Former Republican members of the U.S. Congress, Dennis Ross of Lakeland and Ilieana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, share their insights on the country’s political climate to about 40 supporters of Florida Citrus Mutual at a PAC fundraiser in Bartow.
BARTOW — The nation’s dysfunctionally partisan politics seems to be the theme of the day, and two long-serving Florida congressional representatives piled on Tuesday at a citrus industry lunch.
Dennis Ross, a Republican who represented the Lakeland area in the U.S. House of Representatives for 10 years until 2018, said the legislative process has broken down because representatives in both parties decline to reach across the aisle to get co-sponsors on bills.
“Process is a means by which we get good policy. We’ve lost the light of good policy,” said Ross, a professor of political science at Southeastern University in Lakeland and director of its American Center for Political Leadership. “Where we’re headed right now is not a good course.”
The solution in both parties is to abandon the ideological extremes on the right for Republicans and the left for Democrats, Ross said.
“We as a party have to come back to the middle,” he added.
That will be difficult to do in the current electoral environment because the ideological extremes dominate the vote in party primaries, squeezing out more moderate candidates, Ross said.
Ross spoke to about 40 people at a fundraising lunch for the Florida Citrus Mutual Political Action Committees, which supports the group’s state and national government lobbying efforts. Citrus Mutual is the trade group for the state’s citrus growers.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agreed many state delegations in the House are divided along party lines, but she maintained Florida’s delegation was an exception. Ros-Lehtinen represented a Miami-area House district for 20 years until 2018 and now works as a lobbyist for Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP, Citrus Mutual’s Washington lobbying firm.
“The Florida delegation was unlike other delegations: We liked each other. We helped each other,” she said. “We approached every issue as Floridians first.”
Ross added that, despite the advice of other Republican colleagues, he always got at least one Democrat to co-sponsor a bill.
Yet those personal relationships between Republican and Democratic representatives is largely absent in today’s Washington, one of the main factors leading to the national political dysfunction, Ross and Ros-Lehtinen said.
Geoff Verhoff, a senior advisor at Akin Gump, agreed.
“Washington is a mess. Washington is an absolute mess,” Verhoff said. “As ugly as (Washington) has gotten, there is no substitute for personal relationships.”
Social media has contributed to the alienation between the parties because it has allowed people to withdraw into their own ideological bubbles, Ross said.
Ros-Lehtinen called social media “a democratic tool that can be used for good, but it can be used for evil.”
Because the younger generations use social media more frequently, it will have to undertake the task of amplifying the good and minimizing the evil, Ross said.
Any discussion of political divisions eventually will get to the divider-in-chief, President Donald Trump.
Ros-Lehtinen, who worked actively in foreign affairs during her House career, praised Trump’s foreign policy in Latin America and the Middle East.
Born in Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen credited Trump for taking on the “thugs” in the leadership of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. But she expressed reservations about his North Korean policy, particularly the “bromance” with its leader, Kim Jong-un.
“I can understand why he did it. Everybody else was tough on North Korea, and it didn’t work. He said, ‘I’m going to try something different’,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I think the president is doing a spectacular job in foreign policy. I think North Korea was a misstep.”
Ross gave Trump a more mixed review.
“Trump emboldened a base that hadn’t been involved for a long time,” he said.
He did so by breaking political conventions, Ross said, and those conventions needed to be broken.
Still, he added, “I knew the country needed a Trump. I hope the country doesn’t need a Trump again.”
Ross said he supports Trump’s re-election and doesn’t see any of the current Democratic candidates beating him unless they develop a more compelling message beyond being anti-Trump.
Ross and Ros-Lehtinen agreed the impeachment vote would hurt Democratic House members in swing districts, giving the Republicans a chance on retaking that body while maintaining control of the U.S. Senate and presidency.
The wild card, however, is Trump himself, Ross said.
“He gives himself his own worst enemy,” he said.
Kevin Bouffard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-802-7591.