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Politics / Issues

Joe Negron Ready To Take Helm Of Senate

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After running powerful budget committees in the House and Senate and emerging last year from a contentious leadership fight, Stuart Republican Joe Negron is set to take the gavel Tuesday as president of the Florida Senate.

Negron, a 55-year-old attorney, will formally replace Orlando Republican Andy Gardiner during a one-day organization session of the Legislature. Across the Capitol's fourth floor, Land O' Lakes Republican Richard Corcoran will take over as House speaker.

On his way to the Senate presidency, Negron has focused heavily on water issues that are critical in his Treasure Coast district. He also has often sided with personal liberties, such as when pushing legislation that restricted the use of drones for police surveillance.

Negron is a self-described "conservative person of faith" who practices corporate law for the prominent and politically connected Gunster law firm. He admits to being a "dork" who in high school would read the Congressional Record in his bunk bed.

Twenty-six years after his first campaign, one of a number that he lost, Negron remains a policy wonk. But supporters say he also never forgot where he came from, which was just a few miles southeast of his current home.

"He's hasn't lost any of his humility. He hasn't lost any of his love and appreciation for his community," said former Senate President Ken Pruitt, a Port St. Lucie Republican who has been one of Negron's mentors. "This is a business of give and take, looking at the bigger picture. He doesn't get paralyzed by it either."

Married with three adult children, Negron grew up in Hobe Sound, a small, unincorporated bedroom community in southern Martin County, resting just north of Jonathan Dickinson State Park and across the Intracoastal Waterway from the wealth of Jupiter Island.

The overall feel of the community has changed little over the decades. Streets retain the layout and names from a failed real estate venture from the 1920s. It wasn't too long ago that a Publix opened and McDonald's became the area's second fast food drive-thru.

"When I drive up and down Gomez Avenue in Hobe Sound, I see dozens of families that I knew growing up that worked hard to provide for their families," Negron said during an interview this week. "When I knock on their doors, it's very rewarding to see kids I grew up with who grew up in families where hard work was a central organizing theme."

Negron, the oldest of seven brothers, said free time meant playing any sport that was offered, from basketball, baseball, golf and tennis to ping pong and street ball.

"If there was a ball and they kept score, the Negrons were interested," Negron said. "We were taught sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You're gracious in victory and magnanimous in defeat."

But Negron's parents, Joe and Pat, also instilled in him and his brothers a strong work ethic and that "all work should be respected."

"My mother told us we were born to work," Negron said.

That meant part-time jobs after school and in the summer. His father was a middle- and high-school teacher who also ran a cleaning company in which the boys rotated cleaning office buildings in the evening.

Negron attended Stetson University, where he studied political science and worked for the campus newspaper. One summer job was in the Martin County bureau of the Miami Herald. Interested in government service, he also served as an intern for former U.S. Rep. Skip Bafalis, a Republican from West Palm Beach who had earlier put Negron on the Congressional Record mailing list.

"He saw my interest, and he encouraged it," Negron said of Bafalis.

Negron earned his law degree from Emory University and received a Master of Public Administration through a Zuckerman Fellowship that allowed him to attend Harvard University.

As Senate president, Negron will be one of the most powerful political figures in the state during the next two years. His political career, however, has included bumps and setbacks.

In recent years, for example, Negron became locked in a tense battle with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, to become Senate president --- a battle that involved trying to gather enough support from other GOP senators. Negron ultimately won the battle late last year, with Latvala becoming chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Negron made his first run for the state House at age 28 as a Democrat. At the time, he was a few years into his marriage with his wife, Rebecca --- a future Martin County School Board member who unsuccessfully ran for Congress this year --- while working at a private law practice in Stuart.

He lost in the primary.

Negron said he then registered with the GOP because "felt more at home with Republicans in Martin County."

"Republicans in Martin County care about the environment," Negron said. "They also believe we have a responsibility to make sure that we live in a supportive community. And most of that is done through the private sector and not-for-profits."

Negron lost GOP runoff contests in 1992 and 1999 before unseating incumbent Rep. Art Argenio, a Republican then living in Hobe Sound, in 2000.

Negron said the defeats gave him "a reasonable view" of himself and "a respect for people who are in the arena, regardless of the outcome."

Once in office, he rose through the House, eventually becoming chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. He left the House with a term left in 2006 to pursue a statewide contest for Attorney General.

However, before the primary Negron gave way to the better-financed and politically connected former Congressman Bill McCollum. But Negron wasn't out of the arena long.

That fall, Negron was thrust into the national spotlight when he was selected by local Republican leaders to run in place of Congressman Mark Foley, who stepped down due to a high-profile scandal. Negron replaced Foley after election ballots had already been finalized.

"You talk about being the sacrificial lamb," Pruitt said. "It didn't phase him (Negron) a bit. He took it on and ran with it. And when he lost, and it was not by a lot, he knew it wasn't about him. Campaigns have a way of keeping you very well grounded --- not that Joe Negron needed that."

Pruitt also gave Negron a chance to get back into the state Legislature earlier than planned.

In 2009, Pruitt resigned a year before his term ended, allowing Negron to win a special election and have additional time in the body to gather support for a presidential run.

Negron later went on to become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 2012 to 2014.

As president, Negron has already said he will push to eliminate punitive juvenile-justice laws, boost higher education and seek to reduce discharges of pollution from Lake Okeechobee by directing conservation money to buy sugar farmland for water storage in the Everglades.

Freshman Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando pointed to Negron's environmental work as a reason she is encouraged about working with him.

"I'm an environmentalist, so he has those credentials that will be helpful to my ideas," Stewart said.

Negron, however, hasn't always been viewed as a proponent of green causes.

While in the House, the Florida League of Conservation Voters never ranked Negron above 40 percent on its positions, according to the Project Vote Smart web site.

But as water conditions have deteriorated in Martin and St. Lucie counties from polluted releases out Lake Okeechobee, his efforts in the Senate to protect the region have driven up his standing.

His latest efforts include a $2.4 billion proposal to buy 60,000 acres of land south of the lake. The proposal has already drawn opposition from some lawmakers who would like attention and money for water issues in other parts of the state.

Earlier this year, Negron was behind an effort, known as Legacy Florida, which will set aside up to $200 million a year for the Everglades, $50 million annually for the state's natural springs and $5 million each year for Lake Apopka. In 2014, as the appropriations chairman he secured $231.9 million for several South Florida water-related projects, including bridging a portion of the Tamiami Trail.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a lobbyist on environmental causes, said he had a good relationship with Negron while the Republican was in the House.

"The insiders will tell you he's single-mindedly focused on Lake Okeechobee and coastal issues, but I like to think that he might have a broader concern about the environment," Draper said.