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High-tone party is prelude to down-and-dirty session

Before the Legislature even begins, some emotional and contentious issues are looming. But Monday, it was the traditional party for lots of powerful people.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- On Monday night, everyone partied at the traditional place: Associated Industries of Florida, the state's biggest business lobby.

Today, the Florida Legislature gets down to business with the opening gavels of a 60-day session that is expected to be partisan and ugly.

But for a time Monday, all was sweetness and light. The Tallahassee Swing Band played songs like Chattanooga Choo-Choo and other old-time favorites while legislators -- Democrats and Republicans -- sipped drinks, ate sushi, shrimp, turkey and corned beef sandwiches and Chinese food.

The night before the beginning of session party has become a tradition, like the coming of spring and the Legislature.

Associated Industries president Jon Shebel said about 5,000 people were expected. He finances the party with $1,500 contributions from each of 56 Associated Industries members -- about $84,000. Shebel said they always have enough money left to form a "kitty" for the next party. He estimated the cost of the soiree at around $50,000.

Those contributing to the party include some of the state's best known businesses, such as Publix, Eckerd Corp., Florida Power, GTE Service Corp., TECO Energy Inc., the Wackenhut Co., Walt Disney World, Anheuser-Busch Co., Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Coca-Cola Enterprises.

The party gives legislators, lobbyists, state officials and business executives from the sponsoring companies a chance to rub elbows before everyone gets serious.

A block away from the palatial headquarters of the business lobbying group, about 200 people gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Governor's Mansion. They sang songs such as Amazing Grace and prayed. Gov. Jeb Bush was not at home and did not attend the party down the street. He went to church.

Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan were among those attending the annual Red Mass at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas Moore to pray for divine guidance. It may take a bit of divine guidance to get lawmakers through the next 60 days in a year when partisan and racial politics are expected to be especially bitter.

Fifty-two members of the House and 11 senators must leave office because of term limits this year. About half of them are running for other offices in races that pit some members of the House against others, which is expected to produce rancorous debates.

For the first time since the civil rights era, black lawmakers are taking to the streets to protest the actions of a governor. They don't like Gov. Jeb Bush's attempt to end race-, gender- and ethnic-based preferences in university admissions and state contracts.

Many legislators expect the racial division to become a factor in every issue they debate this year, as Democrats rally against the majority Republicans.

Monday, House and Senate Democratic leaders condemned the influence of "special interests" on the process and pledged to vote on the side of the average Floridian.

"By taking a breather on education, standing against a patient's bill of rights and thwarting common sense gun safety legislation, it seems as though the Republicans are approaching this session like a lamb instead of the lion," said Senate Democratic Leader Buddy Dyer.

Despite all the negative comments about special interests, the Democrats were not absent from the party Monday night.

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