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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- An epic battle has begun for control of the Legislature, but not in the usual sense of whether the Republicans will retain their majorities. That, they are certain to do. The real struggle has to do with which of the GOP factions will dominate, especially in the Senate, and what it may owe to Associated Industries of Florida and other lobbies that weigh into the fight.
It's a new and potentially nasty phenomenon in that it goes far beyond the lobbies' natural interest in a business-friendly legislature. Associated Industries says it intends this time to play a decisive role in determining who future Senate presidents and possibly House speakers will be. AIF and its allies may be taking sides -- and spending money -- in Republican primaries to an extent they never dared before
In large measure it will continue a grudge match between Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries, Florida's most vocal business lobby, and John McKay, the departing Senate president. They fell out years ago over insurance issues and curbs on lawsuits. They were at bitter odds this past session over McKay's crusade to repeal sales tax exemptions and over a new regulatory structure that will affect Associated Industries' worker's compensation insurance company.
(Shebel reportedly was upset also at failing to get an amendment to spare the insurance affiliate a disputed $5.5-million back tax bill, though it appears Gov. Jeb Bush had at least as much to do with killing that as the Senate did.)
McKay will be gone but not forgotten, as Shebel vows revenge against several of McKay's key lieutenants. Those include Senate Rules Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who is running for the Senate presidency beginning in November 2004, and Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who managed the tax bill for McKay and hopes to succeed Lee as president in 2006. Though neither is in much danger of being defeated for re-election, they have a common rival for the presidency. He is Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, a former House speaker who hoped to succeed McKay as president this November but lost to Majority Leader Jim King of Jacksonville. Webster, who is perhaps the most conservative member of the Senate, is Shebel's choice against either Lee or Pruitt, however long it takes.
To that end, Shebel says Associated Industries will generally favor Senate candidates who are likely to support Webster. At least two candidates who sought Shebel's support have reported that he asked who they favor for president, but did not exact commitments.
"We're going to be involved definitely in those elections," Shebel said Friday, "more so from our own special interest of getting candidates who are business-oriented elected to make sure that what happened the last two years never happens again."
One such race involves the two Bradenton Republicans who are seeking McKay's term-limited seat. Shebel said he'll back Rep. Mark Flanagan in the primary against Rep. Michael Bennett even though Bennett "has been a good legislator.
"He's been with McKay so we're going to oppose him," Shebel explained.
In the House, there is a deadlocked race for the 2004 speakership between Republicans Gaston Cantens of Miami and Allan Bense of Panama City. It will come down to whose supporters prevail in the September GOP primaries, where Pinellas County could be decisive. While Cantens and Bense have no outward philosophical difference, Bense is more closely aligned with the present House leadership, especially Speaker-designate Johnny Byrd, who is one of his housemates in Tallahassee. With some exceptions -- among them Bense supporters Frank Farkas and Leslie Waters in Pinellas -- urban Republicans tend to favor Cantens. Rural Republicans generally support Bense, whose personal political committee has already received $5,500 from the Associated Industries group.
"We're going to be involved in some House races," Shebel said, "but our focus is the Florida Senate." The Senate, he said, "is a disaster" because of McKay, whom he attacked as a "mean, nasty, vicious guy . . ."
Though Shebel expresses support for both King and Webster, his plans if successful could shake King's claim to the next presidency. King's supporters also tend to be Lee's and Pruitt's, and if enough of them lose, Webster could depose King in November. Shebel says that's not his intent, though he acknowledges it "could happen." However, he said he'll be opposing Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a Webster supporter who's running for the Senate, because "he's an errand boy for the trial lawyers and the medical doctors."
You've got to hand this to Shebel. He's not coy. Or, as Lee put it Friday, "He's not a shy man, is he?"
Associated Industries calls itself the "The voice of Florida business," though it doesn't officially disclose which businesses are members. Its headquarters is a plantation-style mansion, rivaling the governor's home nearby, where the lobby annually presents the capital's largest and most lavish legislative reception. However, it had several conspicuous lobbying failures this year, including Bush's veto of the telephone rate bill. Whether it can actually carry out Shebel's intended political operation isn't so clear. If it doesn't, Associated Industries could emerge as a severely weakened lobby. That risk is why even the strongest lobbies have traditionally refrained from heavy meddling in legislative leadership fights. Another consequence would be to strengthen Lee's and Pruitt's claims to the Senate succession.
"I have not seen it this overt," Lee said Friday. "It's usually a wink and a nod, and it manifests itself in clandestine meetings where strategy is discussed, but not in situations . . . where there's open knowledge of the fact that someone is getting involved in this . . .
"I never expect people to trade old friends for new ones in politics, that's sort of a no-no in my book," Lee added, "but to actively get involved in trying to determine the outcome of a particular legislative leadership battle is both dangerous and unprecedented."
McKay agreed. Dismissing Associated Industries as "simply a paper tiger" when it comes to actually delivering promised campaign support, McKay said he expected it to be just as "ineffectual" at influencing the Senate presidency succession.
"As long as I've been in the Senate," he said, "a lobbying individual or entity has never been involved in selecting the Senate president and I have no indication that the Senate ever wants a lobbyist to be involved in selecting who the next president will be. That should be offensive not only to the Senate but also to all the citizens of Florida."
Citizens who agree may want to watch closely who contributes to whom this summer and fall.