As the Florida Senate was debating and voting on legislation Wednesday, state Sen. Perry Thurston left the Capitol — to attend a political event 450 miles away. He was seeking votes for the next office he wants to hold: Congressman.
While he was campaigning in Dania Beach, the Broward Democrat missed the final vote on one of the most contentious bills of the annual legislative session, a measure to ban transgender females from competing in girl’s and women’s sports. The Senate passed and sent the bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Thurston said in a brief interview there was nothing wrong with missing state Senate business so he could fly to Broward and participate in a forum held by the group Hispanic Vote. Thurston is part of a large field of candidates running to fill the vacancy in the Broward-Palm Beach County district that was created by the April 6 death of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.
Thurston said he attended the event, which attracted about 50 people at the Tropical Acres Steakhouse “because I did my voting, and I came here because I wanted to make sure the Hispanic community know that we’re working for them.” Debates and votes on multiple bills took place as Thurston was en route and at the event.
State Rep. Bobby DuBose, another candidate for the congressional seat, said by text message that he declined the invitation. He said he was on the floor of the House of Representatives until it finished its work for the day about 9 p.m. The Legislature is in the long-scheduled final week of its session, when workdays often last into the evening and decisions are made on whether the most consequential legislation will pass and go to the governor’s desk.
The Senate also stayed in session until almost 9 p.m. But Thurston apparently left the Capitol in the afternoon. His empty chair was visible in the livestream of Senate proceedings on the Florida Channel; Katie Betta, spokeswoman for Senate President Wilton Simpson, said by email Thurston “left at about 4:30” and a roll call vote at 4:58 p.m. showed Thurston not voting.
Questioned after the candidate forum, Thurston said he didn’t leave until 6 p.m., and disputed the existence of the record showing that he wasn’t voting earlier.
Thurston began his remarks at the forum by telling the audience, “I didn’t know if I would be able to get here. But we caught a flight from Tallahassee just to be here because it’s so important that we have unity among the Hispanic and the African American communities.”
Air service between Tallahassee and South Florida is poor; Thurston said after the event he did not take a commercial flight. Asked how he got to South Florida, he said, “I flew with someone else.” Asked whose plane it was, he said, “I don’t even know who paid for the flight, but we’re going to reimburse it.”
During his response to an audience member’s question, Thurston touted his work as a senator. “Look at the debate. Go to the Florida Channel and you will see who’s been fighting for that cause. And I welcome you to do that.”
About the same time Thurston said those words, the Florida Channel livestream showed senators debating the legislation about transgender athletes. Thurston was the only senator who didn’t vote on the bill. It passed 23-16, so his vote wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
About his missed votes, Thurston said, “we’ve got that covered,” explaining, “Well, we’re going to address it and we’ve got an excuse to leave Tallahassee to come to this meeting.” Asked what he meant by an excuse, he said, “Well, I’m not there, so I let it be known that I’m not there.” Betta said Wednesday night Thurston had filed a letter about his absence, but a copy wasn’t immediately available.
He indicated he would have Senate records show how he would have voted on bills had he been present, an after-the-fact move that has no impact on the outcome.
After a one-minute, 41-second interview, an associate of Thurston’s said the senator needed to talk to someone else, said “thank you,” and ended the conversation.
It’s not unheard of for elected officials to give their campaigns precedence over their current positions once they set their sights on higher office. When U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., unsuccessfully sought the 2016 presidential nomination, the number of votes he missed skyrocketed. When then-U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis successfully ran for governor in 2018, he missed more than half the votes during his final months in office.
And it’s happened with Florida lawmakers seeking promotions to Washington, D.C. In April 2006, when then-state Sen. Ron Klein was running his successful campaign for a Broward-Palm Beach County congressional seat, he left Tallahassee so he could hold a campaign fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale. The main attraction was Barack Obama, who was then a U.S. Senator from Illinois.
At the time, Klein was annoyed at news coverage of his missed votes, which he worried would turn into political attack ads against him.
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DuBose, and state Rep. Omari Hardy, who entered the congressional race Wednesday morning and wasn’t invited to the event, both declined to comment on Thurston’s decision to leave Tallahassee to campaign in Broward. But, Hardy said, “our constituents elected us to serve them and fight for them when their issues are at stake, and we need to be here [in Tallahassee].”
Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief, a congressional candidate who participated in the forum, said she “never” would have done so if it meant missing a County Commission meeting.
The Rev. Elvin Dowling of Miramar, an author and former Hastings intern running for the same seat, said Thurston should have been tending to his Senate work.
“We elect people to serve, and when we do, they ought to,” Dowling said. “Being at a political event when there are critical bills being debated, it begs the question, what are your priorities.”
Sun Sentinel staff writer Skyler Swisher and Orlando Sentinel staff writer Gray Rohrer contributed to this report.