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Will 20 more years have to pass until another woman leads the Florida Legislature?

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Will 20 more years have to pass until another woman leads the Florida Legislature?

Sep 19, 2023 | 11:28 am ET
By Jackie Llanos
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Will 20 more years have to pass until another woman leads the Florida Legislature?
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The Florida House, Feb. 2, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

Florida is ahead of most other states when it comes to the number of women in its Legislature, but, for the next two years, both chambers will go back to the status quo of male leadership.

In addition, a Phoenix analysis of top leadership positions in legislative committees show that few women get to be a “chair” of a committee, such as appropriations, criminal justice and judiciary. For example, the appropriations chair would be crafting a multi-billion-dollar state budget — but right now, there are no women chairs in the full appropriations committees.

And if that’s the case, how will women climb the ladder to the top roles of the Florida Legislature?

The Florida House of Representatives crowned on Monday morning its next speaker — Rep. Daniel Perez, of Miami-Dade. And Majority Leader Sen. Ben Albritton expects to take over the upper chamber once Sen. Kathleen Passidomo’s tenure is over.

Will 20 more years have to pass until another woman leads the Florida Legislature?
State Rep. Jennifer Canady. Credit: State House website.

Still, it might be several years until the state sees a woman as either Speaker of the House or Senate President. After all, more than two decades had passed since the last time Florida had a Senate President before Passidomo got the spot.

That said, Rep. Jennifer Canady of Polk County in Central Florida has gathered enough votes to lead the House in 2028, according to Florida Politics.

Tweaking committee assignments

For the 2024 session that starts January 9, House Speaker Paul Renner tweaked the committee assignments.

Now, there are some women who have new chair and vice chair positions. Passidomo’s changes to the Senate committee assignments didn’t alter any chairs or vice chairs.

Compared to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and many other states, Florida has above-average representation of women in the Legislature, at 41.3%, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A 2023 analysis shows that in Florida, 40% of women serve in the Senate and 41.7% of women serve in the state House, based on the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Nevada has the highest percentage of women in its Legislature, at 60.3 percent. West Virginia has the lowest, at 11.2 percent, according to the NCSL analysis.

However, women in the Florida Legislature make up around 31 percent of the chairs of committees and select committees in the Senate and 29 percent of the chairs of committees, subcommittees and select committees in the House. None of the women chairs are Democrats. Those percentages are lower than the state’s female population of nearly 51 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Phoenix focused mainly on chairs of legislative committees but also looked at vice chairs. In the Senate, 46 percent of vice chairmanships belong to women, compared to 33 percent in the House.

New women leaders

“The biggest challenge is that generally speaking, you need some seniority to get into a leadership role. So, as more and more women are elected, it will play out that there’s more women in leadership positions, but it takes time,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

As part of House Speaker Renner’s changes, Reps. Kaylee Tuck of South Central Florida and Vicki Lopez of Miami-Dade will be the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Select Committee on Health Innovation. Tuck previously chaired the Choice & Innovation subcommittee, where she pushed the massive voucher program giving families public funds for private schools, even if those families are millionaires.

When it comes to committee chairs, the only other change is that Rep. Michelle Salzman of Escambia will chair the Health Care Regulation subcommittee. During the 2023 session, she was the vice chair of the Health Care Appropriations subcommittee. However, Tuck remains the only chair of a full committee in the House.

Salzman told Florida Phoenix in a phone interview that she was happy about her new chair role because she asked for it.

Will 20 more years have to pass until another woman leads the Florida Legislature?
State Rep. Michelle Salzman. Credit: State House website.

“I’m looking for ways to bridge the gap and access to care, not necessarily just through providing more resources, but it could be through creative ways to streamline the pipeline from education to employment, to fill some of the needs that we have in our physicians and medical staff. As well as looking to move legislation and support legislation that provides a more collaborative approach to providing services in Florida,” she said. “So, instead of having an agency not talk to another agency, I’d like to see them communicating with one another so that we can provide a more well-rounded approach to caring for individuals.”

Other state House members such as Kim Berfield, Kiyan Michael and Jessica Baker got vice chairmanship roles.

Following the path

Getting to the top spots in both chambers can sometimes follow a familiar path. Chairmanship of the Rules Committee can be an indicator of who will get a promotion next. Passidomo and Renner chaired the Rules committees in their respective chambers before presiding over them. Perez became the chair of the House’s Rules Committee this year, and Rep. Linda Chaney of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties became the vice chair.

In the Senate, Debbie Mayfield of Brevard County led the Rules Committee this year. She also served as the Senate Majority Leader from 2020 to 2022.

The Appropriations and Finance and Tax Committees can also indicate who might be a future leader, said Edwin Benton, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

“So I would think women or any person being on these committees and chairing those committees, would certainly place them in sort of a catbird seat to be logical considerations to be Senate presidents or Speaker of the House,” Benton said.

While the chairs and vice chairs of the Appropriations Committee in both chambers are men, Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez of Monroe and Miami-Dade counties is the vice chair of the Finance and Tax Committee. She is also the chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.