he carefully selected a pro-choice
woman as his running mate. It was an opportunistic decision whose necessity
even Mr. Feeney seems to have understood.
As Mr. Feeney told a reporter for Miami New Times near the end of that campaign, Jeb had wisely
modeled his new image on that of his successful Texas sibling. That shift
didn’t trouble the ultraconservative Mr. Feeney at all. “I don’t think Jeb
Bush’s belief system has changed fundamentally,” he explained.
The same might accurately be said of Jeb’s brother, the man
who would (and at this point, probably will) be President. The Bush style in
recent years has been to sugarcoat hard-right policy with a thin layer of
bipartisan rhetoric and happy talk. What lies beneath that sweet veneer is what
inspires the likes of Tom Feeney.