Thousands of protesters gathered in cities across Florida on Tuesday to speak out against deep spending cuts and other actions promised by Republican lawmakers as the Florida Legislature opened its 2011 session.
From Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale, public employees, union members and their supporters waved signs with messages such as "Fully Fund Education" and "I Support State Workers."
In Orlando, more than 600 people — most of them firefighters, nurses, police officers, teachers and other public employees — marched along Ivanhoe Boulevard to the Orlando chamber of commerce, accusing Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature of launching an assault on the middle class.
"People seem to have forgotten that the middle class is made up of hard-working individuals — firefighters, police officers, teachers, the people who pick up your garbage," said Ron Glass, an Orlando firefighter who is secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Firefighters-Orlando, Local 1365.
"We're all middle-class people. And the people in Tallahassee seem to have forgotten that."
Much of the public outcry Tuesday was a one-sided affair. But in Tallahassee, conservative activists and tea-party demonstrators offered a counterpoint as they gathered on the lawn of the historic old Capitol in the morning with signs reading "Support Taxpayers" and "Parasite Pensions."
Kim Cameron said she traveled to Tallahassee to show solidarity with Scott.
"We just think it's unfair for the taxpayer to be burdened" with government-employee pensions, said Cameron, an owner of a landscaping and pet-sitting business in Oldsmar, near Tampa.
Cameron, who was wearing a Scott campaign sticker on her shirt, said she and other tea-party activists want to pressure lawmakers to make sure they support Scott's agenda.
Across most of the state, however, the sentiment among demonstrators was clearly against Scott and the Legislature.
Fueling most of their concern: the state's nearly $4 billion budget gap, which Scott and GOP legislative leaders have vowed to close with spending cuts expected to target everything from public schools to public-employee pensions and health care.
In Orlando, protesters carried signs calling for union solidarity, support for public workers and teachers. Others attacked Republican lawmakers and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. One protester referred to state chamber leaders as "profit thugs," referring to the group's assertion that protesters were led by union bosses.
Ocoee Elementary School media specialist Isabel Chipungu electrified the Orlando crowd, declaring that teachers are being demonized.
"I love my job, but I'm angry," she screamed from atop a picnic table in Senator Beth Johnson Park in downtown Orlando. Teachers in this state are once again being made the scapegoat for all of the budget problems our politicians created. And we are again asked to pay the price. We have not had a raise in five years. …We've already started paying part of our health-care costs."
It was much the same in Lake County, where about 200 teachers, school-bus drivers and other public employees gathered under the gazebo at Wooton Park in Tavares to rail against pending cuts in education funding. They held signs that read "Impeach Scott" and "Save Our Public Schools."
Nancy Hurlbert, chairwoman of the Lake County Democrats who led the rally, said the Legislature should close "loopholes" and tax exemptions for businesses instead of cutting billions from education and other public services.
Susan Gage, a 43-year-old massage therapist from Tallahassee, showed up at the Capitol earlier in the day to support teachers and other state workers.
"I'm not a state employee, but I have friends who are state employees who are afraid to speak up," said Gage, who carried a sign that read, "Save Us, Harry Potter."
Why? "Because we're governed by Lord Voldemort," she said, equating Scott to the villain of author J.K. Rowling's popular book series.
High-speed rail was another flashpoint in Orlando and Tallahassee. Herb Shelton, a 56-year-old landlord from Tallahassee, waved a sign that read, "Scott hacks speed rail, kills 24,000 jobs — hypocrite" to protest Scott's decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal money to build a train between Orlando and Tampa.
Shelton said he thinks Scott's decision to reject rail funding was driven more by his desire to embarrass President Barack Obama than by Scott's professed concerns about exposing taxpayers to unfunded liabilities.
But John Beck, a 63-year-old retiree from Gainesville, said Scott hasn't gone far enough. He said he wants the governor to kill plans for Orlando's SunRail commuter rail system, too.
Florida's elected leaders left little doubt about where their sympathies lie. Both Scott and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican who is courting tea-party support for a 2012 U.S. Senate run, showed up to give pep talks to the tea-party rally in Tallahassee.
"We heard you back in November," Haridopolos told the crowd, promising pension reform, a budget free of any higher taxes or fees and legislation to address illegal immigration that will include requiring businesses to verify that prospective workers are in the country legally.
"There are no excuses. We, as Republicans, have a supermajority in the Senate. We have a supermajority in the House. And we definitely have a super new governor."
Eloísa Ruano González contributed to this article. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5414.
Read more Central Florida News from the Orlando Sentinel