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As his career hits its peak, senator's ambition dwindles

Published March 5, 2007


PORT ST. LUCIE - Visitors to the Pruitt family home can't help but notice the framed picture in the entrance hallway of a striking young man in full Marine regalia.

It is the same portrait that hangs behind the desk of Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt. The young Marine, Midshipman Steven Pruitt, is 19. Friends and colleagues know the picture is more than just the prize of a proud father. It's a reminder of what Ken Pruitt gave up to get to where he is.

"It shook him to the core when his boy left home and went into the service," said friend and retired journalist Nancy Smith, who wrote about Pruitt for years for the Stuart News.

Pruitt, 50, is now one of the three most powerful leaders in Florida, but he has reached this pinnacle at a curious time in his life. A father of five, he is reaping the benefits of nearly two decades of hard work at precisely the same moment that he's coming to appreciate what the years of toil away from home have cost him.

It does not surprise those who know him well that Pruitt has no political ambitions after he finishes his two-year tenure in charge of the Florida Senate.

"I love this, and I appreciate the opportunity, and I'm looking forward to serving these next two years," Pruitt said. "But I'm also looking forward to going home."

Some state politicians rise through the ranks by commanding an acute political savvy or an elegant turn of phrase. But friends and colleagues say Pruitt made his ascent more simply, through hard work.

He has always been an early riser, has always handwritten notes to colleagues and foes and, until recently, has always driven the five-plus hours between home and Tallahassee.

Pruitt made his name, first in the House and then in the Senate, by tackling complicated tasks, like the budget, that consume lots of late nights and weekends in negotiations.

His private life prepared him, perhaps even coaxed him, into such drudgery. He spent much of his career as a well digger, installing water systems throughout South Florida. Later, he branched into real estate.

He did not graduate from a four-year college. His dad is a Korean War veteran who worked at a Miami dump, and his mother waited tables until she died at 43.

His wife of 25 years, Aileen Pruitt, says she's "incredibly proud" of her husband's accomplishments. But she also points out that his hard-fought success came at great personal sacrifice.

"I'm the one who has been here with the kids. I'm the one who helps them with their homework. He does when he can. But it's pretty much me," said Aileen Pruitt, who also works full time as vice president at Harbor Federal Savings Bank.

"That's something you can't get back. That's a huge price to pay. Which is one that he was willing to pay, and he understood when he was doing it. But it is a huge price to pay."

The couple met at her father's company Christmas party. It wasn't quite chance. Pruitt had been working as a water subcontractor for her father, a home builder. Pruitt had spotted Aileen's picture in his office. He worried about whether or not it was wise to have his eye on the daughter of his biggest contract.

"I wasn't real big on going to Christmas parties," Pruitt said. "So I'm like, 'Okay. Am I going to make any more money, or am I going to meet his daughter?' But I just couldn't help it."

He has almost lost her twice. Her first sign of breast cancer was spots of blood on her sports bra that appeared after she finished a run in late 2000. It was also the year of Pruitt's first run for the Senate.

After several surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer abated. It came back in 2004. Her most recent treatment has worked so far. Her goal now is to get her running strength back.

"My wife has just been an incredible soul. She's taken care of me and my family forever," Pruitt said. "Now it's time for me to go home and take care of her."

The Pruitt home is ruled by two teenage daughters, 17 and 16, a son, 13, as well as two silky terriers named Lacy and Petey.

Pruitt's Steven, the midshipman, is studying to be a pilot on a full Naval ROTC scholarship at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona. Pruitt also has a 29-year-old son, Ken Jr., from a brief first marriage.

At home, Pruitt finds peace in books, often a Civil War history or a prayer book, and in riding his lawn mower. Lately he spends time playing with the iPod the family gave him for his January birthday.

Pruitt entered politics at 33. He was making good money digging wells and had just finished a term as president of the local chamber of commerce. He had grown into a fiery conservative. He ran against a 22-year incumbent for a House seat in 1990.

"My chances were slim and none, so I figured I had nothing to lose," Pruitt said.

He served five terms in the House. He got his real estate license and worked on some deals, one of which got Pruitt in hot water. He lobbied the Port St. Lucie City Council as a state legislator to approve a low-income housing project without telling them he would have earned a commission on the deal. The project died.

Before going into real estate, his net worth had fallen during his early legislative years from $173,000 in 1991 to a low of $38,000 in 1997. It has since risen to about $466,000, mostly real estate income.

Though never known for his flash, Pruitt is perhaps best remembered for touring the state in a school bus in late 2003 in a campaign to block cuts to the popular Bright Futures scholarships.

His tour was financed through corporate donors to his political action committee and a nonprofit group that Pruitt declined to identify. He has been criticized for using that tour to raise his political profile, which helped him capture the votes of his colleagues needed to become the president.

Pruitt inherits a Senate, and a Republican caucus, still healing from an outbreak of backbiting that struck early last year. The majority leader and Senate president-designate for 2008, Alex Villalobos of Miami, got sideways with some in his party and was stripped of both his titles.

GOP leaders then tried to have Villalobos unseated in his re-election by running a candidate against him in the primary. The unsuccessful move left hurt feelings among Villalobos' friends, and some were angry that Pruitt, as incoming Senate president, remained neutral in that fight.

Today, although the House and Senate designate future leaders in an orderly procession, the Senate goes into this year's session without knowing who will replace Pruitt when he leaves.

"It's going to take all of his talents to keep the Senate moving forward in a collegial manner," said friend and lobbyist Richard Gentry, who used to lobby for the Home Builders Association and helped raise money for Pruitt.

To heal the wounds, Pruitt stepped back and decided to do something bold. He chose a well-respected, neutral peacemaker, Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, to be his second-in-command. He then restructured the Senate, following a model Webster had created a decade ago as House speaker.

Pruitt and Webster call it "smashing the pyramid." They gave committees significant power, including the authority to decide when legislation should come before the entire chamber for a vote. He gave Democrats a few committee chairmanships and several vice chairmanships.

Pruitt is also taking it slow on the policy front. While his counterpart, House Speaker Marco Rubio, has charged out to lead the debate on property taxes, Pruitt's Senate has yet to offer a proposal.

"I find that the older I get that I don't have to have an opinion on everything," said Pruitt. "I think the senators ought to decide if an idea moves forward."

Webster said he thinks the Senate's success under this new structure could be Pruitt's legacy.

"It depends on what you want to be known for," Webster said. "I think Sen. Pruitt wants to be known for that he made the process a better process. Then you don't have to worry as much about the product."

Webster and others are encouraged by the early results. Although the deal reached during the special session on insurance required the cooperation of many leaders, the Senate is said to have gotten off to a solid start during committee weeks.

The proof? More bills have been killed early in the process than in typical years. Some Senate watchers, including members, think this could mean the chamber is focused on the best ideas and will steer clear of unnecessary fights.

"I believe that the results we had in the special session bore a lot of fruit," Pruitt said in late January. "Some are calling it a honeymoon period, but, quite frankly, this is how government ought to happen in Florida."

Senate President Ken Pruitt

Hometown: Port St. Lucie

Age: 50

Occupation: real estate

Net worth: $466,127

Family: Married, five children

Interests: Civil War history and music


[Last modified March 5, 2007, 10:30:48]

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