(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 10, 2010……….Never one to shy away from largely-ceremonial things that bring boatloads of media attention, lame duck Gov. Charlie Crist used one of his final strange days in office this week to pardon rock and roll icon Jim Morrison.
Crist – he of the squeaky-clean love of the people – took up the cause of Morrison – he of the 1969 conviction for exposing himself at a Coconut Grove concert. Had Morrison been still living, it would have made for an odd couple, but for four years, nothing has lit the outgoing governor’s fire like the glare of the spotlight – of which the Morrison pardon produced plenty.
Morrison was the lead singer for the iconic rock group ‘The Doors,’ who became a symbol of a turbulent, drug-infused, psychadelic era, but died in Paris in 1971 while appealing his conviction for an act that band members and many fans at the event denied ever took place.
Fans of the rocker – inside and outside the media – urged Crist, an admitted Doors fan himself whose term ends next month, to pardon Morrison for the incident. There were conflicting reports, but scant evidence, about whether or not the “Lizard King” exposed himself to an audience left waiting more than an hour only to have the inebriated singer taunt them during the performance, they said.
Crist made the case for Morrison because no one else showed up to speak on his behalf.
“In this case, the guilt or innocence is in God’s hands not ours.” Crist said.
Citing the artist’s body of work and that he died before his appeal was complete, the panel voted to pardon him for any crime he may have committed.
The decision came over the objection of a former police officer who said he was friends with the arresting officer – and was the only one to speak to the Clemency Board about Morrison.
“What message does this send to the youth of this country?” Angel Lago asked despite the fact the youth of the country today generally have no idea who Morrison is.
Still, Lago pointed to the fact that Morrison openly flaunted his drug use and sexuality, and in the end benefited financially from the arrest and conviction by boosting his bad-boy status as a creative and raucous artist. However, outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, who voted in favor of the pardon, countered that what Morrison was accused of would pale in comparison to what’s common on cable television now days.
But at least one member of the Clemency Board, outgoing Attorney General Bill McCollum, refused to break on through to the other side.
“I understand there are a lot of fans of the Doors out there (but) this case is overshadowing – simply because of its celebrity status – the rest of what goes on today,” he said after Crist spoke in favor of pardoning Morrison and one former police officer spoke against it. “This is by far a lesser case in significance in terms of its impact on the lives of people … than, certainly any other (case).”
To prove his point, McCollum refused to vote on the pardon, saying he only that he would “acquiesce” to his colleagues on the panel.
MORRISON WAS RIGHT – PEOPLE ARE STRANGE
You might not have known it from the coverage of Jim Morrison’s case, but there were 79 other people seeking pardons besides the deceased rocker this week – and plenty of their cases were strange too.
There was Rick Hootes, a Flagler Beach resident convicted for striking a police officer with a machete, who asked the panel to clear his record after denying the altercation had happened. However, Crist and the Cabinet decided to only restore his voting rights – and hardly anyone noticed.
“I was just the one right after him,” Hootes told the News Service of Florida of the noticeable difference in attention between his case and Morrison’s.
Then there was former St. Petersburg resident Forrest Murphy, who now resides in Atlanta, Ga. Murphy said he was arrested 30 years ago for accidently striking a police officer during a fight, which he didn’t deny to the Clemency Board. Murphy said it was “kind of cool” to be considered on the same day as Morrison.
But just as quickly he noted the outcome of his case wasn’t as cool as the Doors’ front man.
“A lot of good it did me,” he said of sharing the Clemency Board agency with Morrison, who’s memory Murphy said he did not want to disrespect.
Murphy, 54, was left waiting for the sun when his own bid to have his right to own guns restored was denied.
OTHER VOICES THIS WEEK
In non-Morrison news this week, rail backers in Florida celebrated receiving more money to build a bullet train along the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa, bringing them tantalizingly close to coming full circle on the long-sought project.
With the latest $342.3 million, Florida will have received from Washington most of the $2.6 billion that former Gov. Jeb Bush once used to successfully derail the train by arguing it was too expensive. The money was awarded to Florida from grants given originally to other states that have backed away from rail projects, though Gov.-elect Rick Scott has suggested he’d like to put the brakes on them too.
The ray of hope for rail backers though is that Scott has said he was opposed to the state paying for the train, not the proposal itself.
Still, it’s hard not to argue that with a third windfall in two years that the high speed rail has received almost as big a reprieve as Morrison did.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Orlando, said it should be enough to ensure the train, which was added to the state constitution in 2000 but removed in 2004, is actually built.
“Additional federal funding for the new Orlando to Tampa passenger rail link should ensure the project’s chance for successful completion,” said Mica, who is in line to chair the U.S. House’s Transportation Committee when Republicans assume control there next month.
However, Scott was not exactly ready to ride the rails with the project, saying only that he was happy the federal government gave Florida another $342 million, not committing to supporting its construction.
“I’m pleased that the federal government recognizes that sound infrastructure is key to Florida’s economic growth,” Scott said in a statement. “I look forward to reviewing the feasibility of this project in terms of return to Florida’s taxpayers. I’m also interested in understanding the private sector’s interest in funding this infrastructure project.”
An unabashed rail supporter, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, said that with the federal government providing almost all of the money for the train, there was not much left to study.
“There should be no reason now why this can’t get done,” he said.
However, come Jan. 4, the reason could be Scott, much like the newly-elected Republican governors in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, who said after the November elections that they did not want to build rail projects, freeing up the money for Florida.
Elsewhere this week, a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent the federal government from compelling people to participate in any health care system was clearly on the fast-track. Despite the fact that it would be at least two years before any votes could happen – and a court is schedule to hear arguments on a case to strike the law down next week – Senate President Mike Haridopolos said it could be the first bill passed during next year’s session.
The resolution, SJR 2, easily cleared the Senate Health Regulation Committee, with only the two Democratic members of the panel voting against it. The proposal is a tweaked version of what would have been Amendment 9 in this year’s election had the Florida Supreme Court not thrown the question off the ballot.
Also, Florida lawmakers got their first taste this week of what is projected to be a long and contentious debate over the future of Florida education reform, attending a screening of “Waiting for Superman,” a pro school-choice documentary that largely blames teachers’ unions for failures in public schools.
Speaking of long and contentious debates, Attorney General McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Bronson announced this week they and their successors will go to court to challenge tougher federal water standards slated to kick in next year. They chose to ask a Pensacola federal court block a controversial set of clean water standards they contend are inflexible and unworkable.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s where McCollum and 19 other states are contesting the federal health care law. However, the outgoing Attorney General who wanted to close the door on the Jim Morrison revival this week denied the apparent judge-shopping as vehemently as the Doors’ front man’s defenders denied the “Lizard King” took his nickname literally in Miami in 1969.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Had he still been alive this week, legendary musician Jim Morrison might have liked the sounds coming from the Florida Clemency Board – though his wife suggested he wouldn’t have. Either way, the panel pardoned the Doors’ lead singer for a 1969 conviction for exposing himself at a Coconut Grove concert.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I can go back and tell my friends I did see Jim Morrison get clemency,” former St. Petersburg resident Forrest Murphy, whose own bid when his own bid to have his rights to own guns restored was not nearly as successful as Morrison’s case.