Senate mellows Storms' ways, but not her passion

The former Hillsborough commissioner compromised, but also stood alone on issues.

Published May 12, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- For 59 days, freshman state Sen. Ronda Storms educated herself on the unwritten rules of the chamber that prides itself on decorum and moderation.

Yes, Storms asked inconvenient questions. Yes, she spoke her mind, even to the most powerful Republicans. But the former Hillsborough County Commissioner from Valrico -- this 41-year-old Republican with a combative reputation -- compromised, too.

She met with Democrats and conceded to moderates from her own party. She formed unlikely alliances on social and consumer issues and sought to expand public disclosure laws.

But at this moment on Day 60, an hour before Senate President Ken Pruitt would gavel the session closed, she couldn't lie down.

What happened next illustrates why Storms was the most talked-about freshman to enter the 2007 Legislature. Tough and principled. Passionate and articulate. Willing to bend until bending means crossing a line.

To supporters, the next hour showed why they elected her. To critics, it showed the brusque inflexibility they resent.

Senate leaders wanted Storms to drop an amendment to increase penalties for repeat child sex offenders to a level they considered extreme. It was voted down in committee, they reminded her. Don't push it, they said.

No chance.

Storms rose from her front-row desk on the Senate floor, turned to face her fellow lawmakers, and issued a blazing plea. She revealed a private conversation in which, she said, other lawmakers told her of an unwritten rule for giving sex offenders three chances before maximizing penalties. She wanted to hit them on the second offense.

"You," she said, pointing to her colleagues, "when you go home to your constituents and you say 'I'm going to be tough on child sexual predators,' do you know about this unwritten rule? ...

"Is that what you believe? And, if that is what you believe, then have the professional courtesy and the courage to say that to your constituents ...'"

Pruitt, the mild-mannered Senate president who, despite Storms' freshman status, had made her the chairman of the committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, interrupted.

"Senator Storms, Senator Storms, " he urged. "I want you to keep it to the amendment."

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It is almost tiresome to repeat the issues that made Storms a household name in Tampa: her opposition to county recognition of gay and lesbian pride events; her push to sterilize convicted child abusers; her concerns over violence and sexually explicit material on government-funded public access television.

"We were expecting some right-wing firebrand who was going to make things miserable for all of us," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach.

For 59 days, that Storms didn't show.

Instead, Storms stopped in at the Democratic Caucus dinner at Tallahassee's Silver Slipper. She was one of a handful of Republicans to attend Geller's swearing-in as Democratic leader.

On one of her banner pieces of legislation -- a bill dealing with parental notification waivers for girls seeking abortions -- she went to great lengths to satisfy concerns of Democrats like Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres.

"I don't think you can say she is partisan," he said. "She is passionate and socially conservative. But her issues are not partisan issues."

The cut-to-the-chase attorney and former English teacher skillfully dug in on issues of all kinds in committee meetings. When she wasn't in meetings she was preparing, often lingering at her desk on the Senate floor long after adjournment, reading, a white throw across her lap.

When a group of foster kids from Hillsborough County stopped in to support a bill before her committee, she sat and chatted with them. A Hillsborough Sheriff's colonel dropping by got an enthusiastic squeeze. A School Board member seated in the Senate gallery received a frantic, happy wave.

On a committee tasked to negotiate a property tax compromise, she noted that tax appraisals vary from county to county -- a point that became an essential part of the debate.

Still, some rolled their eyes when Storms asked pin-point questions showing she'd read the bills, checked the statutes, cross-checked the amendments.

Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, chairman of the Banking and Insurance Committee, frequently expressed exasperation with her inquiries, correcting her every procedural misstep.

Once, when Posey and senior Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, tried to matter-of-factly argue for a change to Posey's bill that would allow cell phone vendors to embed insurance costs in the price of the phone, Storms' dissection stunned the chairman.

Bennett likened Posey's proposal to making a warranty part of the price of a television.

Storms leaned into her mike. "Which is it? Warranty? Or insurance?"

Insurance, a staff analyst answered.

She didn't wait for him to finish. This is an effort to bury the cost of insurance in the price of the phone and label it "free," she said, and nothing is free. "In my opinion, Mister Chair, this is an anticonsumer amendment."

Posey, a 15-year Tallahassee veteran, pulled his bill from the day's agenda. It didn't survive the session.

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They say the last two days of the session are when legislators do the most harm. Amendments fly. Bills of consequence get little debate as minutes evaporate.

The 2007 session ended with a different tone. Early in the last week, lawmakers set aside property tax reform for a special session in June, so they had few contentious bills left to consider.

But Storms entered her final day with two major bills in play.

Bill No. 1: Increase the factors judges must consider before letting young women get abortions without notifying parents, and require those reasons in writing.

Bill No. 2: Stiffen penalties for child predators, with life sentences for adults convicted more than once of lewd or lascivious molestation of a child under 12. Raise some misdemeanor sex offenses to felonies for convicted sex offenders.

On both bills, Storms' most outspoken resistance came from within her own party.

On abortion, Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and others questioned the need to tweak a parental notification law that has survived constitutional challenges, always a threat to such laws.

King admitted he would have been more comfortable if the changes had come from someone else. Say, Lakeland GOP Sen. Paula Dockery, a moderate who had worked on the original law.

"I don't mean to say that Senator Storms is not believed," King said, "it's just that she comes from a different level of intensity in her conviction."

Meanwhile, Senate leaders wanted Storms to loosen some of the penalties in the sex offender bill. She removed a clause making video voyeurism and sex organ exposure a third-degree felony if perpetrated by a convicted sex offender.

But there was more. According to Dockery and Sen. Victor Crist, Storms had agreed during committee to tone down her bill and now, on the floor on the very last day, she was trying to make it tougher again.

"I feel a little bit hoodwinked right now," said Crist, a Tampa Republican. He called Storms' late effort "absolutely wrong and goes against what this organization is and how this organization operates."

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Critics predicted the fiery passion Storms displayed as a county commissioner might be at odds in the Senate, where moderation rules. And though her passion was palpable, not all of her work centered on controversial topics.

She used her committee on Children, Family and Elder Affairs to deal with inefficiencies in the foster care system, rewrite Department of Children and Families laws, and require tougher criminal background checks for guardians.

"The business community, they've got all the lobbyists they need," she said, explaining her interest in child protection. "Nobody lobbies on this."

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On the Senate floor on Day 59, the verdict was in on Bill No. 1, the abortion notification bill: Twenty-four yeas. Fifteen nays.

Four prominent Republicans had voted against her, but the Senate handed Storms a big victory just after noon that Friday. Senators lined up to hug her.

Storms rushed back to her office. "I'm going to press on," she said. "Set this victory aside and move on to that one."

Then, the unexpected.

Her partner in the House, Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, killed the abortion bill on his side of the Capitol. He complained that senators cut out the requirements for sonograms and a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. Storms had compromised, but now he wouldn't.

Storms was stunned, but had no time to mourn. The sex offender amendment, Bill No. 2, was coming to the Senate floor.

Just hours earlier, she seemed headed for two big wins on the last day, but now she was facing back-to-back defeats.

As she took the microphone in her hand, Storms resolved to not back down. She exposed the unspoken rule for sex offenders, and read aloud a newspaper story about a man who offered money to a woman to have sex with her children.

"What do I do?" she asked. "Do I believe what I say ... when I read a story like this and my constituents say 'Throw away the key!' And I pound on the table and I say, 'Yeah, throw away the key'?"

She put them on the spot: "Are you throwing away the key?"

Pruitt called for a voice vote, where lawmakers simply shout a yes or no. The no's won. Four senators -- including J.D. Alexander of Winter Haven -- joined Storms to raise their hands. They wanted a roll-call vote. They wanted names with those votes.

Pruitt stood back, as if waiting for hands to go down. None did. He called for the vote, took a deep breath and shook his head. Seventeen yeas, 20 nays. Two didn't vote, including Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

An hour later, senators streamed into the Capitol rotunda to celebrate the end of the session, smiling, cheering, patting each others backs.

Storms didn't go.

"It's the process," Fasano said, standing inside Storms' office, trying to explain what had happened.

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Storms spent the next weekend grieving with the family of a friend who died of leukemia.

It put that final day in perspective. "I'm not ashamed," she said. "I spent the last moments on the floor trying to do something of great public importance. I wasn't trying to be buried with my dog. I wasn't trying to get money for sports teams."

Some say her tendency to "empty every cartridge" -- her words -- on controversial measures might chip at her credibility in the mild Senate.

But Sen. Don Gaetz, a freshman Republican who sat next to her throughout the session, said her willingness to stand alone on issues of conscience is why her constituents elected her.

Storms said her first session taught her a few things: the Senate is filled with invisible walls you bump into; term limits are good; and next year, she'll introduce another bill to increase penalties for sex crimes.

"A tougher bill," she said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (813) 610-6372 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.