Politics State & National News

White, Williamson head to Tallahassee for first meeting

November 15, 2016

By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

More than 60 newly elected lawmakers were in the Capitol on Tuesday, comparing their recent political campaigns and learning basics of the state House and Senate.

And like the first day of school, members of the freshman class expressed a fresh and shiny outlook toward the 2017 session. Among the House group are Frank White of Pensacola and Jayer Williamson of Milton.

“Everyone is really excited,” said Plantation Democrat Lauren Book, who was elected without opposition in Broward County’s Senate District 32. “Everyone has their binders out and ready to take notes and filling out their forms. We’re not there yet, but I have no doubt that we’ll be able to work together to move everybody forward.”

Hudson Republican Amber Mariano, who unseated Democratic incumbent Amanda Murphy in Pasco County’s House District 36, said the experience filling out employment and benefits paperwork and learning the rules of the $29,000-a-year job “is a little bit better” than the start of college.

“I was a (legislative) page back in middle school, and ever since then I’ve known that I wanted to serve in the Florida House,” said Mariano, who is also a senior at the University of Central Florida. “It’s surreal that it’s happened so quickly in my life.”

Mariano, who recently turned 21, is a political-science major 12 credit hours from graduating. During the 2016 legislative session, she served as an intern through the UCF Legislative Scholars program for Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican who she said has given her advice on the new job.

Technically, the new members took office upon their election. But the House and Senate will hold an organization session next Tuesday that will include formal swearing-in ceremonies.

The 120-member House will have 46 new members this year, comprised of at least 21 Democrats and 24 Republicans. A recount is being held in Miami-Dade County’s House District 118, where Democrat Robert Asencio holds a slim lead over Republican David Rivera.

Half of the 40-member Senate turned over this year, due to term limits, redrawn district lines and pursuit of other offices.

Among those senators who left: Orlando Democrat Darren Soto was elected to Congress; Umatilla Republican Alan Hays was elected Lake County supervisor of elections; and Boynton Beach Democrat Joseph Abruzzo and Rockledge Republican Thad Altman were elected to House seats.

Speaking to the new senators, incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, relayed advice that he said was given to him by former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense. That advice was, “the most important character trait is keeping your word.”

“Time will come where somebody asks for your vote on an amendment … my view is if something changes, you can always go to the person and say, ‘I had a chance to read the amendment and I have an issue,’ ” Negron said. “But this process relies on goodwill, on integrity, on keeping your word. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a robust difference of opinion on issues, in fact there should be and we welcome that.”

Negron said he intends to meet with all of the new members before next Tuesday’s organization session, with committee assignments coming a week later.

While the Senate held its orientation Tuesday, the new House members are in Tallahassee for two days. They are learning about issues such as the committee process, the bill-filing process, Florida’s open-records law, proposed House rules and how to set up district offices.

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, told reporters after addressing the freshman class that he decided to expand the orientation for his members to two days so “there is a clear understanding of where we are as a Legislature, what our principles are, and what is expected of them as a sitting legislator.”

Corcoran said that with the added knowledge provided to lawmakers, “the less power for the special interests, the less distracting the outside noise or circus is.”

The learning curve is a little lower in the Senate.

“Not only do we know what we’re doing, but we also know one another,” said Orlando Democrat Linda Stewart who was elected last week in Orange County’s Senate District 13 and who served in the House from 2012 to 2014. “We’ve served on committees before together, we’ve socialized with them over on the House side.”

The Senate’s incoming freshman class, featuring 11 Democrats and nine Republicans, is predominately made up of former state representatives.

Only three of the freshman class are first-time state lawmakers: Democrats Book and Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale and Republican George Gainer of Panama City.

Farmer, a prominent trial attorney, has been president of the Florida Justice Association, a group that lobbies heavily in Tallahassee.

Gainer, who owns eight auto dealerships across the Panhandle, was a longtime Bay County commissioner.

Book’s father is powerful lobbyist Ron Book. Also for the past seven years, she has conducted the “Walk in My Shoes” trek that ends at the Old Capitol to raise awareness about sexual abuse.

Book’s non-profit group, Lauren’s Kids, an offshoot of her own experiences as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a nanny, has received praise from members of both sides of the political aisle.

“I’m not new to Tallahassee, but I’m new to this process in this way,” Book said as orientation kicked off.

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