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Traditional congeniality in Senate is strained

Overwork is part of the problem, President Toni Jennings says after two members trade barbs and she snaps at a late arrival.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The normally genial state Senate was much less so Thursday as two senators openly sparred, a third was scolded for repeatedly missing important votes and a fourth, a retiring veteran, lamented the loss of decorum.

The impolite politics began when Sen. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat from Miami, repeatedly attempted to alter a bill that would increase penalties for juvenile offenders.

Sen. Tom Lee, the bill's sponsor, eventually could take no more.

"I have no intention of giving him another stage to be soft on crime," Lee, a Republican from Brandon, told Senate President Toni Jennings.

Meek struck back, defending his record on crime and suggesting that Lee was pushing the bill simply to appeal to voters.

"I don't file an amendment, nor a bill, based on the next election," Meek said.

He approached Lee and the two talked briefly before Lee turned away.

"I walked over and I said, "You know, Tom, you shouldn't have said that,' " Meek told the chamber. Meek referred to Lee as "Brother Lee," and said Lee was calling him names.

Lee responded: "There was no intention to call him a name. However, I couldn't have been more sincere."

With the tension thick, Sen. Jack Latvala asked for a "point of personal privilege."

He opened a Senate rule book and read aloud its instructions to avoid personality attacks and to refer to fellow senators as "Senator."

"We're right on the cusp of losing that mutual courtesy, and it disturbs me," Latvala said.

Last to weigh in on the issue was Sen. Pat Thomas, a Quincy Democrat who has served in the Legislature since 1972. Feeble with illness, Thomas rose to speak.

"I don't think I've seen us as close to deterioration on the floor as I have this session," said Thomas, who must leave office this year because of term limits. "You've got to be a little patient and you've got to subdue your passions."

But there was more passion to come.

As she has done before in the session, Sen. Mandy Dawson, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, asked to vote after the fact on a handful of bills debated early in the day, when Dawson was not present.

Dawson mumbled the request, hoping to humor Jennings.

Jennings did not smile. She asked why Dawson was an hour and a half late.

Dawson responded, "I'm in pain. I was in pain?"

"Or you will be in pain when we're through with you," Jennings said. "Sen. Dawson, I don't mean to embarrass you, but we start at a certain time. All of our senators know that."

Dawson said later she "overslept," that a new exercise routine with a personal trainer is exhausting her. She said her doctor prescribed the routine to treat her migraine headaches.

Dawson is not the only senator to miss key votes. Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Westchester Republican, was infamous for his absence in the House and already has missed several Senate votes since his election. Senators pride themselves on their chamber being more genteel than the House. Jennings later attributed the tension to lawmakers being overworked.

"We seem to be sort of at each other a little more," she said. "I've been a little short, too."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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