House's speaker-to-be had a quick rise to the top
© St. Petersburg Times
TALLAHASSEE -- The day after state Rep. Johnnie Byrd secured a second term with a resounding 80 percent of the vote, he decided to explore the state.
His goal: to become speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
"I decided I was either going to get out or go to the top," recalls Byrd, a Republican from Plant City. "I wasn't going to be filler."
It was September 1998, 10 years after he had moved to Florida from his native Alabama, and Byrd still had never set foot in Miami or many other parts of the state.
So he packed a bag in his green Ford Explorer and headed south to get to know his fellow Republican House members.
He also sought the advice of House Speaker Dan Webster, the first Republican to lead the House.
Webster pulled out his Bible and pointed to the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They wanted to sit to the left and right of Jesus, but he rebuked them for wanting to lord over others, saying a leader must first be a servant to all.
He followed Webster's advice as he built support for his candidacy.
"It's that simple," Byrd says. "I tried to be a servant. The commitment is from me to them."
Byrd established a fundraising committee in 1998 that raised $250,000 over two years to help other Republicans get elected. They would in turn help him become speaker.
Today, Byrd's goal is nearly in hand. If he is re-elected this year as expected, this soft-spoken conservative will be named speaker of the Florida House in November, replacing Tom Feeney. He will shape the agenda of the House for two years, deciding which bills get heard.
Byrd, 51, is the first lawmaker forced to climb the leadership ladder in an era of term limits. He already is one of the most powerful people in Florida, despite only six years in the House, a remarkably quick rise in a place where it traditionally took many years for a member to reach the top.
Even more remarkable is his short stint in Florida. Most House speakers have been either native Floridians or moved here when they were children.
Byrd's rise was so quick the public has little idea what kind of speaker he will be.
Senate Majority Leader Jim King, a moderate Republican designated the next president of the Senate, thinks Byrd is even more conservative than Feeney, considered one of the most conservative speakers ever.
If so, the philosophical differences between Byrd and King would continue the political tension between the two legislative houses that has existed between Feeney and the more moderate Senate president, John McKay.
Feeney laughs at the thought that Byrd is more conservative. "The reign of the moderates," he joked, "may be coming to an end."
The son of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store owner, Byrd was born Feb. 8, 1951, in Brewton, Ala., a small town near the Florida line north of Pensacola.
Byrd and his wife, Melane, knew each other growing up in Brewton. They married in 1975. Byrd is the youngest of three children and the only son. His oldest sister, Dr. Patricia Byrd, is a linguistics professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. His other sister, Anna Byrd Davis, is an editor at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
Davis notes that her brother is much more conservative politically than his sisters. "It makes for lively conversations around the dinner table," she said.
After graduating from Auburn and getting a law degree at the University of Alabama, Byrd passed the Alabama and Florida Bar exams and joined a law practice in Brewton. Twelve years later he moved to Florida after mill closings and the decline of nearby oil fields dried up the need for lawyers in Brewton.
He chose Plant City during a family visit to the home of John and Sharon Dicks. Mrs. Dicks and Byrd's wife were college roommates and sorority sisters at Auburn. Jim Moody, a lawyer who lived next door to the Dicks family, encouraged Byrd to move down and join his firm.
Byrd quickly became active in local civic groups. Before long he was president of the Plant City Chamber of Commerce. When former Rep. Buddy Johnson, a Plant City Republican, retired abruptly in 1996, Byrd got in the race. He won by a mere 110 votes.
"Other candidates were saying they were fifth-generation Floridians," Byrd recalled. "That doesn't resonate in a district where the average person has been here five to seven years."
It was a good year to be a House Republican. After more than 100 years as the minority party, the GOP had taken control of both houses of the Legislature.
This year, Byrd is at the center of the political storm as chairman of the House Rules and Redistricting Council. He decides which bills go to the floor for debate and how lines are drawn for new legislative and congressional districts.
He remains calm in the midst of a flurry of meetings, phone calls, letters and pressures that cascade on him. He does not raise his voice or criticize and ends each session with a trademark phrase: "It's been a great day in the state of Florida."
In an office suite adjoining Feeney's, Byrd moves among his small private office, a conference room and the waiting room as groups of lobbyists, legislators, constituents and advocacy groups wait for a moment of his time.
Impeccably dressed in khaki pants, a navy blue blazer and long-sleeved, striped shirt with a conservative red tie, Byrd is unfailingly polite and almost always noncommittal. But he always offers to help.
"We'll work on that," Byrd says promisingly as Rep. Will Kendrick, D-Carrabelle, spreads maps across the table to seek a better district.
Byrd doesn't really promise anything except consideration. Instead, he suggests Kendrick speak to the legislator running the committee drawing the lines, unwilling to undercut his committee chairmen.
Feeney, who has spent a decade in the House, sees Byrd's relatively short time in office as both a dilemma and an opportunity for "fresh thinking."
Byrd isn't sure what his legacy as speaker will be. He favors a constitutional amendment to force legislators to wait 72 hours before taking a final vote on a bill. He doesn't like being handed a 200-page amendment at the last minute.
He also has filed a bill to force counties to identify water sources before allowing new development. "The home builders don't much like it," Byrd says with typical understatement.
Byrd also wants to make a cure for Alzheimer's disease a central part of his agenda. His father died with Alzheimer's on Election Day 1998.
He is adamantly opposed to new taxes and is leading the House committee hearings into the Senate's controversial tax overhaul. He was one of 17 House Republicans who voted in December against delaying a cut in the intangibles tax, saying a delay amounted to a tax increase. Gov. Jeb Bush won the delay anyway, avoiding deeper spending cuts.
Mrs. Byrd has her own issue.
"While he is speaker I want him to do something good for education," Mrs. Byrd says. "Any schoolteacher would want to get involved, and I have plenty of information I want to give to legislators."
In Tallahassee, Byrd shares a rented house with Reps. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, Lindsay Harrington, R-Punta Gorda, and Chris Hart, R-Tampa. In Plant City, he lives with his family in quiet Walden Lakes, a subdivision of upper-middle class homes.
Byrd says he doesn't attend many of the receptions and dinners that are mainstays of nighttime Tallahassee. He skipped the annual Associated Industries of Florida party that draws virtually all lawmakers, aides and lobbyists. He also skipped the annual party for legislators at the Governor's Mansion.
"I went home," he said.
Byrd still tends to the smallest concerns of his constituents among the strawberry fields and citrus groves of eastern Hillsborough County. Many of the complaints are extremely local: garbage collectors who can't locate their customers, roads that need widening.
On a recent Monday, Byrd starts the day with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast at a popular restaurant next to Plant City's famed strawberry market.
Afterward, he hops into his Mustang GT convertible and heads across his district to Plummer's Restaurant in Seffner, where constituents have gathered for one of his "satellite office meetings."
"I get a smorgasbord of complaints," Byrd says.
Aide Ed Howlette, a former New York police officer whose wife taught school with Mrs. Byrd, takes notes as Byrd fields complaints.
Surrounded by cow memorabilia collected by restaurant owner Pattie Manning, Byrd hears pleas for more police patrols and the widening of State Road 574.
Later, Byrd meets with another group of constituents at Walden-Sparkman Hardware in Dover, where citrus growers worry about the falling prices of oranges and rising property taxes.
Eventually he gets to his office at a restored Hillsboro State Bank building in downtown Plant City. He has one telephone for his law practice, another for the Legislature, a third for campaign work.
"You have all these plates spinning," Byrd said. "One minute you're a lawyer, then a legislator and the next minute you are a candidate."
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