St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Interns who turn heads

Some in Tallahassee notice lobbyist assistants for more than just skills.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
Published May 21, 2006

TALLAHASSEE

Whoever described politics as "show business for ugly people" never went to the state Capitol in the closing days of the legislative session.

As the final amendments fly and favors are called in, the talk among the male-dominated lobbying corps turns to something besides property insurance and eminent domain.

The cause of the distraction: the prominence of attractive young women working as interns or runners for lobbying or law firms.

These women would be conspicuous in this ocean of men in dark suits even if they did not show up in the marble-floored Rotunda dressed in heels and plunging necklines, as some do. Their perceived ability to speed the legislative process seems to be just one of their qualifications.

"They hire these girls because they're drop-dead gorgeous," says Bob Boyd, 42, a lobbyist who has hired interns to monitor legislation. "Let's face it. Some legislators like beautiful women."

Some lobbyist assistants appear to have little to do besides keep track of bills, a job that no longer needs to be done by hand because legislative Web sites are updated in real time.

In past years, lobbyists say, the assistants were called "leaners" because they positioned themselves to gather information by leaning in on a rival lobbyist's conversations.

Recruited from the campus of nearby Florida State University to monitor fast-moving bills, the women themselves are closely monitored.

Lobbyists spend less time staring at their BlackBerry screens and more time judging the annual lobbyist beauty contest known as "Miss Rotunda." The title is bestowed - completely unofficially, and for their own amusement - by a small group of male Capitol insiders.

This session, the winner by acclamation was Jamey Turner, a mass media and journalism major at FSU and sister in Kappa Delta sorority who has helped to raise money for Students Against Drinking and Driving.

Turner, 21, of Panama City, is a native of Chattanooga whose aunt served in the Tennessee Legislature. She was hired as a lobbyist assistant at SCG Governmental Affairs, whose clients include Bay County, Gulf Power Corp. and the Florida Association of Insurance Agents.

"I love it," Turner says. "I think I might get my master's in legislative affairs."

Though she's a registered Democrat, Turner describes herself as "apolitical."

To the obvious question, she answers: "I've made it very clear that I'm here to work. I haven't been pursued, and I haven't pursued."

Asked to name a legislator who impresses her, she mentions Rep. Baxter Troutman, an obscure Republican from Winter Haven. "He's a very nice man. We've had some good conversations."

A moment later, Lane Stephens, a partner at SCG, interrupts the interview to remind Turner to pick up the latest amendments to "the spring training bill," a piece of legislation to keep major league baseball teams training in Florida.

"Jamey is an incredibly talented person," says lobbyist Richard Reeves, the partner in SCG who hired her in January - based on her qualifications, he says.

"I can't help what somebody looks like," Reeves says.

Reeves says Turner was referred by a friend and was hired on the basis of a writing sample and interview. He says she did so well that she's being kept on through the summer to work on local election campaigns, another of SCG's enterprises.

By the time the session ended May 5, "Jamey" was familiar to some legislators, including Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Palm Beach County Democrat, who learned that she has a sister who lives in his Senate district.

Aronberg says he has heard female lobbyist assistants described as "closers," for their perceived ability to close a deal on a bill. He says their role is exaggerated.

"People know they're there. The legislators know they're there," Aronberg says. "There's a need for people to monitor bills, because they're coming fast and furious. I also think there's another use - to attract lawmakers over to them in the middle of a mob.

"I think the reputation is more grandiose than the reality," Aronberg says. "It's really just a bunch of college students watching TV and recording the progress of bills. That's really what it is."

To lobbyist Jim Krog, the real story is the surge in young people's interest in public affairs. He credits the change to the close 2000 presidential vote in Florida, MTV's "Rock the Vote'' and the popularity of political talk shows on cable TV.

"Ten years ago, you couldn't find a student who was interested in politics,'' says Krog, a mentor to student interns from the University of South Florida. Five USF political science students spent the entire 2006 session in Tallahassee, and Krog says some will spend their lives in politics.

"There are some who are extremely attractive. The same goes for some of the guys,'' Krog says. "It's who gravitates to this process and who has an interest in politics.''

Melissa Kuipers, 25, grew up in St. Petersburg and began working as a runner for a Tallahassee law and lobbying firm as an 18-year-old FSU student. She parlayed that into a paid position with the Rubin Group, another lobbying firm.

Kuipers says she was once considered for the coveted title of Miss Rotunda but didn't win, and she considers the contest harmless fun that relieves the stress and anxiety of an intense 60-day legislative session.

"It lightens things up," Kuipers says. "I don't find it offensive at all."

Her work as a teenage runner started Kuipers on a path to politics and the law. After getting a law degree at the University of Miami, she now practices law in Coral Gables and returns to the Capitol every spring to lobby and network as a leader of a Republican trial lawyers' group.

Every session, Kuipers says, she notices a few more attractive women in the crowd.

"The location of the Capitol is a great incentive for a lot of people who want to get involved in the political process," Kuipers says. "And being attractive doesn't hurt."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.