Editors Note – While it is encouraging to see our state legislators moving toward the principles of the tea party movement, alas, we must not forget that campaign season is just beginning to crank up! I fear the ‘star power’ of some of the state’s influential lawmakers has already clouded the vision of a few of our brethren. A healthy dose of skepticism is in order;
“Skepticism is a discipline fit to purify the mind of prejudice and render it all the more apt, when the time comes, to believe and to act wisely.” — George Santayana
By Dara Kam
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE — Jeff Atwater is the presiding officer of the Florida Senate, one of the three most powerful politicians of the fourth largest state in the nation. He’s a descendant of two Florida governors and a member of a prominent South Florida family. He’s a North Palm Beach Republican banker.
And he often looks — and sounds — the staid, sober part.
Not so Thursday on the steps of the Old Capitol when he shed his suit coat and bureaucratic persona and delivered a rousing “guy-who-gets-it” speech to about 600 tea partiers at their “We the People” tax-day rally.
“They shoved us away. They shut the door. They turned off our microphones,” Atwater intoned, recounting last year’s Democratic health-care town halls that he said helped inspire the tea party movement.
“Then they called us Astroturf. Nancy Pelosi said we weren’t real. We were a substitute. We didn’t have the real answer. Harry Reid called us evil-mongers for showing up and expressing our disappointment about how they were spending our hard-earned money.
“They called us an angry mob. Well, we have a message for them. This country was founded on angry mobs. And we’re taking it back.”
As Senate president and generally acknowledged front-runner for the Florida Cabinet position of Chief Financial Officer, Atwater would seem more a part of the establishment than of a mob trying to take it back.
But the crowd loved him.
By the time he finished his fiery five minutes of touting an issue he hopes to ride to November victory — his support of a federal balanced budget — the crowd was roaring, and young and old attendees alike surged around him to shake his hand and embrace him as one of their own.
People who know him said they wouldn’t have guessed he had it in him to rock the Tea Party.
Preston Scott, a Tallahassee talk show host, who organized the rally, and Atwater’s spokeswoman, Jaryn Emhof, said they’d never heard Atwater in such form.
Conservative activist John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said he was completely taken by surprise.
“I thought it was remarkable,” Stemberger said. “He connected with the audience and was energetic and was fiery and was definitely talking to them in their language.”
While no mention was made at the rally that Atwater is a candidate for CFO, others accuse him of trying to gain traction in the upcoming elections by courting the tea party activists with their own rhetoric — in his speech and in a proposed referendum seeking Floridians’ support for a balanced federal budget.
“He realizes a lot of these people are not politically astute,” said Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee. “They’re using legislation to appeal to the lack of knowledge of some of the people in the tea party. These are do-nothing kind of things. They don’t do anything except generate sound bites. And people think something is happening, but nothing is happening. None of it amounts to anything.”
Lawson spoke of the measure that Atwater pushed through his Senate on a party-line vote in the first few weeks of the session, a measure that the House Rules committee passed Thursday.
It would put this question on the statewide ballot in November: “In order to stop uncontrolled growth of our national debt and prevent excessive borrowing by the Federal Government, which threatens jobs, robs America and our children of their opportunity for success, and threatens our national security, should the United States Constitution be amended to require a balanced federal budget without raising taxes?”
The referendum is non-binding, meaning that by itself it can’t require Congress to do anything.
But if 34 states were to make the demand, it could lead to a change in the U.S. Constitution.
Atwater acknowledges that probably won’t happen, but he hopes enough voters — at least 60 percent — will say yes, allowing Florida to join 19 other states that have passed referenda requesting a convention to force the balanced budget amendment.
He talked about his referendum and the tea party movement in an interview the day after the speech.
He denies the accusation by Democrats that the ballot question is unvarnished Republican campaign rhetoric designed to gin up antagonism toward the Democratic Congress and president. He declines to label himself a “tea party” member but says he shares the group’s philosophy of limited government, less spending and fewer taxes.
“I have to join the chorus of those who are recognizing . . . that this is their country,” he said. “This spending that is taking place in Washington is unsustainable. Every economist speaks to it. Every serious journal that follows finance speaks to it.”
And because the states created the federal government, he said state leaders are obligated to give their federal partners direction on how to run the country. But he knows what the feds think of it.
“We send them memorials and there is a huge Dumpster somewhere outside the United States Capitol where they throw all of our memorials,” Atwater said of the non-binding resolutions that states send Congress. “We sent the memorial up there when there was a Republican Congress and what happened? Nothing.
“So let 19 million Floridians join the conversation and then let’s see if they throw it in the trash.”
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