tampabay.com

As a maverick thrives, a county watches

By GREG HAMILTON
Published May 7, 2006


There is no doubt that Nancy Argenziano is now a recognized player in the high-stakes political games of the state Senate. The only question is, will Citrus County and the rest of her sprawling district win or lose as a result?

Never a wallflower, the Dunnellon Republican has rattled the cages of her brethren in the House and Senate, and occasionally a few lobbyists and the governor, since hitting Tallahassee like a tsunami in 1996.

She may leave ears ringing, but she never leaves anyone wondering where she stands on an issue. Adhering tenaciously to her principles, best described as moderate-conservative, is one of the traits that resonates best with her constituents.

This year, she has been at the epicenter of the most bitter backroom battles in the upper chamber, power struggles over who will lead the Senate in the coming years. But one of the horses she is backing is losing ground, rapidly.

There is no chance, of course, that she will abandon her allies. Will this loyalty, in turn, harm the people of Citrus County if the GOP leaders she is bucking choose to retaliate?

This is not idle speculation. Consider the bruising session her colleague Alex Villalobos has endured.

Villalobos, a moderate Cuban-American from Miami, went into the session as the heir apparent to the Senate presidency in 2008-10. Then, in February, in what Argenziano called "the most dishonorable thing I've seen in all my years here," a group of conservative Republicans cut his legs out from under him.

Interestingly, the coup that aims to dump Villalobos in favor of Sen. Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach had the support of Citrus County's other senator, Mike Fasano. While praising Villalobos as "an outstanding senator and person," he said the Senate is moving to a more conservative philosophy and, "I think Jeff is the right person to carry that forward."

That battle is still unresolved, and it carried over into last week's bare-knuckles brawl.

Gov. Jeb Bush, in his last year in office, has been pushing the return of private school vouchers and the weakening of the class size amendment. With his party in control of both chambers, Bush had good reason to believe he would prevail in undermining the will of the people of Florida, as spoken through their vote to reduce class sizes, and the Florida Supreme Court, which found the voucher program unconstitutional.

But a handful of senators beat back both attempts last week. Leading the Republican rebels: Villalobos and Argenziano.

His own party wasted no time in punishing Villalobos, publicly humiliating him by stripping him the next day of his role as Senate majority leader. Standing firm with Villalobos was Argenziano. "I think if the voters out in the world knew that you can't vote for what you believe in without being retaliated against, they'd be appalled," she told the St. Petersburg Times.

While much of this intrigue is a narcotic only for political junkies, the ramifications could affect all of us on the home front.

Getting things done in the Senate is all about building alliances, finding support for your priorities by bartering your own backing of someone else's pet projects. As compelling an advocate as Argenziano is for her bills and agenda, she can't go it alone. Potential supporters now must consider the possible political costs of being in league with the rebels.

This is hardly new ground for our senator. Over the years, she has battled forcefully with Bush over a number of issues, has ticked off the leadership from time to time and has been removed as chairman from at least one Senate committee in response. There was also that infamous 2001 incident involving a lobbyist and 25 pounds of cow manure; the less said about that episode the better.

In a perfect world, it would be a badge of honor to align yourself with a colleague who grasps the notion of being an independent thinker, someone who is unafraid to stand up for principles. Reality, however, is a lot less noble. Mavericks are marginalized, their agendas scuttled by the political heavy hitters.

So far, Argenziano has not only survived her own outbursts, she clearly is thriving in the capital. There has been no public indication that her district will be made to pay for her recent decisions.

But with a handful of items crucial to Citrus County resting in the state budget and needing the governor's signature, the stage is set for retribution. And as the past week shows, Bush and his legislative allies are not above retaliation.

In the spirit of giving credit where due, it has been Fasano and State Rep. Charlie Dean who have been most instrumental in getting into the budget $2.5-million for a new Emergency Operations Center for Citrus as well as $2-million for the Chassahowitzka sewer and water projects, and $85,000 for the Nokomis Point sewer project.

For her part, Argenziano raised eyebrows locally for opposing sewers for Chassahowitzka, arguing that septic systems would be a better fit. She also disputes the validity of studies that have shown that the waters there are polluted.

She also proposed a bill that had county and municipal officials around the state up in arms, a measure that would have all but killed governments' ability to finance central water and sewer projects by allowing property owners to opt out of hooking into the new systems.

It is unfair to rate Argenziano's efforts based solely on a couple of local matters. She has been a tireless and fearless fighter this session on statewide issues such as the Jessica Lunsford Act, telecommunications, nursing home care, the role of the Public Service Commission and that of the public counsel, and numerous other matters.

But, as the saying goes, all politics are local and citizens will want to know how their community fared in this tumultuous session. When the dust settles in the coming days, we'll know.

In the meantime, Citrus County must accept that we are represented by a high-spirited maverick, and that we are all along for the ride.