Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa was formally elected Monday as the next leader of the 14-member Senate Democratic caucus, promising to be a voice for "the little" guy in the chamber dominated by 26 Republicans.
In a fiery, poetic speech, the 71-year-old lawyer and one-time civil rights advocate, spelled out the inequities facing Floridians from minimum wage to health care, rigid criminal sentencing and environmental destruction.
"There's no freedom for the more than one million Floridians with no access to a family doctor so long as Medicaid expansion is blocked," Joyner said after being unanimously elected by her Democratic colleagues. "If your family's sick and you cannot get access to a doctor, you are not free."
"When most of the gains are going to the very top, bypassing the ones who have helped to get that success, working people are not free,'' she said. "There's no freedom when tens of thousands of Floridians are locked up for minor drug possessions and their civil rights are not restored because of some arbitrary waiting period.
"There's no freedom when a judge's discretion in sentencing is removed and prison times become mandated by lawmakers far removed from the court rooms.
"There's no freedom when our lakes and rivers and streams slowly suffocate and we cannot drink or swim or boat or fish in our waters. There's no freedom when our homes and businesses and our farms and orchards are under threat because of rising sea levels aimed at Florida's coast line. And there is no freedom when our kids can't get ahead in an education system based on punishment rather than excellence. There's no freedom when unaccountable private schools become more attractive because government has failed the accountable public ones.
"All of these issues individually and collectively can break people already stretched to the breaking point to the edge of being durable. But it doesn't need to be that way. As a woman, especially as a black woman, I learned many years ago what it meant to be on the outside looking in. I remember what it was like when fears of one group trumped the fair treatment of many and denied those willing to work hard the right to the success they had earned.
"I learned deep down in my heart the constant ache for freedom that some enjoyed but many more were denied. When hard working people are blocked from basic health care because one ideology is against it. When they are shunned from sharing in the success they helped a company achieve, when they are struggling to pay the bills in a system stacked against them, when they have erred in some minor crime and their sentence is unchallengable, that is the edge of the undurable. As the incoming leader, I pledge to you that like I did a quarter century ago, this wall erected in the name of politics to curb the freedom of the people, will also fall,'' she said to applause.
"In grateful acknowledgement of the trust you have placed in me, I will do everything in my power to make it happen -- together we will. he 14 members of this Democratic caucus have a proud tradition for standing for -- as one of my Republican senator once said, the little guy and little girl -- that's who we stand for.
"The 14 of us believe that moderate minds and willing hearts will embrace what is right for the people over the greed of any one party and the people of Florida will be better for it."
Joyner is a Lakeland native who received her undergraduate and law degrees from Florida A&M University. She was elected to the House in 2000 and to the Senate in 2006.
Several Republican senators attended Joyner's ceremony including outgoing Senate President Don Gaetz, incoming President Andy Gardiner and Sens. Greg Evers, Bill Galvano, Wilton Simpson and Jack Latvala. But some Republicans didn't welcome her message. GOP political operative Rick Wilson quipped on Twitterthat Joyner's speech was "on the cutting edge of the most relevant issues to the greatest number of voters."
Also present was Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince, a Texas judge and two Georgia lawmakers who have been long-time associated of Joyner's in a nationwide group of black state legislators.