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    A ring of truth

    The Times Tallahassee bureau chief offers the keys to a roman a clef set in the state capital.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000

    The names have been changed to protect the guilty in S.V. Date's Smokeout, a behind-the-scenes political satire set in Florida's capital.

    Date, who is Tallahassee bureau chief for the Palm Beach Post, spends his spare times writing novels. His first, Speed Week, drew comparisons to the zany South Florida books written by Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.

    Date's latest is a farcical look at the tobacco wars in the state legislature in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Gov. Lawton Chiles and his allies had sneaked a bill past the legislators that allowed the state to sue tobacco companies. When the companies got a whiff of the maneuver, they began to organize. In 1995, legislators voted to repeal the bill, but Chiles' veto overruled them. The following year, an attempt to override Chiles' veto failed, leaving the law on the books and allowing Florida to collect billions of dollars in tobacco money.

    In Date's recreation of this drama, the characters, especially for capitol insiders, wear only the thinnest of veils. (Date, of course, includes the usual disclaimer in the preface of the novel that "...any reseumblance to actional persons, living or entirely conicidental.")

    Gov. Bolling Waites, the wily woodsman who derails a Senate vote by getting his seafood dealer brother to bring in tainted oysters for a tobacco industry dinner on the night before an important vote was scheduled, is clearly inspired by Chiles. Chiles, who died in December 1998, is not known to have pulled that oyster trick, but he would have enjoyed it.

    Sen. W.D. Childers, the Pensacola Republican who helped the Democrat Chiles sneak his original bill through the legislature, is recast as Sen. T.C. Tuttle, a senator whose willingness to switch sides gets him into serious trouble. Tuttle also has an inordinate interest in computer porn, an interest Childers is not known to share.

    The Senate rules committee chairman in the book is Sen. Dolly Nichols, an obvious imitation of Senate President Toni Jennings. The fictional senator is involved in an affair with Ramon, a Hispanic tobacco lobbyist who is dying of lung cancer. The real Jennings has had a longtime controversial friendship with lobbyist Oscar Juarez, but she has always denied the relationship was personal.

    Nichols, the fictional senator, also has a cordial relationship with the governor and is on the threshold of becoming senate president -- two situations that occurred in real life with Jennings and Chiles.

    Date, by the way, casts Nichols as the plot's heroine. In real life it was Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who derailed efforts to override the veto.

    Then there's the very slimy Sen. Agustin Cruz, a Hispanic legislator who is caught by federal investigators demanding a bribe. To save himself he then wears a bugged tie around the Capitol trying to entrap others.

    In reality, Sen. Alberto Gutman, R-Miami, went to prison last year after being convicted of multiple counts of Medicare fraud. Gutman actually wore an FBI wire around the Capitol until his plea bargain fell apart. Lobbyists and legislators alike remain anxious about the words Gutman might have captured on tape, but no one else has been prosecuted.

    Smokeout, not surprisingly, has its share of lobbyists, including the powerful Martin Remy. Like real-life lobbyist Ronnie Book of Miami, Remy carries around several cell phones and frequently gets his way with legislators. Serious women lobbyists may not appreciate, however, some of Date's depictions of their fictional counterparts who ply their trade in hideously short skirts and high heels to attract the attention of sex-starved legislators.

    In Smokeout's Capitol, hidden cameras are focused on the crotches of young women who sit down at desks and tables unaware that they are being broadcast on a computer porn network. One of the hapless women caught on camera is a conscience-stricken tobacco lobbyist, who switches sides in the middle of the debate and becomes the target of a wacky soldier of fortune hired by the tobacco companies to take out enemies.

    Date, in fact, ridicules almost every Capitol group save one. There are no trial lawyers in Smokeout. That's a glaring omission considering the fact that the drama upon which Date's farce is based was sparked by Pensacola lawyer Fred Levin's desire to get a bill passed that would make it easier to win a lawsuit against tobacco companies.

    Smokeout is a fairly entertaining read, especially for political groupies. Date's tale of legislative lobbying and dealmaking has the ring of truth -- except perhaps for the over-the-top sex antics. But then again, adding sex to the legislative process never hurts book sales.

    Lucy Morgan is the Times Tallahassee bureau chief.


    By S.V. Date

    Putnam, $23.95

    Festival authors

    Maurice J. O'Sullivan and Steve Glassman will talk about Florida crime writing on the first day of the Times Festival of Reading, Saturday, Nov. 11 at Eckerd College. They'll be in Lindsey 103 from 11-11:45 a.m. S.V. Date will be a featured author at the festival on Sunday, Nov. 12. Date's talk is from 11:45-12:30 in Seibert classroom 104. He also will be one of the participants on the Mystery Panel Sunday from 12:30-1:30 in Roberts Music Center 101.

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