Everglades deal could be unmaking of activist
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Thirty years ago, an idealistic junior college graduate went to work for the Florida Audubon Society for $100 a week.
These days, Charles Lee, 51, is senior vice president of Audubon of Florida and widely regarded as the state's premier environmental lobbyist. He is the activist who reporters often call first, the one most lawmakers recognize by sight, the only one Gov. Jeb Bush picked to serve on a commission studying how to handle the state's runaway growth.
Lee is also in the middle of a firestorm right now, accused by some of his fellow environmental advocates of making a deal with the devil.
They say that in the waning hours of last month's regular legislative session, Lee sold out the rights of the average citizen to challenge developers. They say he agreed to the deal to get a guaranteed $100-million a year to restore the Everglades. Now activists throughout the state are publicly calling on Bush to veto the Everglades bill and privately branding Lee a traitor.
"There's a lynch mob out there after him now," said David Guest of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "I've never seen anything like it."
To Lee, though, this is nothing new. The man sometimes known as "Let's Make a Deal Lee" said he has ticked off fellow environmentalists plenty of times before, and the furor does not bother him.
He denies selling out anyone. And he contends that if Bush does sign the bill, bad developments can still be legally challenged.
The imbroglio over the Everglades bill has badly damaged Lee's credibility, said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club, who also chairs an umbrella group called the Everglades Coalition.
"It is difficult to work in alliance with him if you believe that when push comes to shove, he'll cut a separate deal," Jackalone said.
Advocates such as Lee "need to recognize the point at which they are no longer useful," Guest said. "I think this demonstrates that it is time for him to quit."
Lee scoffs at the idea of quitting. "I don't see it in the immediate future," he said.
Guest remembers the first time he met Lee 20 years ago. He was working for the state attorney general's office and he needed to talk to Lee about an environmental issue. When he tracked him down in the Capitol, Guest recalls "staring in slightly startled disbelief" at Lee.
"His tie was 1 inch wider than it should be, and it ended 5 inches above his waist," Guest said. "He had the appearance of having slept in his clothes. His mustache was trimmed more on one side than the other. And there was a coffee stain on his shirt."
Back then, Guest said, Lee was known as "the lone gun for the environmental movement. He was reviled by everybody. He was just a radical."
He didn't start out that way. Born in Miami in 1950, Lee did not grow up among tree huggers. His father, who died when Lee was 13, sold men's clothes at Sears. His mother taught science and home economics. His brother works with electronics.
Lee's own passion was fishing.
"I had a boat with a little five-horsepower motor and I fished in North Biscayne Bay," he said. "I saw the world I was used to devoured by condominia. I watched one favorite snapper hole after another get filled in."
The outraged teen began writing letters to the Miami News complaining about development run amok. He wrote so often, the editor took an interest and steered him to some of South Florida's pioneer environmental activists.
By age 16, Lee had joined the board of the Izaak Walton League chapter and begun volunteering for Audubon. The National Wildlife Federation named him youth conservationist of the year.
After earning a political science degree in 1972, Lee wanted to go to law school.
Then Florida Audubon president Hal Scott asked Lee to be his administrative assistant. Lee planned to work for Audubon for a year, then get his law degree -- except "I got sucked into the vortex."
Scott dispatched his young protege around the state as a troubleshooter and soon made him Audubon's lobbyist in Tallahassee. What Lee lacked in experience, he made up for in diligence.
At first Lee was "pretty strident," recalled Curt Kiser, who represented northern Pinellas County for two decades. "But he was always up on the issues. . . . Little by little he was able to build his credibility."
Now a lobbyist himself, Kiser said that Lee has become a formidable foe: "I've heard people out in the rotunda cussing him: "That damn Charles Lee got so-and-so turned around and I can't turn them back!' "
No longer is Lee the rumpled outsider.
Although he is a lifelong Democrat, he is sometimes called "Jeb's house environmentalist" because he so often defends Bush at environmental gatherings. A Bush spokeswoman said the governor enjoys "a very good working relationship" with Lee.
His reputation as an insider is aided by the fact that his wife, Carole Joy Barice, is a law partner of House Speaker Tom Feeney, although Lee says that never got him any special favors.
The onetime condo foe now lives in one himself, in the Seminole County community of Longwood, close enough to a wildlife sanctuary that he keeps a shovel by the door during wildfire season. But he isn't home much.
Lee's work takes him from the monthly Cabinet meetings in Tallahassee to land use hearings far from the Capitol's marble halls. In the two years since he bought his current car, a 1984 Mercedes, he has put 150,000 miles on it, "and I hope I can get my $4,000 worth out of it," he said.
Lee says his greatest success was helping to create the state's Preservation 2000 land-buying program in 1989. More often, his role has been blocking anti-environment bills from becoming law "like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike," said former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator John Hankinson.
That's where Lee's approach has often differed from that of other environmental advocates, Hankinson said. "Charles has usually been pretty effective in trying to amend bills to soften their impact, while other groups just want to fight them."
Sometimes negotiation is the way to win. Save the Manatee Club lobbyist Pat Rose credited Lee with helping forge an important compromise with boaters during the recent session that defanged a bill environmentalists opposed. Everyone went home happy.
"Charles likes making deals," Rose said. "Sometimes I think he gets a rush out of participating in the dealmaking."
Lee's critics say he sometimes hurts the environment because he lacks legal training, while most development lobbyists are high-powered lawyers. When Lee haggled with pro-development lobbyists over citizen standing, Lee "got skinned," Guest said.
Not true, said Lee. In the past he has opposed changing the rules for how activists can challenge a development permit, but this year he could see it was going to pass anyway. So he negotiated changes that he thinks made little real difference in the law.
But a long list of groups ranging from Sierra to Save Our Suwannee disagree. They are upset that the bill would require any group filing a challenge to have at least 25 members in the affected county and have existed for at least a year. That won't affect mighty Audubon, they say, but it might block smaller groups.
Lee said he opposed a move by Senate Majority Leader Jim King to tack the change in citizen standing onto the Everglades bill, but King did it anyway.
Lee is now urging Bush to sign the bill, and he says he will have no problem taking the heat if all his critics turn out to be right. And he does not mind being blasted for being a pragmatist about cutting deals.
"The only way you can make your ideals a reality is to figure out the way to work the system," Lee said. Otherwise, "your ideals are a nice thing for a scrapbook, and nothing more."
-- Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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