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Suited up for the endgame

The stakes are especially high for lobbyists, known as "The Suits,'' as the state Legislature winds down.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- It's crunch time for Florida lobbyists.

Bills are whizzing from one side of the Capitol to the other, House to Senate, Senate to House. The trick? Get your amendment hitched on the train, fast, before anybody can raise a stink.

"If you can't deliver in these last few days, you can't deliver," said Ron Book, a well-known Broward County lobbyist with a perpetual tan, a thick gold bracelet and several tiny cell phones in his suit pockets.

Several times a day, you can watch Book, a former college track star, sprinting through the marble rotunda between the House and Senate, trying to get bills passed or killed for his 45 -- count 'em -- 45 clients.

By this time in the session, the din from the lobbying crowd in the rotunda sends everybody running for bottles of aspirin. The currency here is paper and promises -- amendments passed hand to hand, assurances whispered in the ear.

"We call them The Suits or The Suit People," said state Rep. John Cosgrove, a Miami Democrat. "They can help you, and they can drive you crazy."

Some lobbyists work for months, or even years, to reach the moment of payoff. They help elect people to serve in the Legislature. They raise money. They do favors. They smash competitors. They spin the press. In the end, they do what they have to do to get results.

Witness Doug Mannheimer, a health care lobbyist, tripping along next to longtime state Sen. Pat Thomas this week.

Thomas, frail with cancer and heading into his final days in the Legislature, was being rolled through the corridor in a wheelchair. Taking care not to trip on the wheels, Mannheimer leaned down toward the senator's ear, giving his pitch for legislation dealing with rural hospitals: "Nobody's against this. No! Nobody!" he promised as the two disappeared down the hall.

Or Frank Messersmith, sending notes into the House chamber, where he served for 10 years as a state representative from Palm Beach County. One by one, representatives came out, listening to what Messersmith -- who lobbies for prison builders, Walt Disney Co., TECO Energy and many others -- had to say.

"Timing is everything," Messersmith said later. "That's one of our best products: It's being in the right place at the right time. You're kind of like a synapse connecting two ideas together."

Some of the most experienced lobbyists bring along extra staffers and folding director's chairs -- all the better to wait on lawmakers. In the four corners of the rotunda, the action in the two chambers drones on on giant TV screens. People are glued to the sets.

In the middle of the crowd, a tense knot forms. Sens. Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota, and Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, are standing shoulder-to-shoulder, arguing with lobbyists on opposite sides in a war over whether Wal-Mart ought to be allowed to offer discount gasoline sales to customers. Carlton wags her finger in a lobbyist's face, then turns on her heel and strides back into the Senate chamber.

Later, the lobbyist, Steve Metz, said the misunderstanding was unfortunate, but not a major setback. His motto? "Never give up."

With so many lawmakers leaving office this year under the state's "Eight is Enough" term limits law, some political observers predict that lobbyists will gain power because they'll have the background on issues that are new to freshman legislators.

And the state's lobbying corps is likely to swell in 2003, when former legislators return to become lobbyists after a two-year required waiting period.

Not all lobbyists represent corporate clients. Dozens of them represent the little people. Sprinkled in the crowd are lobbyists for the public interest: lobbyists for state agencies, the environment, disabled people, consumers, poor people, the mentally ill. With eagle eyes, they spot changes in the law that would be nearly impossible for an average citizen to follow.

The corporate lobbyists grumble about the constant pressure they are under to cough up campaign contributions in this election year. Publicly, they say nothing and hand over the checks.

According to the non-profit government watchdog group Common Cause, special interests that will benefit from the 2000 Legislature contributed big bucks to the Republican and Democratic parties and to individual candidates in January, February and March of this year.

Health care, insurance, drug companies, agribusiness, developers and construction firms gave more than $2-million, which works out to about $670,000 a month.

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