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  • Leading the Legislature: John McKay
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    Leading the Legislature: John McKay

    House speaker Tom Feeney, a conservative "gladiator,'' is unapologetic for his rhetoric. Senate President John McKay, a onetime Democrat, has overcome many obstacles to reach his position of power. The session begins Tuesday.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- As political comebacks go, this one was a wild ride on the fiercest roller coaster.

    State Sen. John McKay came crashing down in 1996, forced from his top post in the Legislature after an affair with a lobbyist. Today, he is Senate President, more powerful than ever.

    How did he climb back? Here are a few ways:

    This January, McKay quietly awarded former state Sen. Jim Scott and his law firm a $450,000 contract to advise the state Senate on redistricting. A few years earlier, Scott had helped line up votes to make McKay Senate president.

    Once in control, McKay gave the powerful job of Senate Appropriations chairman to Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park. Horne once was McKay's competitor for the president's job but agreed to step aside.

    And Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, got the influential job of Senate Majority Leader. He helped McKay raise millions for political campaigns that would keep Republicans in power.

    Come Tuesday, this sixth-generation Floridian, a child of Polk County with a long family pedigree in Hillsborough County politics, begins his first Legislative session as Senate President. McKay's calm image -- often with glasses resting gently on his nose -- belies a steely focus.

    This is the same man who resigned his chairmanship of a top Senate committee after an adulterous affair with a telecommunications lobbyist was disclosed. He has weathered abuse allegations from his ex-wife. He has struggled with his troubled investments in real estate development.

    How does he persevere?

    He uses tactics found in real estate dealmaking: a cool exterior. Tough talking only when it counts. And what one colleague calls a "colorful vocabulary."

    "You listen a lot, you say very little, you keep your thoughts to yourself. I think that's his training as a negotiator," observed Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

    "He will be very clear and convey to you exactly what you did that didn't please him. I've had a couple of those," added King, the Majority Leader.

    For his part, McKay, 52, describes himself as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a businessman, a Southerner. "What you see is what you get," the Bradenton Republican is fond of saying.

    But not even his closest allies buy that. "He's probably one of the toughest reads I've been around," said King, who has served in the Legislature for 15 years.

    * * *

    In Tallahassee, John McKay is best known for two things: He survived disclosures about his personal life and he steered a calm course during last December's elections recount battle.

    But in Bradenton, court and police records show a different side of McKay:

    His private ventures in real estate development have come close to financial disaster. Last year, he nearly lost his main project, a Sarasota office complex, in a foreclosure sale. McKay cut a deal at the last minute to save the property.

    A string of business operating losses also allowed McKay to pay little or no income taxes for more than a decade during the 1980s and 1990s, court records show. During that time, McKay earned six-figure incomes and maintained a lifestyle that included a home worth at least $720,000, a beach house and private school for his three daughters.

    McKay says he has complied with federal tax laws -- "I don't even go into gray areas" -- but he knows it is hard for the average person to understand that he could legally defer paying taxes because of the business losses. He is now paying income taxes, he said.

    McKay went through a nasty divorce in 1996 and 1997 that involved allegations of domestic violence by his estranged wife.

    Deborah Dye said McKay grabbed her by the hair and neck, pushed her to the ground and threatened to kill her during an argument in April 1997. McKay told a sheriff's deputy that he never touched his wife, that she was verbally abusing him and trying to ruin him.

    There were no witnesses, and the deputy observed no injuries. A circuit judge ordered McKay to stay away from his wife. Later, the state attorney's office declined to prosecute, citing too little evidence to take to trial.

    In October 1999, McKay's new wife, Michelle, called 911, and officers came to their home. Police labeled the situation a "domestic disturbance, verbal only." McKay said he and his wife were discussing the pressures of public life when Mrs. McKay dialed 911 to illustrate a point. She never intended the call to go through and didn't speak to anyone, McKay said in a written statement about the incident.

    Michelle McKay declined to comment for this story. Friends say she is smart and politically astute; she is the niece of former House Speaker Don Tucker, and her nickname was "the warden" when she was a legislative aide.

    In 1995, she was Michelle Dodson, a lobbyist for Sprint Corp. McKay was chairman of a top Senate committee and was a main player in a bill to deregulate local phone service.

    Married for 24 years, McKay acknowledged an affair with Dodson and resigned his new job as Senate Ways and Means chairman in December 1996. McKay and Dodson, now 33, later married.

    Florida’s public counsel, a state utilities expert, determined after McKay resigned that the telecommunications legislation did not benefit one company over another.

    And gradually, quietly, McKay launched his comeback.

    With the help of then-Senate President Toni Jennings, McKay got one of the most important jobs in the Senate in 1998. He was named Rules chairman, which gave him the power to let lawmakers' bills come up for a vote.

    He began to persuade colleagues to vote for him for Senate President, selling himself in one-on-one dinners or on golf outings. His colleagues and others in the capital just didn't believe the nasty allegations about him.

    "He is one of the calmest people I've ever met," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, whose temper has been known to flare in the capital. "There's been more than one occasion when I've gone to his office upset about something. He has always maintained his composure with a low tone of voice."

    McKay also knew how to reward his friends, such as former state Sen. Scott, a political veteran who used his influence to help put McKay in the Senate President's office. Later, Scott, a lawyer who no longer serves in the Senate, got a two-year contract from McKay to help the Senate redraw political districts. Scott said he is a veteran of redistricting battles and took a pay cut in the contract to $235 an hour. Competitive bidding was not required for the contract. But McKay also rose to the top because of his resilience, evident since he was a young man.

    * * *

    Never a particularly good student, John McKay faced his folks in Winter Haven in 1968 after two years at the University of South Florida. He was giving up.

    "He didn't really think he wanted to finish school," his mother, Ann McKay, 77, recalled.

    McKay's father, an electrical engineer, came up with a plan: He got a friend who was a contractor to hire his son to work construction in the heat of the summer. "He (John) came in toward the end of the summer, plopped down, and said, "Dad, I want to go back to school. There has to be an easier way to make a living,' " his mother recalled.

    McKay enrolled at Polk Junior College and helped with the re-election campaign of then-state Sen. Lawton Chiles. He transferred to Florida State University in 1969 and worked for Chiles. He later was an aide for the House Education Committee, under then-state Rep. Terrell Sessums, a Democrat.

    Politics and public service are in McKay's blood. His great-uncle, D.B. McKay, was a newspaper editor and Tampa mayor in the early 1900s. Another great-uncle was a Florida state senator. McKay's grandfather served as the clerk of the criminal court in Tampa in the early 1900s.

    But after finishing college, McKay decided to try his hand at business rather than politics. He started out as a mutual funds salesman in Fort Lauderdale but noticed his friends in the mortgage business were "making more money and having more fun."

    McKay set his mind on getting a job at a mortgage company in 1973 -- even though the country was in recession. He got a job with a Sarasota mortgage company.

    McKay eventually opened his own mortgage company, and in the 1980s got involved in real estate development and property management. Then he decided to follow in his family's political footsteps and run for public office.

    He was elected to the Florida Senate in 1990.

    * * *

    State Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota, learned McKay's leadership style when she worked for him as a Senate aide in the early 1990s.

    "He is very methodical," she said. He wants all the bases covered."

    McKay runs the Senate like a chief executive officer, delegating authority to his committee chairmen.

    He has instituted a more formal atmosphere in the Senate, insisting, for example, that senators refer to each other by district numbers rather than by last names.

    At the same time, he shows a lighter side in private. He likes golf -- Gov. Jeb Bush has been a golfing partner -- though he doesn't have a lot of time to play because he works 75-80 hours a week. Democrats -- outnumbered by Republicans 25-15 in the Senate -- are taking a wait-and-see attitude with McKay.

    They praised him for his cautious approach during the presidential election fight, when House Speaker Tom Feeney was rushing to call the Legislature into special session to help put George W. Bush in the White House. McKay delayed calling the session, saving senators from a contentious vote.

    A conservative Republican, McKay has championed tax breaks, private school vouchers and legislation to open environmental lands to cattle ranching, well-drilling and pipelines.

    But his top priorities as Senate President sound more like liberal causes -- ending homelessness, improving care for the elderly and helping children with learning disabilities. It is little-known that McKay started out as a Democrat and earned his college degree in social welfare.

    Democrats hope he will follow through on helping the neediest Floridians and won't cave in to the interests of Gov. Bush, who has proposed tax breaks in a tight budget year.

    McKay insists he will be independent.

    "I represent 350,000 people, and in a bigger sense I represent all of Florida," McKay said. "I'm accountable to all of those people. I'm not accountable to the governor."

    McKay has decided not to run for office again, giving him freedom to make decisions without worrying about re-election. Since becoming a Senate aide in 1969, McKay aspired to be a Florida senator. Now he leads the entire Senate.

    "This is the best job you can have in politics," McKay said.

    John Mitchell McKay

    Age: 52

    Home: Bradenton

    Education: Florida State University, bachelor's degree in social welfare, 1971. Graduate studies at FSU, 1971-1972.

    Family: Sixth-generation Floridian from a family active in Tampa politics. Married to Michelle Dodson McKay, 33, of Bonifay. Three children from first marriage: Mary Patricia, 25, Sara Jane, 22, and Meredith, 16.

    Military Service: Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve, 1969-1975.

    Occupation: Real estate broker and developer, state senator.

    Favorite book: A Place to Come To, by Robert Penn Warren

    Hobbies: Golf and sailing

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