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Nation & World

Floridians Vote To Increase State's Minimum Wage To $15 Per Hour

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Democrats in Florida are still reeling from last week's election. They lost two seats in Congress, at least five in the state Legislature and President Trump carried the state. But progressives did score a big victory. Florida voters approved a measure raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Anna Eskamani is a young progressive Democrat from Orlando. She was celebrating her reelection to the Florida House last week when the bad news for her party began coming in.

ANNA ESKAMANI: Started hearing the news of a bloodbath in South Florida, losing incumbents across the state.

ALLEN: Later, she learned that voters approved Amendment 2, which raised Florida's minimum wage. The measure passed with 60% of the vote, making it more popular by far than either presidential candidate. The person responsible for the amendment is John Morgan. He's a trial attorney who spent $6 million of his own money to get the measure on the ballot and defend it against legal challenges.

JOHN MORGAN: The working poor in Florida won in a very, very big and forever way.

ALLEN: Florida becomes the eighth state nationally and the first in the South to adopt a $15-per-hour minimum wage. It will be phased in over the next six years. Morgan has long been involved in Florida politics as a fundraiser, contributing generously to candidates from both parties. In recent years, frustrated by inaction in Tallahassee, he's turned to the initiative process. He funded a successful medical marijuana referendum and helped support an amendment restoring voting rights to felons. Morgan says Amendment 2 addresses what he believes is the top issue for working-class voters of both parties.

MORGAN: I'm working my tail off, and I'm falling further and further behind - and that all the unrest and the anger that we have in this country I believe comes from income inequality and a lack of dignity.

ALLEN: Looking at their losses and the success of the referendum, some Democrats believe their party missed an opportunity to attract voters, including many who cast ballots for President Trump. Florida Democrats supported the minimum wage initiative but didn't spend money or actively campaign to support it. Florida Republicans, on the other hand, opposed it and spoke out against it. Eskamani says Democrats didn't do enough to highlight the issue.

ESKAMANI: You need to anchor yourself in support of this amendment and use it as a contrast to your opponents. There wasn't an effort to brand Republicans as being against Amendment 2 as they were.

ALLEN: Eskamani and other progressive Democrats say their party should take a lesson from the success of the minimum wage amendment and embrace economic issues like affordable housing and renters' rights. Other Democrats see things differently.

NIKKI FRIED: I don't think that if we campaigned hard on them that we would have swung people more in our direction.

ALLEN: Nikki Fried is Florida's top Democrat, the only one elected to a statewide office - agriculture commissioner. After first saying she was undecided about whether to support the minimum wage amendment, she later did. But she doesn't believe campaigning on it would have made Trump voters into Democrats.

FRIED: The Republican working class that are squarely in a Republican box right now also saw this amendment as something - an opportunity to really help out their own personal economy and economics.

ALLEN: Those are issues Democrats will grapple with as they look for a way once again to be competitive in Florida. For the minimum wage amendment, the question now is whether Republicans in Florida's Legislature will move to weaken or block it, something they've repeatedly done with past voter initiatives. Amendment backer John Morgan says if they do, he'll do what he's done in the past - fight it in court and win.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "STARLIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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