Tuesday morning, the 42-member Florida House Democratic caucus turned to a Tampa business lawyer to lead their 2022 joint campaign effort and set their agenda for the 2023 and 2024 legislative sessions.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell fills a leadership void created when Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, announced he was leaving the House after a Tallahassee Democrat investigative report about sexual harassment allegations against him.
Alexander did not attend the caucus meeting, nor was he mentioned during the vote or discussions. Democrats declined to speak about the scandal, instead acknowledging challenges and focusing on the future of Florida.
"Together we will fight for every for every Floridian's freedom to be healthy, prosperous and safe," said Driskell after her selection.
"The very soul of our state, depends upon it," she said. "Let's get to work."
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Several House members said they expect the transition to Driskell’s leadership will be seamless.
Driskell had been selected to lead the caucus in 2025. Current leader Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Davie, said she is already fully embedded in the House Victory campaign for 2022.
First elected in 2018, Driskell holds degrees from Harvard and Georgetown universities and acknowledges Democrats face strong headwinds in the mid-term election.
She pledges to hold on to every seat Democrats currently hold in the Florida House.
“I know our chances are slim; we got a big gap to overcome,” said Driskell, acknowledging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ popularity and President Joe Biden’s unfavorable numbers with Florida voters.
But she urged her members to remain united in Tallahassee and on the campaign trail.
“My commitment to you is that I will be there for each and every one of you. I will work so hard,” she told her members after they elected her unanimously. “But my ask is that you be there for each other. We’re going to trust the people of Florida to agree with our policies and show them that we are the winning team."
Driskell is the first Black female selected as the House Democratic Leader, and will have four years to build the Democrats into a formidable opposition.
Democrats continue to lag behind GOP in state legislature
Republicans took control of the chamber in 1996 and Democrats have had fewer than 50 members in the 120-seat chamber since 1998.
Outnumbered 77–42, Democrats failed the past two sessions to stop GOP initiatives to limit access to abortion, curtail voting rights and restrict how racial history and sex is taught in public schools.
A Winter Haven native, the 43-year-old Driskell unseated Republican Shawn Harrison in 2018 for a north Tampa seat and has served as the Democrats' policy chair for the past two years.
An attorney with the Tampa firm Carlton Fields, Driskell has railed against the failure of the Republican agenda to address a lack of affordable housing, and to spend money to clean water, train workers, and support public education.
While those are bread and butter issues for Democrats, Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Broward, said he initially rebuffed Driskell when she asked him to support her bid to be leader.
“I said where's your written plan? I'm not going to support anybody who doesn't have a written plan,” said Geller, about the need to grow Democrat numbers in Tallahassee.
A week later, Driskell produced a plan for Geller’s review.
Talking before he nominated Driskell, Geller said her selection is about the future health of the Democratic caucus.
“She thought about it because she cares about the future success of our caucus,” said Geller about Driskell’s reaction to his comments.
Geller told the Democrats with just a few weeks to get people into races and the need to communicate partisan differences to voters, “I can’t think of anybody that I trust more than Fentrice Driskell to lead that charge on behalf of all of us.
“She is the right person. This is the right time. And God bless her for being willing to stand up, put her own personal plans upside down and jump into this breach when we need someone,” said Geller.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: House Democrats make Rep. Fentrice Driskell leader after Alexander exit