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Their friendship adds new dynamic to state politics

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 30, 2000


They stood near each other in the nearly empty House chamber, admiring another gorgeous mural illustrating Florida's history by Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Still.

Gov. Jeb Bush casually tossed a one-liner or two about the mural's large He-Coon, a reference to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. House Speaker John Thrasher chuckled. They quietly asked each other how things were going as the legislative session winds down.

"I'll call you later," Thrasher promised Bush one evening last week.

Another Kodak moment for a couple of close friends who have more to say about the direction of Florida than any two men alive.

Long-time legislators and lobbyists cannot name another governor and House speaker who were as tight as Bush and Thrasher are personally as well as philosophically.

They talk constantly. They float ideas with each other before sharing them with the rest of us. They trade jokes. They play golf at the Capital City Country Club.

When the governor tours his older brother, George W. Bush, around Florida to raise money for the Texas governor's presidential campaign, Thrasher is there. When Jeb Bush took some Florida Republicans on one-day campaign trips to New Hampshire and South Carolina before the presidential primaries, you know who was on board the plane.

Don't be surprised if Thrasher winds up on the White House transition team if George W. Bush wins in November.

"We're pretty good friends," Thrasher said, reluctant to dwell too much on the personal side of his relationship with the Florida governor. "I think our friendship goes beyond the political arena. I hope it does."

For Floridians, this friendship has its positives.

Bush is not a creature of Tallahassee, and he does not have a lot of old hands he can confide in or trust. Thrasher was a lobbyist for years and worked outside the legislative chambers before he moved inside as a lawmaker in 1992. The Orange Park lawyer has more experience in passing and killing bills than Bush or anyone else on the governor's legislative staff.

Thrasher also is not likely to do anything in the final hectic days of the legislative session, which ends Friday, to embarrass either of the Bush brothers.

"They have a close relationship," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, of Thrasher and Bush. "It's a huge asset."

Feeney will succeed Thrasher as House speaker and was Bush's running mate in 1994, but he isn't perceived to be as close to the governor. "I'm going to go down and see the governor any day now," he smiled, "and see if we can work that way."

But there is a downside.

The traditional checks and balances of government are out of whack. It's no longer the strong-willed Legislature testing the mettle of the governor four floors below in the Capitol, rejecting bad ideas or making them better. It's no longer one branch of government reeling the other back in when it goes too far.

It's Bush and Thrasher isolating Senate President Toni Jennings.

The first person to hold the presidency for four straight years, Jennings knows her way around the Legislature and is no shrinking violet. She helps run her family's Orlando construction company, and she has done just fine in a man's world.

But she is boxed in this time, and her patience will be tested this week.

Will she have the guts to hold out for higher teacher salaries and less damage to growth management laws than Bush or Thrasher prefer?

Jennings sounded pretty stubborn Friday, but she could soften this week if Bush and Thrasher start leaning on her.

"There is no question there is a tremendous amount of coordination between the governor's office and the House of Representatives," said Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. "They are almost always in lock-step."

It's often hard to know whether a brainstorm belongs to Bush or Thrasher or Bush-Thrasher.

Even some Republicans believe it was Bush, not Thrasher, who wanted to cut gasoline taxes in Florida by up to a dime for a month. They figure the governor wanted to help his brother put more pressure on the Clinton administration in the midst of the furor over high gasoline prices, and a similar tax cut was going nowhere in Congress.

Not true, Thrasher said.

"It was my idea," he said, acknowledging that he bounced it off of Bush first. "He didn't disagree with it."

The Senate and even some House Republicans disliked the idea, which is dead. But Thrasher believes it served its purpose. He said Florida joined enough other states in making noise about high gas prices that the Clinton administration eventually prodded oil-producing companies to increase production.

Normally, the speaker or president seeking higher office tends to have the higher profile. Not this year.

Jennings is running for state insurance commissioner. Thrasher enjoys attention and power, but he will not be on the ballot this fall. He turned down overtures to run for retiring U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler's congressional seat. He has an account open for a state Senate race in 2002, but he hasn't raised any money.

Yet Thrasher is far more visible than Jennings because he is more comfortable around reporters. His approach is to answer every question, let reporters come and go freely and take his lumps from the editorial boards who don't like his aggressive, pro-business, pro-development approach.

Jennings, who finally held a short news conference Friday to make her case for using some of the surplus from the state retirement fund for higher teacher salaries, won't let reporters into her office unless she has no other choice. She offers little access even to her hometown newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel. Her theory is to tip her hand on legislative strategy only when she is good and ready.

Even then, don't expect to see the full picture.

That's not the best practice if Jennings wants to avoid the fate of other Senate presidents and speakers. There are plenty of examples of legislative leaders who thought they could easily be elected to Congress or statewide office just because they were big shots in Tallahassee. Jennings has not raised her profile this session as she could have with a more open style that better framed her argument for higher teacher raises and better benefits for public workers.

Heading into the final week, these are the personal relationships that will determine how issues ranging from education spending to growth management to new professional schools are resolved.

Thrasher and Jennings are talking about the tough issues by telephone. But before the biggest decisions are made, the call to the podium in the Senate chamber won't be the decisive call for the House speaker.

It will be to the Governor's Mansion.

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