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Florida Senate Democrats Announce Civil Rights Agenda For 2014

Jessica Palombo

Florida Senate Democrats are pushing for the passage of a package of civil rights bills during the 2014 session. Wednesday’s agenda announcement was set against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary celebration of Democratic Leader-Designate Arthenia Joyner’s arrest during a Tallahassee civil rights protest.

Sen. Joyner (D-Tampa) grew up during the segregation era in Lakeland. In 1963, as a Florida A&M University student, she says Tallahassee had clear boundaries it was unacceptable for black people to cross.

“That’s how I came to the front door of the Florida Theater, the whites-only film venue just around the corner from the Capitol,” she says.

Joyner says, when she was sitting on the concrete floor of a Tallahassee jail, she never imagined she’d one day be leading Democrats on the Senate floor.

Senate President Don Gaetz thanked Joyner for her contribution to the civil rights fight.

“I’m proud to be your colleague and your friend, and God bless you for what you’ve done,” he said.

But Gaetz left the room before the Democrats announced their priorities.

“Now let me get out from behind this agenda,” he said as he exited.  

Bills banning discrimination based on pregnancy or someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity are on the table. Sen. Joseph Abruzzo (D-Wellington) is sponsoring the latter.

“Fortune 500 companies have already implemented their own policies to ensure that this doesn’t happen. It’s time that Florida follows. There are a number of Republicans on board in the House,” he said.

And with Republican majorities in both Florida chambers, Democrats will need more GOP support for all of their bills. They include one from Sen. Jeff Clemens (Lake Worth) preventing employers from asking for criminal histories on an initial job application.

“We have a problem in Florida reintegrating former felons, criminals, back into society. We hang them out to dry and don’t give them the opportunities that they need,” he says.

Another bill, called the Florida Dream Act and sponsored by Sen. Dwight Bullard (D-Miami), gives in-state college tuition to non-citizen students.

He says, “If you look at states that have already passed initiatives like this—states like Maryland, states like Illinois, states like Utah and Texas—their economic recovery was that much quicker because they allowed access to secondary education for those students.”

And Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) is refilling a bill establishing a statewide domestic partnership registry for partners of any gender. It got a hearing last year for the first time, and Sobel says this is the year it will pass the full Legislature.