Barron vs. Bruner: The Most Important State Senate Race in Modern Florida History

At the time it was the most expensive election in Florida legislative history. The first million dollar legislative race on record. It was probably also one of the most critical legislative races of the last half century. The 1988 State Senate District 3 Democratic Primary was a race that everyone across the state watched closely. When the result was final, the world had changed. As far as Florida politics was concerned it was a seismic event.

Once upon a time Florida’s Legislature was an effective body and the State House was largely progressive. Florida moved vastly ahead of other southeastern states thanks to the leadership and vision of those in public office, especially two Governors Reuben Askew and Bob Graham. Unfortunately, throughout much of this “golden era” which lasted from 1970 to 1986, the Florida Senate became an impediment to positive change.

Dempsey Barron was at the same time both an ideologue and yet the  master of the art of horse-trading. He ruled the Senate with an iron fist as Rules Chairman (and Senate President for two years in-between). But  Barron was a complex figure. To merely label him a pork-chopper as many today do would be wrong. Barron certainly had alliances with the pork-chop gang, but his ascension to leadership may have done as much to break up the pork-chop gang as any event outside of reapportionment after the Baker v Carr decision.

Much to the chagrin of some in Bay County, Barron while ideologically aligned with the pork-chop gang was reluctant to funnel state dollars back home. In that sense he was a more consistent and principled conservative than the Charley Johns, William Shands and the leader of the pork choppers Ed Ball the  inheritor of the DuPont fortune. Barron was also discernibly more moderate on racial issues than the pork choppers had been. (W.D. Childers, Pat Thomas and George Kirkpatrick were more in-line with the pork chop philosophy of reactionary conservatism mixed with pork barrel spending at home, but even they weren’t authentic pork choppers.)

Barron was first elected to the Legislature in 1956. Despite his reputation as a conservative southern Democrat, Barron was one of a handful Democratic House members in 1957  who voted to sustain Governor Leroy Collins veto of the infamous  ‘Last Resort Bill,’ which said that if one black child entered a white public school, they’d close the school. Barron then moved to the Senate in 1960 where he became a powerhouse.

During the 1970s Barron controlled the Senate and by extension State Government. He could tell Governor Askew to “stay the hell out of our (the Senate’s) business,” and get away with it. Despite the historic disputes Barron had with Askew he gave the Governor critical and somewhat pragmatic support of  the Governor’s desire to reform the state Judiciary.

To become Senate President you had to be personally approved by Barron. While he served only two years himself in the post, he controlled the Rules Committee and the Senate for the better part of twenty years. So thorough was his control he elicited regular newspaper columns in the newspapers south of I-4 which pit the Northern part of the state (the South) versus the urban centers along I-4 and I-95. Barron once claimed that the negative columns from urban “liberal” papers were worth thousands of votes in his conservative panhandle district. As a one of a kind Senate power broker Dempsey Barron stirred up passions among Floridians typically reserved for Governors or US Senators.

In the 1980s Barron continued to control the Senate Presidency but in a different fashion than the 1970s when many Democrats were of his political persuasion. As more liberal Democrats came to the Senate, Baron’s pragmatic streak led him to make strong alliances with Republicans. Much like the conservative coalition that wielded so much power in Washington between 1938 and 1964, Barron crafted a governing alliance of Conservative Democrats and Republicans that bottled up progressive legislation passed by the House and pushed by the Governor. With anywhere from 9 to 12 Republicans voting in lockstep with Barron’s 10-12 Conservative Democrats or “Dempseycrats” , urban southeast Florida and the Tampa Bay area were increasingly frustrated.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was among Barron’s targets and it never passed the Senate. President Jimmy Carter even offered to personally meet Barron to lobby him on the ERA but Barron refused. The defeat of the ERA in Florida was fatal to the hopes of progressives throughout the country and Barron was personally responsible as the Amendment had passed the more liberal House under the strong leadership Elaine Gordon.

In 1985, Dempsey Barron considered switching parties bringing his “Dempseycrats” with him to the Republican side of the aisle. Ultimately Barron determined switching parties would possibly cede power for himself and his faction.  Barron was close with Attorney General Jim Smith who also actively contemplated parties before the 1986 Governor’s Race. When Smith was narrowly defeated in the Democratic runoff in 1986 by State Rep Steve Pajcic, who was one of the most liberal members of the legislature. The nomination of Pajcic whose political philosophy was diametrically opposed to that of Smith, Barron and the “Dempseycrats” led to a mass exodus to openly support Republican Bob Martinez against Pajcic.

Barron’s power had appeared to be broken by Harry Johnston, the liberal Senate President but after Martinez’s election he was more powerful than ever engineering a coup to elect John Vogt Senate President over the designee, liberal Hollywood Democrat Ken Jenne. For the first time since the 1960s, Barron had an ideological soul mate in the Governor’s mansion and the next two years Barron was at the apex of his power.

But Barron had long made enemies out of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers (now the Florida Justice Association) who were in the 1980s a much more potent force in influencing Florida elections than today. Determined to get rid of Barron once and for all, the Trial Lawyers recruited a young member, Vince Bruner to challenge the dean of the legislature.

Well funded and conservative enough for a sprawling district, Bruner was a great fit to challenge Barron. By the end of session in 1988 it was obvious Barron was feeling the heat, reversing his position on the controversial services tax he had worked with the Governor to pass. The summer in the western Panhandle was the hottest politically in some time.

At the time Fred Levin one of the most prominent attorney’s in the state who backed Bruner said:

‘It is boiling over here, there’s name calling, they’re splits within law firms, you’ve got mayors on one side and the city councils on the other. They’re prominent people screaming at each other. The Bruner and the Barron families have come close to fist fights.”

When Primary Day arrived Barron found himself defeated largely because he didn’t carry his home county Bay by a substantial margin. Barron still carried the rural counties he had represented for so many years, but the western most part of the district (Walton and Okalossa) represented Bruner’s base and had lots of new residents who hadn’t been familiar with Barron previously. The negative campaign waged by the Trial Lawyers helped define Barron for these voters and as mentioned earlier, Bruner’s profile fit the district well.

Barron’s defeat was met with jubilation throughout much of the state. He almost instantly became a registered Republican and continued to influence politics until his death in 2011. Bruner would serve one Senate term and would be replaced in 1992 by Republican Robert Harden, Harden was an embarrassment as a public official and would leave the legislature in disgrace after passing dozens of bad checks and fleeing the state. Bruner had switched to the GOP before the end of his term in 1992.

Barron was a conservative but helped strike a rapport with many liberals. Years after Barron’s defeat  bring Dempsey back buttons would don the capital even among some liberals. Despite Barron’s conservative dogma, today’s Republican leadership who are his ideological and in some cases regional heirs (Don Gaetz holds Barron’s old Senate seat) would do well to emulate the better points of his governing philosophy.

4 thoughts on “Barron vs. Bruner: The Most Important State Senate Race in Modern Florida History”

  1. Great piece and don’t speak I’ll of the dead but Barron was a bastard and you are doing a little too much eulogizing here.

  2. Dempsey Barron was a true conservative all the way around. Did you know he sponsored a bill to legalize marijuana?

    He was also very much against government spending on anything but the necessary in his mind.

    He also favored voting right for blacks and worked in reapportionment to maximize black influence in voting.

    He was conservative to a fault and did really try and put the screws to Southern Florida, everything from Tampa southward.

    Not my political philosophy for sure but he was a titan of Florida politics without a doubt.

    Bruner I hardly recall. Not worth anything. Harden? LOL!

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