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Legislature 2004

For some lobbyists, a quixotic pursuit

They work long hours to catch lawmakers' attention. Even advocates for cities and counties seek respect.

Published April 29, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - They don't have big expense accounts or thousands of dollars to dump into the campaigns of lawmakers.

Most have no staff. The Capitol snack bar or a convenient hallway often serves as a temporary office.

In a Legislature where money counts for everything and business interests come first, lobbyists for local governments and public interests have to work harder to be heard.

"We beg a lot," said William Broughton, Sarasota County's lobbyist. "Our knowledge of local government and personalities are about all we have to work with."

Well-heeled lobbyists in expensive suits zip around town in fancy cars, get their clients to donate millions of dollars to legislative campaigns and spend thousands on catered lunches at the Capitol and quiet dinners at restaurants around Tallahassee.

Broughton gets $500 a year to entertain legislators. A few rounds of tuna sandwiches quickly consume that.

The Pinellas County Commission's idea of entertaining legislators is an annual luncheon with the local delegation. The fare: sandwiches and soft drinks from Pickles Plus, a downtown Clearwater deli.

Every Tuesday during the Legislature's annual 60-day session, the lobbyists for city and county governments meet to discuss common concerns.

"This year we are spending a lot of time guarding what we have," said Pinellas County lobbyist Elithia Stanfield.

"I feel like Don Quixote," said Broughton.

This year's windmill: $90-million counties must find to operate juvenile detention centers.

Broughton and a couple of dozen lobbyists are fighting a losing battle against lawmakers who are determined to make the counties pick up the tab for juvenile detention centers that have previously been financed by the state.

Stanfield had to call home with the bad news: The county must find $5.5-million to run the juvenile center for the coming year.

These lobbyists not only fight for a share of the state budget, but they often fight businesses trying an end run around local regulations by getting a special law passed.

This year the Florida League of Cities and environmentalists joined forces to fight bills that would allow cellular phone towers in state parks, residential neighborhoods or on pristine lands without approval from local governments or environmental agencies. The bills are still pending.

Environmental lobbyists often use news conferences to generate attention and grass roots support.

"You definitely don't have their ear at dinner," said Susie Caplowe, lobbyist for the Sierra Club and the Florida Consumer Action Network. "In fact you really don't have their ear at all. There is widespread disregard for the opinions of the non-paying public - those who can't contribute to campaigns."

Some lobbyists hand out embossed coffee cups, expensive candy, flowers and food baskets.

"We give out position papers," said Caplowe. "But I never know if they even make it into a recycle bin."

A former social worker, Caplowe, 50, worked for IBM for 10 years before volunteering as a lobbyist in 1992. Her husband, Dan Hendrickson, is an assistant public defender in Leon County and occasionally helps out with environmental causes. They met at a Sierra Club meeting.

Audubon lobbyist Eric Draper says a few environmental lobbyists take some of their own time to work on campaigns but work without pay.

"You can be standing talking to a legislator when one of the money people walks by and you can see the legislator's interest shift as they reach out to them," Draper said. "You don't find environmental groups putting on golf tournaments or going to out-of-town legislative conferences."

Government and environmental lobbyists have tough jobs, but those who represent children, farm workers, the homeless and others with little money are in even more desperate circumstances.

Karen Woodall, a 46-year-old volunteer lobbyist for farm worker and children's health care issues, began lobbying 24 years ago as an intern for Budd Bell, a legendary volunteer lobbyist who has spent 32 years fighting for children and other social causes.

"There is absolutely no concern over what we bring to them," said Bell, now in her 80s. "No one has time to listen. It's a really cold atmosphere. The new crew doesn't know what to make of someone who can't take them out to the country club. And I tend to talk about kids and that turns them off. Kids can't bring them money."

Woodall doesn't own a million-dollar house or drive a BMW like many of the business lobbyists. She drives a 1993 Pontiac Sunbird with at least 190,000 miles on it (the odometer broke long ago).

She rents an apartment in a house that doubles as an office for her business, People's Advocacy Center for Training. The basement and attic serve as temporary sleeping quarters for farm workers or others who travel to Tallahassee to catch lawmakers' attention.

"Instead of putting people up at the Doubletree, I stuff them in my basement and attic and have them sleeping on the floors," said Woodall. "We've had 32 people there overnight at times."

Farm workers often drive through the night to get to the Capitol to press for bills to help some of the state's poorest residents.

"They get here at the crack of dawn and try to understand the process, often in a different language," Woodall said.

Broward County's lobbyists are more fortunate. They have three county commissioners who once served in the Legislature: former Senate President Jim Scott and former Reps. Josephus Eggelletion and Ben Graber. And Sheriff Ken Jenne and Circuit Clerk Howard Forman are former senators. They speak the legislative language and can help get things done.

Several counties, including Broward and Pinellas, beef up their lobbying staff with contract lobbyists who also represent a stable of well-heeled clients who have ready access to lawmakers because their other clients can donate millions in campaign dollars.

Florida's 20 state attorneys each spend a week beside Arthur I. "Buddy" Jacobs, their lobbyist for the past 35 years.

This week it's Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe's turn.

The prosecutors donate no money to lawmakers, but they do throw an annual cocktail party in the Capitol. Each prosecutor donates $75 from his own pocket to pick up the tab.

Denny Wood, who has used a wheelchair for 40 years because of an industrial accident, lobbies for the handicapped. These days he rolls around the Capitol pushing for improvements in vocational rehabilitation and access to facilities.

He's not happy with a Capitol that has at least 15 newly remodeled restrooms with no wheelchair access. He recently distributed the results of his own Capitol tour: inadequate parking for the disabled, water fountains that are too high, inaccessible bathrooms, missing handrails and lecterns in committee rooms too high for wheelchairs.

"Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted in this illegal construction," Wood noted in a letter to lawmakers.

Some government and volunteer lobbyists say term limits hurt their causes by forcing out lawmakers who understood their issues. "There are so many new people that have no history with me," Woodall said. "I don't have a team of 10 people to go around and educate legislators. I never realized the impact it would have on us."

All of them face daily examples of the effectiveness of lobbyists with money to spend.

Can poor people get a bill passed?

"Yes, but it becomes more and more difficult due to term limits and the pressure to raise money," said Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville. "The idea behind term limits was that we wouldn't be looking for other jobs, but it's the reverse. Everyone immediately starts thinking about how to raise money. It is a constant priority."

It's almost impossible for an amateur to pass a bill against professional lobbyists, Smith said.

Former House Speaker Ralph Haben recalled a day when a lobbyist for the homeless could get all kinds of things done.

"You can't do it anymore unless you come up with the exact right cause at the exact right moment," Haben said.

[Last modified April 29, 2004, 01:35:43]

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