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Lawmaker's legacy is refusal to conform

As state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite aims for Congress, backers and critics remember her as a Republican willing to defy industry groups and her own party.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


In 1996, Gov. Lawton Chiles wanted to sue Big Tobacco.

The Senate was determined to stop him.

Its Republican leaders, under fierce pressure from industry lobbyists, thought they had just enough votes to override a Chiles veto and strike down the state's right to sue tobacco companies. Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite's vote was one they were counting on.

Instead, Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, stood and began to talk about her parents and sister, who were all smokers and who all had died of cancer. As chairwoman of the Senate Health Care Committee, she said, she regularly saw the devastation caused by cigarettes.

"I no longer can support this," she said. "I can't sit here any longer and play the tobacco game."

Her stance turned the tide in the effort to sue tobacco companies for smoking-related health problems, not only in Florida but across the country, said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

Big Tobacco eventually paid billions in damages to Florida, and billions more to other states and individuals in suits that followed.

"I think it was the most dramatic and courageous moment in my eight years in the Senate," Latvala said.

Because of term limits, Brown-Waite, along with Latvala and eight other senators, is being forced to step down this year.

Her 10-year career as a senator will pretty much end with the conclusion of an upcoming special session, and she has already begun to campaign against U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, in a district that includes all of Hernando and Citrus counties and most of Pasco.

When supporters and opponents look back on Brown-Waite's career, they point to the tobacco issue or ones like it. Her reputation, they agree, will always be as a Republican who has been willing to defy industry groups and her own party.

Brown-Waite and her supporters say she did so because she is driven by her conscience and the interest of her district. Opponents say some of her stances are a sign of her self-serving nature, which they say makes her willing to back out of agreements and turn on other Republicans when it suits her politically.

"She's essentially a conservative, and she takes some conservative positions. She also takes some pretty liberal positions, and she tends to take positions based not on their merit but on the way the wind is blowing," said Joe Mason, a Brooksville lawyer who battled Brown-Waite frequently when she served on the Hernando County Commission in the early 1990s.

A county 'battleground'

From the beginning, Brown-Waite's political power was based on her willingness to fight people like Mason.

Brown-Waite, a 58-year-old native of New York, served 16 years as a staffer in that state's Legislature before moving to Hernando County in 1987.

When she ran for the County Commission in 1990, she identified herself with the large population of Northern transplants on the west side of the county. She also presented herself as someone who refused to conform with the South's traditional, polite way of doing business or its expectations for women.

During her first year as a commissioner, she lived in a rented room inside her district while her husband, Harvey Waite, lived in their home outside the district with their adopted daughter, who was then 12 years old.

"People don't understand, but that's not abnormal for us," Brown-Waite said in a 1991 interview.

"Harvey goes straight to heaven when he dies," Janey Baldwin, a friend and longtime supporter of Brown-Waite's, said last week.

"He's home alone a lot."

Brown-Waite's frequent insults of other commissioners had created enough hard feelings by 1992 -- when she announced plans to leave the commission and run for the Senate -- that Commissioner Harold Varvel said it confirmed his belief in God.

Much of this animosity remains. When she presented a Senate resolution praising Brooksville patriarch Alfred McKethan shortly after his death earlier this month, some family members saw it as political opportunism. McKethan's former son-in-law and protege in the banking business, Jim Kimbrough, declined to comment for this story.

Brown-Waite said her approach as a commissioner was justified, considering the lock Mason and others had on the county at the time and the potential harm of some of their proposals, including Florida Mining and Materials' plan to burn hazardous waste in its cement kiln, which she eventually helped defeat.

"I was fighting hazardous waste. I was dealing with a county that was growing by leaps and bounds," she said.

"County Commission was kind of a battleground. It was a battle that got, sometimes, mean-spirited."

'She's a whirlwind'

Brown-Waite's manner and stature were transformed after she defeated veteran state Rep. Chuck Smith in the 1992 Senate race.

As a junior senator affiliated with the minority party, her voice became less prominent than it had been on the commission -- and more polite.

The cutting comments that had been standard became rare, though still memorable.

After former state Rep. Jeff Stabins was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in Tallahassee in 1996, she called him a "party groupie."

Last year, she fired staffer and former County Commissioner Paul Sullivan for having dinner with a St. Petersburg Times reporter after she had forbidden him to talk to the press.

"I doubt a reporter is going to have dinner with Mr. Sullivan because of his charming personality," she said.

Stabins could not be reached for comment; Sullivan, who is running again for the commission this year, said he now thinks his firing was justified.

When Brown-Waite returned from her first session, in 1993, she complained about the frantic pace of the last days of the session and the crush of aggressive lobbyists. She sponsored several bills seeking to cut the power of special interests and watched most of them die.

She worked as hard then as she would later, her supporters said.

"She doesn't stop. She's a whirlwind," Baldwin said.

But during the first two or three years in the Senate, she was not especially productive. Of the 10 bills she considers the most significant of her career, only one -- a measure limiting payments to mothers on welfare -- passed before 1996.

Her stature began to grow about that time for several reasons, said fellow lawmakers.

Republicans had a majority for the first time during the 1995 session. Before the next session, Brown-Waite was named chairwoman of the Health Care Committee. Her increasing seniority helped, as it always does in the Senate, Latvala said.

But Brown-Waite's stand on tobacco truly established her, said state Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville.

"That set such a precedent in the process of Ginny's moving away from voting with the majority," he said.

She began to pass the laws she is best known for and that defined her as a politician.

On social issues, she won favor with conservative Republicans by passing welfare reform bills in 1995 and 1996. She sponsored legislation that imposed harsh penalties for juveniles who drink and drive and life sentences for those who repeatedly commit violent gun-related crimes.

On consumer and environmental issues, however, she fought powerful members of her party and industry groups.

She passed a bill to reform health maintenance organizations in 1996, and, the next year, one that gave the public easy access to doctors' records, including complaints and lawsuits filed against them.

Latvala, among other Republicans, opposed her "local sources first" bill, which required local governments to seek nearby sources of water before tapping outside resources. Designed to protect water in her district from raids by urban areas, the bill passed, after many tries, in 1998.

In 2001, Brown-Waite was one of the first Republicans to oppose a plan to store untreated water in the state aquifer.

These views were an almost perfect match with her constituents in Hernando, Pasco, Polk and Sumter counties.

Many voters in her district were socially conservative retirees, concerned about health-care benefits but leery of paying for other social programs. They were also more distressed about the destruction caused by the rapid development of Florida than some Republicans realized.

"She's achieved a very delicate balance in her approach to legislation," Russell said.

Brown-Waite said her voting record has simply been a matter of following her beliefs and listening to constituents.

"I took on tough issues, and I fought for the tough issues, and I get passionate about tough issues. Most Republicans do not get passionate," Brown-Waite said.

"She fought tooth and nail for us up there," said Terry Dayton, whose mother died of a stroke, she said, because of a doctor's negligence. Brown-Waite tried for several years, unsuccessfully, to pass legislation that would allow adult children like Dayton to sue doctors for wrongful death.

"She tried her darnedest to get that through," Drayton said. "I feel really bad that she's leaving."

Noticing a shift as years go on

Those less convinced of her sincerity say Brown-Waite has changed in recent years, as she has become more powerful and more concerned about securing a favorable congressional seat in this year's redistricting process.

In 1999, she announced plans to run for the highly paid post of Hernando County supervisor of elections, temporarily throwing the local political scene in chaos as candidates positioned themselves for her Senate seat.

"She was playing a lot of games with everyone, and that wasn't right. It put a lot of people in a bind," then-Sheriff Tom Mylander said at the time.

When she agreed to stay in the 2000 race for Senate, she said incoming Senate President John McKay had promised to reward her for her decision. One of the rewards, according to some observers, was a job with the Southwest Florida Water Management District that paid $71,600 a year and required her to lobby local governments.

Though she denied the position was a political payoff, she later acknowledged that it created a possible conflict of interest and resigned before the 2001 legislative session.

At the end of that session, she claimed nursing home reform as one of her main accomplishments. But those who worked on the bill said it was much more industry-friendly than her previous health care measures.

"Ginny felt that in order to get some good things, we had to cater to the nursing homes on some issues, and I didn't agree with her," said state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, who has worked with Brown-Waite on several issues.

The new law required nursing homes to hire more employees, Argenziano said, though more gradually than she had wanted. It also protected the homes from a spate of lawsuits that, she said, they had generally deserved.

"My feeling is -- don't stop somebody's ability to sue when they have been egregiously harmed," Argenziano said.

Brown-Waite said the suits were in danger of forcing nursing homes out of business in Florida. Her main goal was to ensure staffing increases, which the law did, she said.

In the most recent session, Brown-Waite was singled out by the Florida First Amendment Foundation for the many bills she introduced that would chip away at the state's open government laws. Some of those, Brown-Waite said, were designed to fight threats of terrorism.

But Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of Floridians for Gun Safety, said she passed up an obvious way to improve security when she declined to close the loophole that allows people in many Florida counties to buy weapons at gun shows without a background check.

She failed to act, he said, though he showed her an article about a Pakistani immigrant arrested for plotting to buy weapons in Florida he wanted to use in a holy war against the United States.

"We were angry about her lack of leadership," Hayhoe said. "This is a woman who had an opportunity to do something to protect security, and she refused to do it."

Brown-Waite said she never saw such an article. She also said that she is not pandering to the pro-gun lobby -- she genuinely believes in the right to bear arms.

She has also continued to fight powerful people in Tallahassee, she said. She was the first Republican to oppose McKay's second proposal to reform the state sales tax, she said, and one of the few legislators to vote against a plan to raise local telephone rates.

If voters notice that she has shifted to the right as she campaigns for Congress, she said, it will be motivated by her beliefs and not a desire to please special interests.

"Have I grown more conservative with age?" she said. "I think we all do."

-- Dan DeWitt covers the city of Brooksville, politics and the environment. He can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to dewitt@sptimes.com.

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