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Byrd's 'sheep' analogy riles House colleagues

Several members say Speaker Johnnie Byrd's remark that they are "looking for someone to tell them what to do" is insulting.

STEVE BOUSQUET
Published February 26, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - House Speaker Johnnie Byrd has set off a furor in his ranks by comparing House members to sheep.

In a lengthy interview Tuesday with the Tampa Tribune editorial board, the Plant City Republican said his efforts to "push decision-making down" to rank-and-file members hasn't worked.

"They're like sheep in a way," Byrd said of House members, more than two-thirds of whom are Republicans. "They're looking for someone to tell them what to do."

As House members read Byrd's comments in Wednesday's Tribune, their long-simmering frustration over his leadership style erupted in public. Some lawmakers publicly criticized him or demanded changes that would reduce Byrd's power.

House members discussed the potential damage Byrd's comments could cause just days before the start of the legislative session and whether he could be removed as speaker.

"I think it was a very poor choice of words," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "A sheep is a passive animal that follows other sheep into getting fleeced or slaughtered. The people of Manatee County don't have a sheep representing them."

Galvano suggested Byrd's comments belittled his constituents. "I've got 133,000 people looking to me to provide leadership," he said. "What does that say to them?"

Rep. Don Sullivan, a newly elected St. Petersburg Republican who spent a decade in the more collegial Senate, said House rules allow Byrd and his staff "to dictate the entire agenda." After five months in the House, Sullivan said, he has not voted on any substantive bill in any committee, an experience he called "discouraging."

"There's something wrong here," Sullivan said. "The process in the House has gone awry."

Byrd's top lieutenants were in an awkward position. House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, did not defend him. Rubio said he wanted to talk with Byrd before making a statement.

Byrd's comments are the latest in a string of controversies for him, ranging from his buildup of the House public relations office to his criticism of Republican senators as tax-and-spenders. Byrd's latest remarks came at an especially awkward time, days before lawmakers head back to the Capitol for Tuesday's start of the annual 60-day session.

Byrd did not return phone calls seeking comment. His new press secretary, Tom Denham, on the job less than a week, issued a statement that said Byrd "respects every one of his colleagues. ... In the future, he promises to refrain from any additional farm animal analogies."

Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, said he hoped Byrd had been misquoted. But Byrd did not deny making the remarks.

"This just makes no sense," Mayfield said. "This is a hell of a way to start out."

The Tribune also reported that Byrd called Senate President Jim King "pro-abortion." The Jacksonville Republican said he "leans" in favor of abortion rights.

Byrd also said the end of taxpayer-supported public schools "could be the next renaissance in education." The 90-minute discussion included seven editorial writers and a political reporter.

In response, King said he would not "take off the gloves," as staff members suggested. He said the decorum Floridians expect from the Legislature should preclude criticism of another's leadership style.

"So much for a session filled with harmony, sweetness and light," King said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who is in line to succeed King as Senate president in the fall, was less charitable.

"It reflects pretty negatively on his perception of his colleagues," Lee said. "I'm certain that he's cognizant of the fact that that's not how the Senate operates, and it wasn't the way the House operated under Dan Webster."

Webster, a state senator, is one of Byrd's Republican opponents in the U.S. Senate race.

On the subject of sheep, Byrd singled out Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, citing her refusal last year to vote with her fellow Republicans who wanted to reject federal money for women's health awareness programs. After that vote, Byrd removed Murman as chair of a House committee.

Murman said she was not offended by Byrd's comments, though she said Byrd called her Wednesday and "we cleared the air and moved on."

The Tribune quoted Murman as saying: "We all use analogies like that. I think of sheep as kind animals. They're just out in the field working hard for the farm."

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said Byrd's view of public education offended him more than his reference to sheep. But Gelber said Democrats will have fun at Byrd's expense by making a bleating "baaa" sound the first time Byrd demands party-line loyalty from House Re publicans.

Times staff writer Joni James and political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to t hi s report.
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