Posted by: Conan Gallaty on Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The trip started in Tampa. Eager as they could be at 6:30 in the morning, the nearly 50-member class of leaders boarded the bus headed to Tallahassee. Ahead of them was a full, two-day agenda with business leaders, lobbyists and elected officials.

Before the programming could begin, an obligatory stop at the Busy Bee to refuel and marvel at the cleanest bathrooms known to convenience stores was in order. The group made its contributions to the Live Oak economy, filling up on the best bee-inspired snacks, and was on its way to the state capitol.

They were welcomed by sponsors Merritt Martin, director of public affairs for Moffitt Cancer Center and Joanne Sullivan, director of community relations for USF Health. Mr. Martin then introduced H. Lee Moffitt, former speaker of the Florida house from 1982-84 and champion of the eponymous world-renowned cancer center.

Speaker Moffitt introduced an all-star lobbying panel of Mr. McGee as well as Jan Gorrie of Ballard Partners, “Mac” Stipanovich of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney and Michael Corcoran of Corcoran Partners. The quintet of policy wonks were engaging, humorous and not afraid of challenging ideas. When asked about their impressions of Governor Ron DeSantis, the panel had positive reviews saying he has surprised critics and surrounded himself with good people.  Especially his wife, Casey, who takes a very active role.

When asked about the recent failure of the Hillsborough Transportation Tax, Mr. Stipanovich lamented that the state was overreaching into local issues, a drastic change from years ago. “There isn’t a local interest they won’t interfere with,” he said.

Mr. Stipanovich warned that institutions such as healthcare, education and tourism were under attack by the House. And that’s where the class was headed next.

First stopping to admire the many tributes to Florida’s rich history in the capitol, the class entered the House chambers, filling up the front rows of Republican seats and the back rows for Democrat representatives. As they were given a guided tour of the chamber’s history through its beautiful murals and portraits, the group would learn tradition is to sit the majority party up front and the minority party in the back. In addition to seating for the representatives, the round room also had a public gallery where bullet-proof glass had been removed in 2000 to allow for easier hearing for spectators and better acoustics for the members.

Following the tour, the top office holder of the minority party, Nikki Fried, introduced herself and gave the class an overview of her role as Agriculture Commissioner. Commissioner Fried spent her career as a public defender, private attorney, government consultant and lobbyist and now supports the vital agriculture industry for the state, boasting more than 47,000 working farms and nearly two million jobs. While she didn’t come from farming roots herself, Commissioner Fried spelled out her passion for encouraging consumers to buy local produce. She also detailed the importance of fuel regulations and fighting corruption against skimmers and weight scales in commerce. Her office also heads policy for weapons permitting, addressing food desserts and energy and climate concerns.

The group then moved to the smaller Senate chamber. Self-described by members as “40 Somali warlords”, the Senators represent roughly half a million Floridians each. They are framed as the deliberative body that usually evaluates House bills, though they initiate legislation as well. Senators have the aid of special software that tracks legislation as it progresses and allows them to research changes. In the back of the Senate chamber, a special closed-door room allows legislators to work with legal counsel and lobbyists to refine phrasing.

The class was then treated to a talk from Jamal Sowell, president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, the principal economic development organization for the state. Mr. Sowell, a former chief of staff at Port Tampa Bay and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, spoke of the need for public/private partnerships throughout the state to address its top need for business development: talent. He added that in addition to a dire need  of workforce readiness in trade skills, he is also working with Florida businesses to train abroad.

That evening, the Tampa Bay Chamber and LT class hosted a legislative reception at the The Governor’s Club. Attendees included House member David Smith, Republican from Seminole representing district 28. Following a wonderful dinner at Edison restaurant, it was time to enjoy the Tallahassee nightlife and get ready for day two.

The next morning kicked off with a view of the political landscape from Sarah Bascom of Bascom Communications & Consulting and political strategist Steve Schale. This was the duo’s third year of talking to LT classes and the experience showed.

“Florida is one of the most interesting places in politics” Mr. Schale said. Despite being a large economy and wildly diverse across its geography, only about 12,000 votes separated the Republican and Democrat electorate over the last decade in the state. “Florida is strangely competitive,” he said.

That close competition is a rich part of Florida’s history, going back to the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes. As Mr. Schale explained, the Florida election for the president that year was so mired, the state did not render a final vote. “Florida couldn’t decide, so congress did,” he said and warned that the national congress picking the president is never a good idea.

The class discussed campaigning and some of the ugly tactics used in political advertising. Ms. Bascom explained that campaigns don’t usually go negative, but Political Action Committee (PAC) money does. These are groups unaffiliated with the campaign but acting in supposed support of a candidate or issue. While political ads remain heavily on broadcast, she said more campaigns and PACs are targeting voters on their phone, especially to reach a younger electorate.

“Political marketing is a lagging indicator,” Mr. Schale said. “When it comes to marketing politics, it is all about earning a certain marketshare on a certain day.”

If earning that marketshare on a certain day is hard, the work once you win is even harder. Rep. Grant underlined this when he spoke to the class next and described slippery relationships as an elected official.

“You have no idea who cares about you or who likes you,” he said, tacking on the adage “If you want a friend here, get a dog.”

Rep. Grant has had the national spotlight on him for controversial positions he’s taken. He’s made enemies, but given his two options for political currency, he says intellectual honesty is what guides him.

He made his thoughts clear: “The bigger and more powerful I make government, the worse society becomes,” he said.

Democratic Senator Janet Cruz spoke to the class next. She explained the mandate to create a balanced budget and said they were close on the roughly $91 billion the state would spend. Sen. Cruz lauded the state’s work in public schools, pointing to Sulphur Springs community school and the wraparound services that have been added.

Next to address the class was Attorney General Ashley Moody. In her role, she is tasked with protecting the citizens of Florida. While Ms. Moody described a challenging year, she was proud of the strides her office has made in fighting the opioid crisis. She said opioids kill more Floridians than car accidents and gun violence, combined. Ms. Moody has also gone after vaping, claiming vape companies have targeted minors. She stated that two-thirds of consumers don’t know that vape cartridges contain nicotine.

Cyber fraud was another focus for her office. According to Ms. Moody, Florida leads the nation in cyber fraud because of its rising senior population. She is hoping to get more money from the legislation for education and prevention of cyber fraud. “We are not prepared,” she said.

The final stop was the Governor’s mansion. Originally built in 1907, it is the working home for Governor DeSantis and his family. The DeSantis family has brought the youngest children into the mansion in 50 years and will further that record with a baby expected later this year.

While it is his living quarters, Governor DeSantis uses the mansion for hosting numerous events throughout the year. A full-time staff of nine operates the facility and the doors open to guests and dignitaries from around the world.

After leaving the mansion, it was time to board the bus back to Tampa. The leadership class left Tallahassee a little wiser to how state government works, both good and bad. However imperfect, our politics are always a work in progress. During the discussions, Winston Churchill’s timeless quote was evoked and rang true. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise,” Churchill said. “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

By Conan Gallaty, Tampa Bay Times