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Staffer will hang up his hatchet for academia


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2000

Every House speaker needs a hatchet man.

Even St. Peter Wallace from St. Petersburg had a chief of staff who knew how to use an ax. Wallace used George Meier to fire a bunch of people right before Christmas as St. Peter was taking over in 1984.

Enter Professor Steve MacNamara. Yes, I spelled his name wrong yesterday. Thirty lashes for leaving out the first a. I've known MacNamara since he worked with former Sen. Dempsey Barron back in the early 1980s. He took a job as secretary of the old Department of Business Regulation during Gov. Bob Martinez's administration in the late 1980s and then went off to the land of academia, a professor's job at Florida State University.

Last year, House Speaker John Thrasher roped him into a job in the House when he suddenly found himself without a chief of staff.

MacNamara took an unpaid leave of absence from his teaching job from January through May last year and again this year. Thrasher has a contract with him, paying him $127,000 for the five months. That sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money, but he does pay about $30,000 of it for his own fringe benefits and health care, so it's not quite as high as it looks.

For this handsome sum he gets to fondle a lot of paperwork, take away people's parking places and be generally disagreeable most of the time. MacNamara says he could have taken a paid sabbatical from teaching and 'double dipped" but thinks that would be wrong.

MacNamara has given up joke writing since he wrote a joke for Thrasher to use at a recent Tiger Bay Club luncheon. Something about white men being unable to jump. It wasn't very funny even when they explained that it was meant to make fun of all the jumping Gov. Jeb Bush and Thrasher and others have been doing since Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and others staged a sit-in at the governor's office.

This week, MacNamara made news when he set a few events in motion that led to the resignation of Jimmy Helms, a widely respected senior staff director who had been working for the House for 29 years.

It started with a request to calendar a 161-page bill on a day when the House Government Operations Committee had a crowded schedule. The bill had not been analyzed by staff and was not really ready to be heard, but MacNamara insisted that it be heard -- speaker's order.

About that time they took away Helms' parking place in the caverns beneath the Capitol. Now, that is a capital offense in this town. It's also the easiest way to see where the power is flowing.

If you want to know where people in the Capitol rank, look for their parking places -- if they still have them.

MacNamara says he'll be glad to go back to academia. A lot of the staff in the House will be glad, too. They take a dim view of a college professor telling them what to do.

MacNamara teaches interviewing, public speaking and mass media law. In the summer, he takes freelance work, writing legal briefs for law firms. Last year, when he took over as chief of staff, MacNamara had already signed on to do a brief for Suwannee Concrete Co., a company with close ties to Anderson Columbia, a firm that has been in a lot of environmental trouble.

That upset a lot of people who felt MacNamara shouldn't be doing it while working for the speaker. MacNamara says he did it as summer work and not at the same time he was working for Thrasher. That doesn't satisfy everyone, but MacNamara isn't losing any sleep over it.

'I'm not coming back ever," MacNamara said Friday as he talked about the job he has agreed to do until the end of May.

'I thought I'd be walking from office to office with a coffee mug that says "the professor' and talking about legislative policy," MacNamara said. 'Instead I'm signing papers and taking parking places away from people."

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