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Politics / Issues

Tom Lee a 'Force' in the Senate

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AP Photo/Steve Cannon

As he approached the side entrance to the Senate chamber a day after delivering a fiery speech condemning Florida's high-stakes testing of schoolchildren, Sen. Tom Lee encountered a throng of women holding posters emblazoned with some of his words.

The women squealed, waved and called out their appreciation before cajoling him into posing for selfies alongside the hand-lettered oversized placards declaring "Sen. Lee is right re: testing. '…The parents aren't buying it anymore!' "

A surprised Lee seemed almost bashful about the praise, demurring that "It was just commonsensical." But he obliged the group, chatting about a conversation with his daughter, a high-school honors student, as the women lined up for photos.

The exchange revealed a softer side of the former Senate president and was likely one of the lighter moments of the session for the Brandon Republican, who returned to the chamber in 2012 after a six-year hiatus and now holds one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature as the Senate's budget chief.

In what was expected to be a rosy fiscal year with a projected $1 billion surplus, Lee instead finds himself at the center of a budget implosion pitting the Senate against the House and Gov. Rick Scott, with President Obama's administration also deeply involved in the state spending impasse.

The differences between GOP legislative leaders over health-care spending have created a schism so deep that Lee and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli conceded this week that the 60-day session, scheduled to end May 1, would almost certainly run into overtime.

The troubles would have many lawmakers gnashing their teeth. But Lee's deliberative demeanor makes him the perfect candidate for the budget job, according to people who know him well.

"The guy is not only cool under pressure but he's been to this dance before," said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist who is close to Lee. "He's incredibly intelligent, methodical and strategic and is able to see the whole chess board at once. And he's been there. He doesn't panic. He's been through contentious issues before. So certainly, if you've got a legislative fight on your hands, he's the guy you want in your corner."

Lee is quick to crack a joke and readily breaks into a smile. But at the same time, the former president exudes an air of gravitas that can cause visitors in his spacious Senate office to sit up straight.

He's no stranger to controversy, although the one that will likely be his legacy was one of his own making.

As Senate president from 2004 to 2006, Lee launched what at the time seemed like a quixotic crusade to put an end to what had become an embarrassing practice of lobbyists underwriting lawmakers' meals and junkets. Lee also pushed to require lobbyists to file detailed reports about how much money they were paid by their clients.

What Lee calls his "ethics reform" morphed into what is colloquially known as the "gift ban," which bars lawmakers from taking gifts of any sort --- except for flowers on the opening day of session or plaques memorializing legislators' deeds --- and which many politicians grumble prevents them from accepting even a cup of coffee at events where they once freely partook of shrimp and Scotch.

But Lee, who tried but failed to loosen the ban after his return to the Senate, defends what he said resulted in a "culture change" in the capital city.

"This place was like a cruise ship. It was just one party after another. It wasn't the small-potatoes things that were about to get some people indicted. It's the stuff you weren't hearing and seeing that was just blatantly illegal," said Lee, who at the time earned the wrath of the lobbying corps --- including a legal challenge over the law that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court --- for his efforts.

"I think we saved a lot of people some embarrassment. I think you talk to the lobbying corps and the people that didn't come up here back in the day when it was a free-for-all and they would tell you it's a healthier environment. They get home at night. They spend more time with their families," he said. "It's been a surprise to hear some lobbyists complain that nobody will have dinner with them anymore. I said, yeah, it kind of stinks to realize that these guys really didn't want to hang with you unless you were paying the bill, doesn't it."

Lee, a developer, speaks matter-of-factly about his mission "to inject some self-restraint into a system that had none as it related to this free-for-all and elected officials living out of the wallets of lobbyists."

"I don't think there are many presiding officers in Florida history that have expended the kind of political capital I did to force a discipline on this process that it didn't want. … It was not something the process wanted to embrace," he said. "So that makes me different. I'm not sure it makes me a statesman, but it makes me different and unique in that regard. … But I set out to try to improve the process and do my little part."

Critics are quick to point out that the gift ban has driven underground much of the socializing that once inflicted a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere at bars and restaurants in the environs of the Capitol's shadow.

But Lee shrugs off the complaints.

"Sure, I hear the stories about the private events that are taking place at lobbyists' homes that members are going to and they're bringing the hot dog buns while the guys are bringing the steak and $100 bottle of wine and calling it even. But we just have a fraction of what we once had in this town," he said. "So I see it as a huge improvement for the process."

Lee, 53, speaks frequently about the "process" and lectures his colleagues about the importance of maintaining the decorum of the Senate, whose veteran members take pride in a tradition of collegiality and respect for one another.

His fierce feelings about the issue surfaced during a floor debate this week over a measure aimed at getting more foster children adopted. Lee announced he intended to vote against the measure although he supported the main thrust of the bill, because of an earlier House amendment to repeal a state law banning gay adoption. Courts have already ruled the gay-adoption ban unconstitutional.

The overall measure was sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Senate president from Niceville, and backed by current Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. The two leaders recruited Lee to run for re-election in 2012.

"This is a valid issue that's being raised and discussed about what we do on this ban on gay adoptions that exists in the statute. It's a valid issue. I think it ought to stand alone. I don't think it ought to be buried in a piece of legislation that in my opinion, to use a harsh term, and my thesaurus is small today, to hijack a piece of legislation that was supposed to be a feel-good moment for this Legislature and divide senators," Lee said.

Lee noted the House had already approved another bill with a "conscience clause," which would allow private adoption agencies to refuse to place children with gay parents if doing so would violate the agencies' religious or moral convictions. He also pointed out that his wife, Lauren, is a judge who has authorized gay adoptions.

"We are dividing folks with this legislation that was supposed to unite people. And I will stand against it on that principle," he said.

When asked about his remarks during a lengthy interview, Lee said it was "the process" that disturbed him and not the issue.

"My thought was, if you really feel that strongly about passing that (repeal) legislation, if you really think it's that important, why doesn't somebody file a bill and go do it? Why hijack a workplan item? As a matter of respect for the process and believing that there needs to be some modest level of legislative etiquette left in this building, why do we hotbox one another with controversial stuff like that?" Lee said.

Since returning to the Senate, a more even-tempered Lee has emerged as a potential compromise candidate in an unresolved race between Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, about who will take over as president after the 2016 elections.

Lee said he would welcome the opportunity to lead the chamber again, but with a caveat.

"I want to do it because my colleagues want to be led by a principled leader who believes in something and will stand for it, not because I'm known as an extraordinary back-slapper and dealmaker. That weakens a presiding officer too much, when they have to cut too many deals to get there. So if you can't get there through respect and for what you stand for and your intellect and your knowledge of the process and your capability of getting things done, then it's not worth it to me," he said.

Most lobbyists view Lee as a principled politician and "a thinker" who doggedly sticks to his guns.

"If he's on the side of the issue you're working on, he's a great champion. If he's against you, watch out, because he's a very formidable person because of that tenacity. But that's what you want in a member. You don't want a person to come up here and just flit around for eight years. Whether you like what he's trying to do or not, he's a force. He always has been. From day one," said lobbyist Travis Blanton, a longtime friend of Lee.

Lee speaks disparagingly of the influence of "relationships" between lobbyists and lawmakers rooted in campaign contributions and, for novice legislators, inexperience.

"But with Tom, it doesn't matter how close you are with him. You could hire his mother and if he's against something, he's going to be against it," Iarossi said.