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Jewish Journal

Much Like a Minority

January 13, 2000 | 7:00 pm

The Florida state legislature isn't a place you normally associate with high drama or profiles in courage. It seems to revolve largely around tax breaks for sugar growers. Most lawmakers have other jobs on the side.

The 16 Jewish members -- 10 percent of the total, all Democrats but one -- traditionally keep busy with things like swimming-pool safety, senior care and Holocaust commemoration. They raise their voices only for battles over school prayer.

Last week was different. The legislature convened in a stormy emergency session that riveted the national media and left Jewish legislators looking and sounding like they'd seen a ghost. In a way, they had. The ghost, perhaps, of Florida Jewry's future: an outsize liberal minority in a once-Democratic state fast turning conservative.

"Jews sometimes try to be the conscience of the legislature," says state Rep. Elaine Bloom of Miami Beach, one of the state's most durable Jewish politicians. "But we're losing numbers. They've changed the system."

Like much of the South, Florida was solidly Democratic until the Reagan era. Today Republicans control most levers of state power by healthy majorities. Democrats are largely reduced to their four core Southern constituencies, represented roughly equally among Florida statehouse Democrats: blacks, white Catholics, Methodists and Jews.

Florida's Jews aren't like other Southern Jews. America's third largest Jewish community, 620,000 strong, they're a major statewide force, steadily reinforced by migrants from the North, older, more affluent and much more liberal than the other 95 percent of Floridians. Five-sixths live along a 90-mile, three-county coastal strip in the urban southeast, from Miami to Palm Beach, where they're up to 15 percent of the population and set much of the social and political tone.

Last week's legislative session was prompted by a death penalty crisis. The U.S. Supreme Court was about to challenge the Florida electric chair, which has a tendency to set inmates aflame. Both parties in the GOP-led legislature agreed to replace the chair with lethal injection.

Once convened, though, the lawmakers were handed an extra assignment. Gov. Jeb Bush, a popular, first-term Republican, offered a sweeping death-penalty reform bill he'd unveiled just weeks earlier. It was meant to shorten inmates' waiting time before execution -- now averaging 14 years -- by streamlining the appeals process. He gave the legislature three days to approve it.

A whiff of national politics hovered overhead. Bush's reform was based on a similar measure enacted some years back by his older brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, currently GOP presidential front-runner. Democrats said Bush was railroading them to make George look tough as primary season opens. Republicans dismissed the charge -- between hymns to Texas grit.

The death penalty is one of those things, like guns and free-market medicine, that make America unique among industrialized nations. Worldwide, 91 countries permit capital punishment and 103 ban it or permit only in rare cases, like Israel's death penalty for genocide. Countries banning it include all of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and most of South America. Those permitting it include the Muslim and communist blocs, the former Soviet republics, about half of sub-Saharan Africa, and the United States, where 38 states permit it.

Florida is third in annual executions, behind Texas and Virginia. Worldwide, China is first, followed by Congo, America and Iran.

Not surprisingly, the Florida debate quickly became a partisan brawl. Democrats said limiting appeals would result in executing innocent people. Republicans produced murder victims' relatives to describe the agony of awaiting the killer's death. Each side dismissed the other's arguments.

"It became very partisan," says Rep. Ken Gottlieb, a young Jewish Democrat from Miramar in Broward County. "None of the Republicans would vote out of step with the governor. People kept referring to Texas, where they kill about 22 people a year. In Florida we don't kill that many. I guess we want to kill more. There's a sibling rivalry going on."

Aggravating tensions was an obscure procedural rule, requiring a two-thirds majority whenever the legislature amends courtroom procedures. After quick senate approval, the lower house became a battlefield. The Republicans needed 80 votes in the 120-member house. They only had 75. To find five more, Democrats say, the GOP leadership used intense pressure and naked threats of retribution.

"The punishments were very clear," says Rep. Stacy Joy Ritter, a two-term Jewish Democrat from Coral Lakes in Broward County. "You don't get your bills passed. You don't get your appropriations approved."

By the second morning, with blacks and Jews unmoved, GOP strategists targeted a handful of white Christian Democrats. Democratic strategists -- mainly Jewish and black -- launched a procedural maneuver to block the 80th vote. At midday tempers were flaring and civility was thin. "In the end," says Rep. Sally Heyman of North Miami Beach, "it was partly about religion and partly about race."

Around noon, the Republicans secured their 80th vote and the bill passed. Democrats predict constitutional problems will tie it up in court for years -- ironically slowing executions further.

Jewish legislators insist they don't oppose capital punishment in principle -- they just want to guarantee due process and ensure the innocent are protected. Many, though, appear to harbor deep misgivings. "I've never seen any study or research that shows it to have any purpose other than revenge," says Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach. "Other than the popularity of it, I'm not sure what the point is."

The popularity is formidable: 80 percent support statewide. What's not clear is voter sentiment in south Florida, the Jewish members' home region. Lawmakers assume their voters mirror the state. But it's never been tested. The only time Jews were ever polled was a 1989 American Jewish Committee national survey. It found a sobering 74 percent of Jews pro-death penalty, slightly more than Americans overall.

The organized Jewish community, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly pro-abolition. The Conservative and Reform rabbinates have long opposed capital punishment on talmudic grounds, insisting the danger of punishing the innocent outweighed any benefit. They restated their view just last month in a joint statement with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Key Florida groups are opposed, too, including the local American Jewish Congress and the Broward Federation's Jewish community relations council.

The Jewish lawmakers say their biggest fear now is a wave of attack ads next fall. But most say they won't sit still. "We're going to keep speaking out," says Ritter, "because as Jews we realize what happens when you sit quietly and let the majority roll over you."


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

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