Ending a bitter internal feud, Florida House Democrats named Rep. Doug Wiles, a quiet and conservative insurance agent from St. Augustine, as the next leader of their often-fractured 43-member caucus.
House Democrats finalized their choice of Wiles on Thursday night without an election after his challenger, Rep. Bob Henriquez of Tampa, a vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, conceded.
"We have to stay together," Henriquez said in a short concession speech. "We cannot allow there to be a divisive vote or to allow individual self-interests to step in to do something that may be irretrievable."
Henriquez, a gregarious Hispanic legislator and high school football coach, said that continuing his several-month gambit for the leadership post would result in "no winner, but there would be a lot of losers."
The current leader of the caucus is Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach. She will retain the post until after the 2002 elections.
The leader-designate is charged with raising campaign funds and championing efforts to get Democrats elected to the House of Representatives. When a new Legislature is seated after the 2002 elections, the leader designate traditionally becomes the caucus leader.
Democrats face an uphill battle in taking back control of the House. Republicans hold nearly two-thirds of the seats in the 120-member chamber. A majority of the Democrats are freshmen, which has contributed to the partys struggle to maintain influence in the Capitol.
In a brief acceptance speech, Wiles, the current House Democratic Leader Pro Tem, a second in charge under Frankel, pledged to work diligently on behalf of his colleagues. He applauded Henriquez for bowing out, saying that Henriquez "has given up more than most of us."
The leadership fight exploded this week when House Democrats debated angrily before voting narrowly not to change their caucus rules to require a leadership vote to be cast in secret. Caucus member said their aim was to avoid splintering the caucus, which happened a few years ago when then-Rep. Willie Logan of Opa-locka was ousted as the Democratic Leader designate. The ouster of Logan, who is black, set off a statewide controversy that was tinged with accusations of racism.
House Democrats have often battled among themselves on policy and political issues, a trait that the freshman-majority caucus is striving to overcome this session. Some have found the divisiveness a source of humor, evidenced by a hand-drawn cardboard sign that Rep. Irving Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, brought to the meeting. It read: "Family Feud."
Mark Hollis can be reached at 850-224-6214.