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    Business lobby draws powerful party crowd

    Associated Industries of Florida hosts 5,000, including Jeb Bush and most lawmakers, in a session's eve tradition.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Down the red carpeted driveway, past the two golden Sphinxes, a crowd of legislators, lobbyists and state officials waited in line Monday night to tip a glass with Florida's best-known business lobbyists.

    Gov. Jeb Bush and most members of the Legislature joined a crowd of about 5,000 people for the traditional Associated Industries of Florida party.

    It has become a night-before-session tradition, a time for smiles, a few drinks, good shrimp, little beef and turkey sandwiches and talk of times to come.

    Today, the same crowd will be in the state Capitol getting down to business as legislators convene for their annual 60-day legislative session.

    They will have some tough issues to resolve: fixing Florida's flawed elections process, solving a nursing home crisis, juggling a battle between electric and telephone companies and several other issues.

    "It will be a rough-and-tumble session," predicted lobbyist Ronnie Book, who represents millionaire businessman H. Wayne Huizenga and dozens of other businesses that wantsomething from the Legislature this year.

    Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries, puts the party together each year with the help of about $50,000 donated by the state's major businesses.

    Companies such as Publix Supermarkets, Anheuser-Busch, Badcock Home Furnishings, Sprint, Bank of America, Ford Motor Co., BellSouth, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Florida Power, Philip Morris and TECO Energy Co. sponsor the event each year. All have an interest in what the Legislature does.

    "We just want to win everything," joked Shebel as he stood a few yards away from where Bush was being photographed by partygoers who wanted their picture taken with the state's top citizen.

    "I was just trying to be a good neighbor," Bush joked a few minutes later. The palatial headquarters of Associated Industries is just a block away from the Governor's Mansion on N Adams Street.

    Former Gov. Lawton Chiles once said the business lobby's headquarters made the mansion look like an outhouse.

    "I was a little worried about the Sphinx thing," Bush said, referring to the ostentatious statues out front.

    He moved quickly around them on his way just in case any photographers were waiting to catch the Republican governor near something so elaborate.

    "AIF is an institution in this community," Bush explained. "Everybody doesn't agree with Shebel, but this building was obviously designed for this party."

    State Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, had one of the night's most embarrassing moments when he tried to thank a woman for hosting the party. That's when he discovered he was thanking a new member of the house -- state Rep. Joyce Cusack, D-DeLand.

    That's one of the problems facing legislators and lobbyists in a Legislature where 63 members of the house are newcomers, all elected after term limits tossed out many veteran legislators.

    Partygoers sipped drinks and snacked beneath the stars as temperatures dipped into the 50s and a swing band played golden oldies. A movie screen in the background displayed the logos of 51 sponsors who helped pay for the party.

    Shebel said he even invited a couple of people from the Academy of Florida Trial lawyers to this year's party.

    "Their president, Lance Block and a couple of others are actually nice guys," Shebel said. "We have our differences, but ... ."

    Former Senate President Gwen Margolis, a Miami-Dade county commissioner, was among the partygoers. She is planning a comeback to the Legislature with a campaign for the Senate in 2002.

    "It's way better up here," Margolis said. "I got a bunch of sharks down there."

    In Tallahassee, life is a bit more civil. Even those who will be enemies once the Legislature convenes today exchange a few hugs and "welcome backs" on the night before session.

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    From the Times state desk