Leading the Legislature: Tom Feeney
By SHELBY OPPEL
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- In the same chamber where he demands decorum from others, House Speaker Tom Feeney stepped to a podium last month and opened verbal fire.
Railing against the "liberal orthodoxy," he carved up union bosses, "edu-crats," editorial writers and other "apologists for the status quo" who object to Republican efforts to improve public schools.
Once finished, he offered immediate analysis of his performance to reporters who had gathered:
"I had fun."
Florida has had plenty of House speakers, but none quite like Thomas Charles Feeney III.
Feeney, a 42-year-old with a ruddy face and a curly mop of graying brown hair, once played Richard Nixon in a fifth-grade mock election. He is a notorious late sleeper, an avid reader who quotes Adam Smith and James Madison, a hockey player who switches between Alexis de Tocqueville and Johnny Cash on his car stereo.
Feeney is the first speaker whose rise can be attributed largely to the term limits approved by voters in 1992, a hard-line conservative once lampooned for his firebrand rhetoric who is now a veteran in charge of a record number of impressionable freshman lawmakers.
For Feeney, the son of two retired public school teachers, it is the ultimate teachable moment. Typically, he is coming out fighting.
Starting Tuesday, he wants to cut taxes, overhaul the state Supreme Court that he says oversteps its bounds, expand school voucher programs, open the wholesale energy market to competition and limit damage awards against nursing homes.
"He's a classic gladiator," said former state Rep. Chris Corr, a close friend. "He's somebody who's not afraid of getting into the arena and mixing it up."
During Florida's presidential election, Feeney made a name for himself by insisting state lawmakers had a constitutional obligation to name electors who would deliver victory to Republican George W. Bush. His recitations of the Federalist Papers made him a target for Democrats and a hero to GOP loyalists.
His conservative fervor began early in life, back in Cheltenham, a suburb of Philadelphia.
"Oddly enough, it was quite liberal," Feeney's father, Tom Jr., 70, said of the community.
Feeney, though, was handing out Republican campaign literature at age 7. He played Nixon a few years later -- "before he committed any crimes," Feeney recalls -- and read the founding fathers' works on his own in junior high.
His father was a high school math teacher and, later, a community college instructor and assistant dean. His mother, Betty, taught first grade after Feeney and his three younger sisters were grown.
An above-average student, he always was organizing friends into toy soldier battles and baseball games, his father said. Briefly, he wanted to be a criminal defense attorney, and he read countless books on the Mafia.
"We were a little frightened," his father said.
The family occasionally attended Presbyterian services, and Feeney spent summers in church camp memorizing Bible verses, his father said. In high school, he played hockey and debated.
At Penn State University in the late 1970s, Feeney eschewed fraternity life for politics. As a senior, he campaigned for student body president in a seven-way election, offering himself as the conservative alternative to a liberal campus. He finished second.
"He ran one of the only ideological campaigns I've seen for student body president," said U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a fellow College Republican.
"The debates during the campaign, they were quite involved, and he was at the center of them. It was him against the rest of them.,"Santorum said.
As a second-year law student at the University of Pittsburgh, Feeney was introduced to Ellen Stewart, an undergraduate studying chemical engineering.
"He asked me what my major was, and I thought that was kind of a dorky question. The more I knew him, the more charming he was," she said.
She agreed to follow Feeney to Florida after he determined that it offered better job opportunities and a more "pro-business" brand of politics than their home state. The two later married. On Hollywood Beach in the summer of 1983, Feeney and a college buddy split the cost of a hotel room to study for the Florida Bar exam.
When not in Tallahassee, Feeney practices real estate and business law in Orlando, representing developers and local governments. Friends say he has a taste for Budweiser and spicy foods but keeps trim with daily jogs and roller hockey with his eldest son.
Ellen Feeney works at Kennedy Space Center, where she has been a chemical engineer for 16 years, specializing in waste water treatment.
Feeney won election to the House from Orlando in 1990 and emerged as a classic back-row bomb-thrower. At the time, Republicans were in the minority.
He was an early advocate of school vouchers, almost 10 years before Gov. Jeb Bush signed them into law. In what he said was a symbolic gesture, he co-sponsored a House resolution that called for the dissolution of the United States if the federal deficit rose too high. He proposed a state database to track abortions without identifying women by name and argued that parents should be notified if schools intended to teach yoga.
"All I'm saying is, before you're going to do yoga, please go get mom and dad's permission," he said at the time.
Jeb Bush surprised many when he picked Feeney, then 36, as his running mate in Bush's first gubernatorial bid. Opponents quickly used Feeney's record to label him as too dangerous to lead.
"Spooky," warned then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. Former Gov. Claude Kirk called him "a walking mental paraplegic." Even Bush said he "may be a loose cannon."
Bush's loss was blamed in part on Feeney's radical image. Feeney bristles at the memory.
"It's an easy thing to say: Well, this is some right-wing Christian fanatic who probably is going to lead us into some jihad ... I think it was a huge miscaricature," he recalled.
The Christian Coalition awarded Feeney 100 percent on its most recent legislative scorecard for his support of issues such as parental notification for minors seeking abortions and the creation of the "Choose Life" license tag.
Feeney, a Presbyterian, sometimes attends the Catholic church of which his wife and sons, Tommy, 8, and Sean, 2, are members. The boys were baptized in their mother's faith, Feeney said, because "Ellen, for all intents and purposes, is primarily raising the kids because I'm gone four months a year."
Feeney speaks more of political philosophy than of faith, advocating a "civil society" in which "free individuals without undue coercion or burdens from government can make decisions about their own lives."
That means less government regulation and fewer taxes. He receives high marks from the powerful business lobby Associated Industries of Florida. In a House debate in the early 1990s, another lawmaker asked, "How can we do more with less?"
"Feeney asked, "How can we do less with less?' " recalled Corr, the former state representative from Apollo Beach.
Feeney, who opposes abortion except when the mother's life is endangered, says that stance does not conflict with his passion for individual freedom.
"If you believe that the unborn child is a human life, then you have the obligation to protect that life," he said.
When Feeney returned to the House in 1996 in a special election -- he replaced Marvin Couch, a Republican who resigned after he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute -- he was perceived as an old hand in state politics. He also was seen as close to Bush, then planning a second run for governor.
Both elements, and the Republican takeover of the House in 1996, aided his ascension to the Speaker's dais. "It was a matter of experience in a sea of inexperience," said Rep. Jerry Maygarden, a Pensacola Republican.
As he gained power, Feeney pushed to reduce taxes and protect businesses from lawsuits, supported a "health care reform" package that conspicuously excluded patients' right to sue HMOs, and created a new House committee for information technology to help Florida become "Silicon Beach."
Known as an aggressive fundraiser and campaigner, Feeney raised $451,000 for his 2000 race, more than six times what his Democratic rival collected. When his staff learned his travel agent had donated $50 to his opponent, she was fired.
Feeney is now in his fifth two-year term.
In the election drama last year, Feeney was among the first to insist that the Legislature name a separate slate of electors for George W. Bush, in case Al Gore's legal challenges kept Florida's votes from reaching the Electoral College in time to be counted.
Democrats were enraged. Feeney was unapologetic. Even when the U.S. Supreme Court made the Legislature's action unnecessary, Feeney couldn't help but rub it in. As he watched Gore's televised concession speech at a private party, a reporter overheard Feeney call the former vice president "a loser" and his speech "evil."
"I apologize to the extent my remarks offended anyone," he said later.
Yet Feeney has impressed Democrats by granting them some favorable committee assignments and allowing equal time for debate.
"You can be mean-spirited, you can be sharp, you can be arrogant, you can be all those adjectives and have his same beliefs, but he's not," said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader.
But in Feeney's House, debate will have its limits.
"When I think things are going askew from the lodestar that the founders set forth," he said recently, "then I feel compelled to try to explain to people where we ought to be going."
Thomas Charles Feeney III
Education: Penn State University, bachelor's degree in political science, 1980; University of Pittsburgh Law School, J.D., 1983
Family: Married 17 years to Ellen, 40. Two sons, Sean, 2, and Tommy, 8, a third-grader at a public elementary school.
Occupation: lawyer, House Speaker; served 1990-1994 in House; Jeb Bush chose him as running mate in 1994 gubernatorial bid, lost; served 1996 to present in House.
Last book read: A Matter of Interpretation, by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Amy Gutmann
Musical tastes: Soft "classic rock," Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen
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