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    A taut leader

      Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan is impeccably dressed and unyieldingly optimistic. And as chief legislative lobbyist, the ex-schoolteacher is put to the test.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 6, 2002

    [AP photo]
    The pressure is on Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, left, here with Senate President John McKay during a special session last week, to get Gov. Bush's agenda through an increasingly rancorous Legislature.
    TALLAHASSEE -- Sometimes, Frank Brogan can't believe he's here.

    The son of a widow who raised six kids on a waitress' salary, Brogan once dug ditches to make ends meet. Now, his heels click-click as he strides across the Capitol's shiny marble floor to deliver a message on behalf of Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.

    Aides trip along behind him. A beefy guard with a wire in his ear keeps watch.

    Fifteen years ago, Brogan was a small-town teacher who earned extra money as a school sports referee. Now he's the lieutenant governor of the fourth-largest state. On Sept. 11, a day when everyone remembers exactly where they were, Brogan was in Sarasota, talking to schoolchildren. He was with the president of the United States.

    It can all seem a bit surreal.

    How did I get here?

    Better yet, where is he going?

    Brogan is running with Bush for a second term. Though Florida voters have never promoted a lieutenant governor to the top spot, Brogan is considered the most likely Republican to run for the Governor's Mansion four years from now.

    His political future relies largely on Bush's performance, but voters also will be looking at how Brogan did as the No. 2 guy.

    For Brogan, that means getting Bush's agenda through an increasingly rancorous Legislature.

    With another special session under way, the pressure is on Brogan to get things done.

    The job of lieutenant governor has few official duties, a fact that Brogan often jokes about in his self-deprecating style ("Sometimes, at the mansion, they wrap up dinner for me and leave it on the porch.") But Bush gave Brogan an unusual task: chief legislative lobbyist, one of the few lieutenant governors in recent memory to do that.

    He's a Republican, the governor is a Republican, the Legislature is run by Republicans. Theoretically, it ought to be a snap.

    But the Legislature has been particularly cranky lately. The love fest that marked the beginning of Bush's term has evaporated. A special session early last month collapsed in failure and sniping.

    Some legislators blamed Brogan and Bush for not exerting enough leadership. Some said Brogan missed cues that lawmakers were headed for a train wreck. Brogan himself had an uncharacteristic outburst, swearing publicly at a state senator after tense negotiations.

    Brogan lets the criticism roll off his back.

    * * *

    He's outrageously, some say delusionally, optimistic, no matter the circumstance. (In Brogan-speak, an unpopular budget cut becomes "an opportunity to restore worthwhile programs" when the economy improves.)

    He offers comic relief in a town where most politicians are tense, pompous or both. Spot him in the crowd of suits behind the governor: He's got a wiseacre expression as he leans into someone's ear whispering like the class clown. Inevitably, the shoulders next to him begin to shake.

    In crowds, he's the stand-up who warms things up for Bush.

    He pretends to be Igor in the tower hissing at the governor: "Yes, master!"

    He pulls out his pocket comb and holds it in front of the governor like a microphone. "Speak into the comb, sir," he deadpans.

    One hot day when everyone is sweating buckets, Brogan looks fresh. Someone points out something unusual: a line of sweat across the lieutenant governor's brow.

    "I sprayed it on so the others wouldn't feel bad," he stage whispers.

    "Jeb tends to get real serious, and Frank can lighten it up," said Sherry Plymale, Brogan's former chief of staff. "But never underestimate that Frank's not serious himself."

    Brogan is a hard-charger who starts every day at dawn with a 4-mile run. On weekends, he kicks it up to 6 or 7 miles. His days often end with a public appearance late in the evening. Mostly, he eats out or stops for takeout on the way home.

    At 48, he is tanned and trim with news anchor hair. Blinding-white teeth. Impeccable beige suit. Monogrammed shirt cuffs. Spit-shined wing tips. "I even clean the house dressed like this," he jokes.

    Brogan's humor has endured, despite some tragedies he lived through in the public eye. First, his mother got breast cancer and died. Then, his wife, Mary, contracted the disease. The Brogans went through months of her treatment -- and anguish -- before Mary died in 1999 at age 44.

    In the words of Frank Brogan

    WHAT BOTHERS HIM: "There's still a divisiveness in the state of Florida that bothers me. Separation on the basis of race or gender. It's the thing that frustrates me the most and makes me the most unhappy."

    ON ONE FLORIDA, WHICH REPLACED AFFIRMATIVE ACTION SET-ASIDES: "It was done in a hopeful, thoughtful way to get rid of something that was illegal and immoral. The opponents took the low road and said: "Jeb Bush is pushing One Florida because he is a racist and he wants to take us back to the Jim Crow days.' The mass media bought into the great lie. It's easier to scare people than to deal with the truth."

    ON THE OVERNIGHT CIVIL RIGHTS SIT-IN AT HIS OFFICE: "The sit-in was all about politics. They wanted to make a name for themselves and they wanted to use race as a wedge issue."

    ON SCHOOL VOUCHERS: "You should be in competition. People said: If you give people a choice, they are all going to leave. I don't believe that."

    ON HIS POLITICS: "I was pretty conservative when I was a kid, even in the 1960s and 1970s. I just believed in limited government, the work ethic and individual responsibility."

    ON 4-H: "I have a herd of cats. One of them is dumber than a door stop. That's my livestock. I don't get to show them at the fair, though."

    ON HUMOR: "I've always made jokes. I wasn't the kid that would make the teacher mad. I would make the teacher laugh."

    ON HIS FUTURE: "I have no idea. I never thought I'd be lieutenant governor. Some people think this is a logical progression toward being governor. I really don't know."

    ON BEING IN THE PUBLIC EYE: "You have to lay yourself bare. You have to go on the greatest job interview that exists -- with 16-million people."

    ON HIS LEGENDARY IMPECCABLENESS: "When I get up to go to the bathroom at night, I make my bed in case I don't return to it. I want them to say: He was a neat man."

    Brogan kept himself busy by working long hours. When friends thought it might be time for him to date again, his staff played a prank: They took a People magazine story featuring the governor's hunky son, George P., as one of America's most eligible bachelors and pasted Brogan's picture on it.

    Brogan won't talk about his dating life now, and he appears at most public functions alone. But he has a girlfriend, 25-year-old Florida State University law student Courtney Strickland. She worked as an executive secretary for Republican John Thrasher when he was speaker of the Florida House.

    Friends say he has taken Strickland to visit Martin County, where his twin, John, lives.

    * * *

    Brogan's Florida story begins in Martin County in the late 1970s. He was an elementary school teacher, an Ohio transplant, Catholic, conservative and charismatic. He rose through the school ranks to become an assistant principal at Murray Middle School. Politically connected Republicans asked him to run for school superintendent in 1988, when he was 34. He won, and pushed a conservative agenda that infuriated the teachers union.

    "It's funny how people who get promoted forget where they came from," complains Pat Tornillo, president of the Miami-Dade County teachers union.

    Tornillo and the state teachers union tangled with Brogan when he leaped to state education commissioner in 1994, at 41 the youngest education commissioner ever elected in Florida, and the first Republican to hold the job. He beat the candidate the teachers unions supported: longtime Pinellas lawmaker Doug Jamerson, who had been appointed to the post by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

    In July 1998, Bush selected Brogan as his running mate, saying the selection underscored Bush's emphasis on education.

    These days, though, Brogan's biggest task is as Bush's lobbyist. You'll find Brogan scurrying among the House, Senate and the governor's office. This bill is important to us. This one we might trade. It's a strange dance; the Legislature controls the purse strings, but the governor can veto hometown projects that can make or break a lawmaker's career.

    Some lawmakers grumble that Brogan and Bush never served in the Legislature. They say the two are insensitive to the give-and-take needed to make decisions with 160 politicians representing millions of voters. They say the governor's office is run by kids who think they invented every idea. Brogan, they say, is likeable but lacks authority.

    "He can't make commitments for the governor," said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican. "You would normally think the lieutenant governor would be a little more involved in the policy end of it."

    Brogan says Bush "gives me a great deal of authority to negotiate on his behalf. It's built on the trust we've developed."

    Still, he acknowledges the job can be frustrating. His temper flared publicly in early April when lawmakers convened for a week-long special session to pass one bill: an 1,800-page rewrite of the state education code.

    As the session started, Brogan said there was "broad consensus." In fact, the bill included controversial language about religion in the schools. Some lawmakers thought Brogan was shoving the legislation forward, squelching debate.

    "He kept saying, 'Everyone's in agreement. Trust us,' " said Sen. Ron Klein, a South Florida Democrat. "I don't think I'm elected just to rubber-stamp things."

    And so, on the night before lawmakers were to vote, Brogan lost his famous cool.

    "This is bull----!" Brogan yelled at Sen. Steve Geller, a Jewish Democrat from South Florida who objected to the religious language.

    "I've never seen him lose his temper before," Geller said later. "I said: 'Don't you understand how this is going to be perceived? That on a Jewish holiday when we can't get hold of any or our experts, you push through the prayer-in-the-schools thing?' "

    Brogan says he was frustrated at last-minute objections. "I wasn't swearing at Steve Geller," Brogan said. "It was about the process."

    * * *

    When he speaks before groups, Brogan touts his education record -- vouchers for kids in failing schools, the state's first system to publicly grade schools, ending affirmative action in higher education, ending automatic teacher raises and replacing them with merit raises, and creating Bright Futures scholarships for high schoolers with good grades.

    He sticks mostly to hopeful platitudes that can work for any occasion. Children should be able to "grow up to live -- not just dream -- that American dream." Americans have the "ability to breathe free air in the land of the free and the home of the brave." Florida is "one of the most remarkable places on the face of the Earth."

    He usually recounts his personal story: His father died when he was 4 years old, leaving his mother to raise six children alone. Brogan was the first person in his family to graduate from college.

    His bread-and-butter stump speech is pro-business, lean government and conservative morals, delivered with comedy.

    Bush and Brogan fashion themselves as a new breed of hip conservatives with star power.

    "You've got the governor with a famous father, a famous mother, a famous brother, and you've got Frank, who looks like he just stepped out of a department store window," said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg.

    Bush says he asked Brogan to join his ticket in 1993 after his running mate, Sandra Mortham, left amid controversy. It was, Bush says, "one of those light-bulb moments." Bush didn't think Brogan would go for it. "He was cruising to re-election as commissioner of education," the governor recalls.

    In the past four years, Brogan has become a loyal friend to the Bush family. He and the governor have lunch about twice a month, and they frequently wander into each other's offices during the day.

    Brogan's polished wood desk looks like it has never been used because he moves paper so fast. He motivates and delegates, trusting his staff to return with reports. In contrast, Bush is a micromanager who can bristle at criticism. The governor has his public clean-top desk, and then has a separate office where he really works, with his laptop and piles of paper.

    After they were elected, Bush assigned Brogan to deal with a wide range of issues, from nursing homes to growth management.

    "He's very sharp on education issues, not as well-versed in some other issues because he hasn't had experience with them,' said Republican state Sen. Lee Constantine of Altamonte Springs, who worked with Brogan on growth management.

    Lawmakers like to deal with him, though, because he's funny and usually keeps his cool.

    Brogan's comic touch is expected to liven up the finely tuned Bush re-election machine. His campaigning also could position him to succeed Bush in 2006. Bush says he'd support Brogan in a future governor's race. But if Brogan is interested, he isn't saying.

    The last lieutenant governor who tried for the Governor's Mansion was Buddy MacKay, who lost handily to Bush-Brogan.

    "Being lieutenant governor has obviously not been a good path at taking over the Governor's Mansion," said Florida political consultant Jim Kane. "But this particular governor has given a lot of visibility to his lieutenant governor."

    Says Brogan: "Teaching was my dream job. I'd go back to it tomorrow. I'm not one of these guys who has to die a politician."

    But he says he loves this job, and that's clear as he walks through the Capitol, delivering secret smiles to lawmakers who can round up votes for the governor.

    Last week, both sides drew closer on the school code rewrite, the bill that sparked the late-night blow-up during the last special session. The religious language was stripped out. Tempers cooled.

    The bill Brogan had pushed for months finally passed.

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