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Lawmaker, 70, proves a quick study

State Rep. Tom Anderson dives in at a tumultuous time in Tallahassee, but five of six measures he introduces pass.

By LEON M. TUCKER
Published June 22, 2003

DUNEDIN - There was something about the fly that buzzed around Tom Anderson's office that spoke about the latest stage of his political career.

Maybe it was the way the tiny pest swirled and looped in the air, seemingly unsure about which way to go.

Or the way Anderson grabbed at the elusive fly, determined to capture the bug.

It was all a bit like his first session in the Florida House of Representatives.

Anderson, elected in November to represent Pasco and Pinellas' District 45, was challenged in his first outing as a state representative in both mind and lanky, 70-year-old body: the special sessions, the committee meetings, the party influence and the walking all took its toll.

And in what was considered the most hostile and disorganized session in Florida history, there was Anderson. The Republican sat in the second to the last row of the chamber trying to find his place.

"The first couple of months were quite confusing," said Anderson, speaking from his Main Street Dunedin office recently. "I thought I had a big advantage there by being familiar with the Sunshine Law and parliamentary procedures."

He was mistaken.

As the oldest freshman in the House, Anderson started early - studying the process soon after his election. In February, he and his wife, Alice, packed up their new camper and headed to Tallahassee.

The couple would live in that camper for the next four months.

"I was a little surprised when I got up to Tallahassee, because there was a lot of reading and a lot to learn," said Anderson. "But it was a good experience, and I look forward to seven more years."

A confident statement, perhaps.

But considering Anderson introduced six bills and resolutions and paced off 5 miles a day (he measured his steps with a belt odometer) around the Capitol doing so, it may not be that inconceivable.

"This was all new to me," said Anderson. "This procedure of appearing before committees and presenting bills, it took a little bit of time."

Five passed. One will assist rural communities with library expansion. Another will require homeowners to disclose their association bylaws to potential buyers. Two others focused on traveling expenses for city employees and encouraging every city and county in the state to implement the state's Communities for a Lifetime elder-ready initiative.

A resolution to recognize Tarpon Springs artist Christopher M. Still was also unanimously received by the House.

A New York native, Anderson served two terms on the Dunedin City Commission and three terms as mayor. He resigned as mayor to run for the House seat.

Anderson sat on a number of legislative committees, including one on elder affairs and long-term care. He served as vice chairman of the Future of Florida's Families Committee.

Despite his committee involvement, Anderson said he tried to keep a low profile on the House floor.

"I think I made mostly friends," Anderson said through a chuckle. "But when you vote against someone's bill, people don't like you."

Keeping a low profile also sometimes means going along with the party leaders.

He followed House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's lead on the Everglades bill, which seeks to delay for 10 years the reduction of phosphorus pollution.

He voted for the worker's compensation bill, which is intended to lower businesses' premiums by sharply curtailing the benefits to injured workers.

He voted in favor of a House malpractice insurance reform calling for a cap of $250,000 on awards for pain-and-suffering damages. The Senate favored a $500,000 cap with exceptions, and legislators are still struggling to resolve their differences in special session.

"When you read about some of these (malpractice) settlements of $50-million and $60-million, it's way out of line," he said. "And if doctors start leaving our state we're going to have some problems with health care."

Then there were the 50- and 60-page bills he didn't fully understand, "so on those I went along with the leadership," he said.

But sometimes Anderson bucked the leadership.

Among the Republican-sponsored bills Anderson voted against was the "raiding the cultural arts and historic trust fund." The Legislature this year cut back the amount of money set aside for arts programs from $28-million last year to a little more than $6-million.

"I knew what the leadership position was, and I knew how they wanted me to vote," he said. "but when I didn't vote that way, I didn't feel like they were putting undue pressure on me."

Once, Anderson voted his gut, directly in opposition to a bill sponsored by Byrd.

Byrd, of Plant City, sponsored a bill to block Tampa Bay Water from pumping water at a well field in Hillsborough County.

The bill didn't pass during the regular session. It was introduced during the special session, but no action has been taken because the Legislature is focused on the medical malpractice insurance crisis.

"The speaker is a very powerful position," Anderson said. "You don't want to cross him too many times."

Anderson said the budget gap between the House and Senate wasn't that wide. Last month, the House and Senate versions of the budget were only $300-million apart, he said. The budget is $53.5-billion.

"This is the only legislative session I've ever been to, so I really have no basis for comparison, but I did not detect any strong animosity," Anderson said of relations between the two legislative bodies. "I just detected people with different philosophies between the House and the Senate."

Democratic House Leader Doug Wiles of St. Augustine sat behind Anderson during the house session and described his neighbor as "thoughtful" and "careful."

"He appeared to be carefully looking at what he was doing while he was on the floor," Wiles said. "I think he takes the process very seriously and endeavors to do the best he can - given all of this is on a very steep learning curve for a new member."

But if anyone knows about Anderson's first crack at state politics it's his wife, Alice.

"It was hard starting off being the head of an organization (mayor) to starting at the bottom, but I think he's got the feel and the hang of it," she said.

Back inside Anderson's Dunedin office, the conversation over pretzels and bottled water turns to what it's like being the oldest freshman in the house.

Has anyone called him gramps or pops? Anderson laughs, answers no, and then pauses.

"I'm okay with that," he said. "I have a great empathy for younger people who are willing to serve in the state Legislature, who have families and careers, because it is a very demanding position."

Meanwhile, the fly buzzing around zeros in on the bag of Rold Gold pretzels in Anderson's hand.

Anderson grabs at the corner of the package like a teenager snatching free money from his parents' hands. He looks up with a grin of accomplishment.

"I think I got it," he said.

- Staff Writer Julie Hauserman and Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leon M. Tucker can be reached at 727 445-4167 or tucker@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]


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