Pulling Strings

It was late April 2008, during a typical day on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives in Tallahassee. Amid the contentious battles over unprecedented budget cuts, the Republicans had already done a good job of quietly inserting their social agenda into the legislative mix — abortion, for instance, ending up in a transportation bill regarding instances of vehicular homicide involving an "unborn child" — while Democrats exhausted themselves poring over the fine print of everything and volleying for last-minute amendments. Fortunately for all, the session was drawing to a close.

Fortunate for all, that is, except Orlando Democrat Rep. Darren Soto. This was Soto's first real session, as he'd come in via a narrowly won special election in April 2007 on the heels of Republican John Quinones, who left office early to become chairman of the Osceola County Commission. And although Soto benefited heavily from the support of the progressive Orange County Young Democrats group, of which he was a member, once in Tallahassee the freshman representative took to cavorting with Republicans and toeing a centrist line. So on that day in April, his Democratic peers bit back.

Soto was in his chair on the House floor when he received a note from a young Florida State University student up in the gallery. In the note were the sweet affections of a secret admirer. Soto, she thought, was cute.

That was enough to pry Soto from his elected seat and find his way to the gallery, an area of the House chambers members are strictly forbidden from visiting. Just as he arrived to meet his young paramour, House speaker Mark Rubio crashed his gavel down on the podium and announced to all in earshot that a member of the House was seriously out of order. The sergeant-at-arms was sent to retrieve Soto, handcuffing him in the process.

The young Democrat was busted.

When questioned by Rubio in front of the entire House, Soto said the girl was a constituent, a concerned voter. She wasn't, and everybody knew it. She was, in fact, a hired actor, and Soto was the victim of both a prank and his notorious libido. Rubio announced the prank, calling poor Soto to the "well" at the main podium to the laughs and applause of his peers.

It might not sound like much more than a childish waste of taxpayer time, but to the progressive Democrats who had placed their hopes in Soto for shifting the power structure in the state government, it is indicative of the dangers posed by Soto's fair-weather convictions. Although he may not be sleeping with the enemy, he swims with the sharks, keeping "buddies" like state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, on speed dial for advice.

Soto says that his middle-of-the-road decisions on issues like women's health, guns, the rights of victims and marriage bills co-written by anti-gay zealots like the Florida Family Policy Council's John Stemberger are selfless reflections of his center-right constituency. Progressive Democrats, however, suggest his sometimes offensive posturing is symptomatic of either a spineless political weathervane or a self-serving political opportunist on his way to bigger and better things.

Darren Soto's ascent to his 14th-floor office in the State Capitol was not a foregone conclusion. Originating from the New Jersey borough of Ringwood — "right next to Bergen County, which was made famous by The Sopranos series," he says — Soto was raised for the most part by his Italian mother while his father, who is Puerto Rican, was away working. They were able to scrape together the money to put him through his undergraduate studies at Rutgers University, where he majored in economics.

"I thought I would be going into business," he says. "But I worked at Prudential for a little while doing accounting work, and I just wanted to jump out the window. Clearly I do better in small situations and on my own than I do in large businesses like that."

Soto caught the law-school bug during a visit to his brother, who was studying at Georgetown University. "I've always been more of a wordsmith than a bean counter, anyway," he says.

He took the LSAT, got into George Washington University and deferred for a year, "because I needed a one year wind-down to mature enough to have the work ethic to go to law school and take it very seriously." He went back to Prudential, then spent a summer in New Jersey at his family's shore house in Belmar.

He scraped by his first year in law school with a 2.9 or 3.0 grade point average ("I wasn't a stellar student," he says), and come summertime he was looking for a job again. In 2000, his parents relocated from New Jersey to the Orlando area. A distant relative named Luis Gonzalez took him on for an internship at his downtown law office, offering him $8 an hour. He loved it.

"I fell in love with the city the moment I was there," he says. "I actually changed my license and made a commitment to this guy that I was going to work with him when I got out. I changed my voter registration and everything down to Florida. And it was for a host of reasons: I had a good job in an area with a low cost of living, and the downtown scene is amazing. So it was as much a social choice as a business choice, and it was the weather, too." He moved in with his parents after graduating from George Washington University in 2004, took the bar exam and passed.

Politics came knocking when he walked into an Orange County Young Democrats meeting at the Herndon Library after the John Kerry loss in the 2004 presidential elections. Living in Washington, D.C., had turned him off to the perceived "snootiness" of political staffers, but this was different. This was social.

"I saw the same thing I saw when I originally joined a fraternity back in college," he says, a "sort of rogue Animal House— type thing."

"There was a lot of potential."

He befriended a few folks in the group — most notably future Young Democrats president, and now his legislative aide in Tallahassee, Christine Aleknavich — and was quickly elected vice president of communications for the group. That meant he could plan parties like he did when he was in a frat, so he set about creating the group's Speakeasy happy hours, where Democrats drink socially and public figures speak informally. That dash of liquor allowed the group to grow from 15 to 90 members within the year. Among those members was Scott Randolph.

"We always called him the ‘original seed,'" says Soto, "because he was the first one to say, ‘Hey, I have this great idea. I'm going to run for office and I think I can win.'?"

In 2006, after an extensive ground campaign buoyed by the efforts of the growing Young Democrats contingent, Randolph won his District 36 seat, beating Sheri McInvale — the Democratic incumbent who had defected to the Republican party — despite having little name recognition. Soto put his hat in the ring for the District 40 seat, he says, because "we were afraid of the circular firing squad." He lost to Republican incumbent and outgoing majority leader Andy Gardiner, but the experience gave him his sea legs, and he started preparing for his next big move.

For the District 49 special election in April 2007, Soto capitalized on his Hispanic lineage and played to his constituents. Not all of them were Hispanic, though; his district, he says, is split between the Latino Catholic community and Southern Baptists. Being a lawyer, he's adept at talking out of both sides of his mouth.

"Because the large majority of `Orange County` judges are still Southern white men, I learned a long time ago not to sound like the slick, My Cousin Vinny New Jersey guy in the courtroom. So I learned a slower delivery; not an accent, but a slower delivery where I don't sound like I'm talking fast."

"Really, the message is the same for everybody. I'm still running on the same issues," he adds. "But a lot of it is packaging, and part of that packaging, your ability to do so is because you have that experience in those communities."

Soto also was able to ride the Randolph victory wave, even using Randolph's ground team, to secure the seat with a narrow win by 246 votes. His victory prompted a statement from then-candidate Hillary Clinton: "Darren Soto's victory is the latest example that Americans are ready for change. … After spending time with him earlier this year in Orlando, it's clear that Darren is an exciting young leader who can get results in Tallahassee."

In 2008, Soto secured his first full term by a 30-point margin over Republican Anthony Suarez, who had already served in the state House from 1999 to 2000. Soto credits his down-the-middle voting record, which he says resonated with his constituents.

He was unstoppable. Even the Orlando Sentinel took notice, saying, "His star is rising," a declaration Soto says made him blush.

"In all honesty, I love this stuff," he says. "I live and breathe it. I can be out at a bar having fun with friends and having a few adult beverages and we may still be talking about politics. This is my love, so there's never a moment when I'm not aware of who I am and what my responsibilities are and what I need to do."

Especially not when that moment is a chance to shine. Soto was nearly caught unawares by his invitation to speak at the Obama-Clinton rally outside the Amway Arena on Oct. 20. He heard the night before that a certain local elected official — probably Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer — was upset that he had been snubbed in favor of Soto as the Democrat selected to warm up the crowd of 60,000 people. He arrived at the venue late and had trouble getting the authorities outside to believe he was in fact an opening speaker for Obama. Christine Aleknavich was calling him frantically.

"She was in the crowd just hoping that I wouldn't blow what could be my high-water mark for politics for the recent … " he corrects himself, "for the near future."

He arrived just in time to deliver a "¡Si se puede!" for Hispanic Democrats. Also present was a noisy helicopter overhead.

"?‘I want you so loud the helicopter can hear you!'?" he recalls screaming to the audience. "There was no critical nuanced message I had to deliver. When I got up on that stage, I thought, I am going to burn this mother down. That was my only thought."

But Soto got off to a rocky start on the issues when searching for progressive Democratic support. Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando president Sue Idtensohn recalls the first time he came to her office during his initial 2007 special election campaign. The word she uses to describe him is "enigma."

"He said he was very supportive of our issues, he was privately pro-choice," Idtensohn says. "But he felt that he was in a conservative district, and that he would have to vote according to what his constituents thought was important."

Soto cozied up to Planned Parenthood hoping to access their pool of donors. But without a solid promise, that wouldn't be happening.

"If he's going to come to me and say that he cares about women's health issues, and then he gets into the state House and votes differently, I just told him very clearly that I can't go to my constituent base and tell them that you're going to support women's health issues," says Idtensohn. "You've just told me two different things here."

Soto reportedly assured her that Planned Parenthood's go-to guy was Randolph, and whatever Randolph supported, he'd fall in line with. Idtensohn didn't buy it. Turns out she was right.

On April 27, 2007 — just after entering office — Soto lodged a yes vote on state Titusville Republican Rep. Ralph Poppell's Florida Unborn Victims of Violence Act (HB 71). On April 2, 2008, Soto again voted "yes" on the same bill (renamed HB 513). The bill played politics with the term "unborn child," granting equal status to a post-conception embryo and the woman carrying it. He raised the ante by also voting for a bill by state Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, that would require women to view an ultrasound of the fetus prior to receiving an abortion. According to Project Vote Smart, Soto only approves of abortions in the case of a woman's endangerment, or for victims of incest or rape.

"I'm in the middle on this issue," he now says. "What I do believe is that the decision should be made reflectively, but certainly I wouldn't take away the right for a woman to choose."

Planned Parenthood responded to Soto's vote with an action-alert mailer portraying him as a shadowy, faceless character in a suit outside the state Capitol building. "Representative Soto: STOP playing politics with women's health!" it read.

"He was hobbling Constantine's coattails. He was in bed with Poppell," says Idtensohn. "We really had to keep an eye on him. He just wanted to vote with the Republicans and that's really when he broke step with us."

Soto counters that as his district becomes more comfortable with him, he may be able to bring them around on the issue. "Stay tuned," he says, adding that he withdrew his co-sponsorship of an autism license plate — a segment of HB 239, which approved a number of new license plates — on April 16, when he found out that it would include funding for the anti-abortion programs associated with the Choose Life license plate program (this, his aide Aleknavich reports, was on the recommendation of Planned Parenthood). Regardless, Soto was one of only a handful of Democrats to vote yes on the bill when it came to the floor on April 27 with funding for Choose Life Inc. still included. The bill passed the House.

Abortion isn't the only critical issue on which Soto has turned some Democratic heads. Early in his political career, he lent his support to the controversial Amendment 1 on property taxes, straying again from Randolph's more economically sound position. The amendment, which passed in the Jan. 29 presidential primary, has been disastrous for local governments and schools.

"My concern is that at the time there certainly was a crisis, certainly there was an issue with local schools and local governments," he says. "I think what it came down to is that that was the weakest of all the property tax amendments going down, and as a young Democrat up there, you have to watch out for being seen as just a sheer tax- and-spend Democrat."

In his first term, ACORN approached him about supporting a moratorium on foreclosures. He declined. "I told `them` it comes back to the fact that I won by 246 votes and I didn't need to draw that much ire," he says. "The bottom line is in your first term you are an incidental person up there, and people treat you as such."

This year, Soto is pushing HB 653, a Foreclosure Bill of Rights. ("In some circles, that's communism," he jokes.) But according to Florida ACORN head organizer Stephanie Porta — the ACORN political action committee did support Soto's campaign — that's only because it's a public issue now.

"He wasn't willing to take on foreclosures as an issue when it wasn't hot," Porta says, "but was willing to be the hero on it when it was."

She says that his current foreclosure campaign excludes ACORN — they weren't even invited to his town hall meetings on the subject — and that the legislation on the table wasn't run by them until it was final.

On the issue of school vouchers, a subject strongly contested by the teachers unions, Soto again cites the desires of his district — which he says includes prominent religious leaders and their parochial schools — as his reason for supporting them.

"I'm with them on everything except that one issue," he says of the teachers unions.

But one member of the Classroom Teachers Association (who would prefer to go unnamed for fear of political reprisal) calls the act betrayal, citing the thousands of dollars pooled together from surrounding unions to support Soto's campaign.

"If private schools were as accountable as I am in my classroom, if they took the FCAT and they took everybody that walked through the door, I don't think anybody would have a problem with that," he says. "So to kowtow to a group that doesn't want to be as accountable as I am and give them public money in a bad budgetary situation is not conducive to the fight that we're having over public education."

Soto even admits to receiving soft money during his 2008 campaign from the political action committee All Children Matter, a right-wing influence front for, among others, the DeVos family in the promotion of school vouchers. (They gave money to his opponent in 2007.) Though the money is largely untraceable due to Florida campaign finance laws, the organization has funneled more than $4 million into the state of Florida since 2004.

"Darren, I think, feels like he's in a position where he has to kiss the religious right's ass," says the CTA member.

Sometimes Soto doesn't even know just whose ass he's kissing. This year, he signed on as the only Democrat to co-sponsor the Premarital Preparation — or marriage tax — bill. HB 1185 was authored by Scott Plakon, but heavily influenced by John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council. That bill would double (to eight) the number of hours of premarital counseling required before getting a marriage license, and raise the cost of waiving counseling from $25 to $125. The move sparked a critical column from Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell, and a phone call.

"First of all, I was against Amendment 2 publicly last year. It's not like I'm on the side of these guys all the time," he says. "I'd never heard of John Stemberger until I had an interview with Scott Maxwell, and I said, ‘Funny, I've never heard of a Rep. John Stemberger out there.'?"

Soto points to his experience as a divorce lawyer, where he continually saw relationships fail on issues that he felt should have been solved before tying the knot. He also notes that prevention — as in cases of sex education and women's health issues — is usually at the top of the true Democrat's list.

"My good friend Scott Plakon and I talked and I told him my experiences as a divorce lawyer and seeing this over and over and over," he says. "And let's also put in perspective that this bill's going nowhere. So I thought by being a co-sponsor, I could help shape it in the right way."

More disturbing, though, is Soto's recent vote for a bill in the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, CCJ 09-10. The bill would require repeat victims of criminal violence filing an injunction to pay the courts a filing fee of $200. That money would then be reimbursed to them by the defendant as restitution, according to the bill.

"Well, that was a vote to get out of committee. It looks like we're not going to be doing that, thank God," says Soto.

The bill was a response to judges in the state who thought that people were abusing the system. Soto says it has since been altered to increase fees for foreclosures, which will have the effect of making it harder for banks to foreclose.

"When it comes down to it, you cannot stray away from bills that you may not completely agree with in the beginning if you want to be involved in the policy," says Soto.

Soto doesn't seem fazed by his detractors. There are two kinds of politicians: those who act on principle and those who act — or present themselves as acting — in the best interest of their faceless constituency. Soto falls neatly into the latter. He's a classic centrist. He keeps his enemies close; his friends, not so much.

"We could talk about some of the controversial things that I've done, but I was able to win by 30 points this time because of the fact that I've talked to a lot of people," he says. "It was because of that hard work that I got here, and hard work is how I've found out what the vast majority of my constituents believe in."

He says the best way to be an effective Democrat in the minority is to build relationships, something he does — due to his lineage — at social events with both the Hispanic and Italian caucuses.

"The first time we meet isn't because I'm debating them on the floor about how much their bill stinks," he says. "It's over Italian food or at an Hispanic golf tournament where we're raising money for scholarships."

That's how he gets the ball rolling, he says, and ultimately how things get done.

But that doesn't fly with all of his constituents. Wanda Ramos, a local Democratic activist with the Hispanic Caucus, isn't entirely impressed with Soto's performance or his assessment of Hispanic issues. Abortion, she says, isn't as cut-and-dried in her community as he purports, but rather "very mixed and very divisive."

"We've yet to see what he's standing for," she says. "He's a Latino. He needs to represent in a proper way. He needs to get in touch with the values of working families and their hopes and expectations, and make sure he's telling people he's standing up for them in Tallahassee."

Soto continues to muddy the waters by supporting labor issues across the board (including workers' compensation and the Employee Free Choice Act), although his position as Mayor Dyer's point man on SunRail among House Democrats puts him at odds with the unions. According to him, it's all part of his grand vision.

"My vision is to take back the House, to stop all these things going on that we have to fight every year," he says. "But to do so, it's going to take some unorthodoxy that folks confined by this session or their special interests don't have the vision to be able to handle. There's a grander vision that we're trying to put through. There's a balance between ideology and the pragmatism of politics."

"The bottom line is, I'm a moderate," he laughs. "So nobody loves me, but everybody likes me."

[email protected]
Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.