OR Conversations is a weekly Q&A featuring conversations with local newsmakers.
Those who’ve dealt with freshman Democratic Florida state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith know him as both irrepressible and congenial, a committed political rebel with a heart. The openly gay lawmaker for Florida’s 49th House District, covering northeast Orange County and including UCF, has risen quickly in Tallahassee and now chairs the Florida Legislative Progressive Caucus, albeit in a year in which progressive politics succeeded in little legislation approval.
Orlando-Rising: As a progressive, what do you think was the most important thing the Florida Legislature did or didn’t do this year?
Carlos Guillermo Smith: Forming the first-ever Legislative Progressive Caucus or LPC. There’s been a Congressional Progressive Caucus around since the 90s when it was founded by then U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, but nothing in the Florida legislature. This year, we launched the LPC to begin organizing progressive voices within the legislature as a voting bloc to impact policy and work together toward a progressive agenda. With fifteen official members, we’re already shifting the conversation within the Democratic caucus and the legislature as a whole. As chairman of the Legislative Progressive Caucus, I can assure you that we are just getting started.
OR: Post-Pulse, Democrats’ efforts to limit assault weapons and high-capacity magazines didn’t get any further in this session than before that terrible tragedy galvanized many people on the issues. Is it a lost cause for supporters of restrictions on high-powered weapons?
Smith: NOT TRUE. Until now, lawmakers weren’t even filing pro-active legislation to address the epidemic of gun violence. Now we have a comprehensive agenda to rally behind. Bills to ban assault weapons and large capacity magazines. Bills that implement universal background checks and enhance gun safety locks. Bills to prevent domestic abusers from having firearms and strengthen requirements for concealed weapons permits, and investments in mental health care. That’s our common-sense agenda to tackling this epidemic. We’ve put it out there, and the people are rallying behind it. The result? The conversation on guns is no longer one-sided. We’ve knocked the gun lobby off-course and blocked their extreme agenda for another year. I see that as a win.
OR: What did Orlando get out of this session?
Smith: After all the tragedy our community has endured, I am disappointed at how the legislature treated Orlando. Florida is 50th in the nation for mental health care spending, a major problem for those impacted by Pulse desperate for counseling services and support. The legislature offered no major long-term improvements to mental health. SILVER LINING: Luckily, I worked with Rep. Mike Miller and Sen. Linda Stewart to secure $2.5 million in funding for the PTSD clinic at UCF helping veterans, first responders and Pulse survivors. The funding was zeroed-out near the end of Session, but we fought successfully to get they money back in the budget, as long as the governor doesn’t veto it.
Orlando is number one in the nation for low wages according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The legislature offered no increase to the minimum wage leaving Florida at a starvation wage of $8.10 per hour. We also aren’t any better off on the issue of affordable housing, which hurts Orlando’s homelessness epidemic.
The legislature punished State Attorney Aramis Ayala for her opposition to the death penalty by eliminating 21 full-time positions worth $1.3 million from the 9th Judicial Circuit. These positions were meant to curb human trafficking and domestic violence. This overt act of political retribution hurts the Orlando community.
OR: Despite an impressive coalition of statewide business interests backing them, the Florida Competitive Workforce Act bills, banning workplace discrimination according to sexual identity, went nowhere. What’s next?
Smith: This year, the bill earned over seventy co-sponsors and we expanded the bipartisan coalition behind it. It has the votes to pass the floor of the Florida House and the Florida Senate. I am beyond disappointed that a handful of individuals have made the political decision to prevent this bill from being heard. I am disappointed that it took the worst hate crime against the LGBTQ community in U.S. history for Gov. Rick Scott to say the words “LGBTQ,” only go back into the closet months later and forget all about our community. We pleaded with the governor to throw his weight behind his effort and he refused. We don’t need him. We will keep fighting for this bill. We will not give up. We will not leave the transgender community behind in order to secure an easy win, and I will not leave the Florida legislature until we get this done.
OR: What was your personal highlight of the session?
Smith: Having real legislative accomplishments during my first session. Getting $2.5 million in the budget for the PTSD clinic and passing my first bill on the floor of the House was no easy task for a freshman Democrat. As outnumbered as I may be in the legislature as a progressive, feminist, LGBTQ, Latino, liberal Democrat, it’s still the relationships and experience that mattered. Not the politics. I’m proud to call many on the other side of the aisle my friends. They just have a lot of bad ideas.
OR: What’s the best political stunt, exploit, or practical joke that you participated in, were subjected to, or watched go down in Tallahassee this year?
Smith: Presenting my first bill on the floor of the House turned out to be a hoot! For some reason, Speaker Corcoran decided he wanted to have a little bit of fun with me. This was probably payback for the hard time I’ve been giving Republicans all session long. When it became my turn to present, the speaker announced we had finished bill presentations for the day. Then he pretended to have misplaced my bill and got a good laugh. That’s when I decided to have some fun at his expense. I grabbed the mic and publicly told the speaker, “I’ll forgive you; I know you just became Speaker and YOU are new at this.” The entire chamber burst out in laughter and shock that I would talk back. It was one of the better moments in the Florida House this year. I think our friendly banter demonstrated how much the speaker really loves me!