Old Florida Capitol building. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book was not in attendance Wednesday at a caucus meeting with colleagues. She also was gone when senators debated and voted on special session legislation in the Florida Senate chamber that evening.
It’s still not entirely clear why so many Senate Democrats failed to attend a caucus meeting earlier in the day.
But Book was marked as “excused” during the special session in the Senate chamber Wednesday evening, according to legislative records, when members voted on key initiatives that Republicans approved related to COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates.
The Phoenix contacted her office multiple times, but has yet to receive a response.
In addition, state Sen. Loranne Ausley was excused . She represents several North Florida counties.
Members of the Senate caucus met Wednesday before the special session in the Florida Capitol, with only nine members out of 16 in attendance. The situation was troublesome to some lawmakers who were focused on legislation related to a public-records exemption, which blocks personal information about medical histories and religious views of workers challenging workplace vaccine mandates.
State Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat representing part of Broward County, acknowledged Thursday that “historically we’ve had some attendance issues with caucus.” Previously, Farmer expressed frustration about the lack of attendance at Wednesday’s meeting, saying that members should follow rules by requesting an excused absence.
“When there’s major legislation going on, we usually have pretty good attendance,” Farmer said in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix on Thursday.
“Unfortunately, we did not yesterday,” he said, adding that he wasn’t aware of any members requesting an excused absence.
State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade County, was absent from the caucus because she had “multiple meetings scheduled for Wednesday before the time of convening,” according to a legislative aide. Records show Taddeo casted her vote against COVID-19 vaccine mandate legislation on the Senate floor Wednesday evening.
“The senator was in a pre-scheduled meeting with constituents who traveled up to Tallahassee from our district in Miami during the time that the caucus meeting was called for…we were unable to reschedule when we were notified about the caucus meeting that same morning,” the staffer said in an email to the Phoenix.
Taddeo is a gubernatorial candidate in the 2022 election.
That bill and three others passed and were signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis during what appeared to be a campaign-style press event Thursday, with several GOP members present to tout Republican efforts to block employers and school districts from vaccine and mask mandates.
The Phoenix reached out to other Democratic senators about the situation but only a few had responded as of Thursday afternoon.
At the end of April, Farmer “was jettisoned as Democratic Leader in exchange for Senator Lauren Book,” another Broward County lawmaker, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The two have clashed in the past, and Farmer resigned the leadership role before the end of the regular 2021 session, the news outlet stated.
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