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Lawmakers engage in rough-Housing

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 1998


TALLAHASSEE -- In this corner, standing at 5 feet 9, 52-year-old Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat of Miami.

In the other corner, also from Miami, Carlos Valdes, six years younger and seven inches taller than his opponent.

Fight venue: the Florida House.

In a rarely seen spectacle, the pugilists -- who double as state legislators -- nearly came to blows on Thursday.

The issue: spending public money for private schools.

After a heated school vouchers debate, the two men were literally at each other's throats in the middle of the House Chamber. Nearly a dozen lawmakers rushed from their seats to pull them apart.

"We were having a meeting of the House and ended up in a hockey game," House Majority Leader Jim King said.

The near-brawl started when voucher supporter Valdes noted that voucher opponent Rodriguez-Chomat sends his children to private school. Rodriguez-Chomat angrily declared that he spends no public money for private schools, and criticized Valdes for getting personal.

Ten minutes later, they began scuffling, moving from a row of seats into the middle of the chamber.

Valdes said Rodriguez-Chomat had walked over to him and repeatedly called him a jackass.

"By the third or fourth time (he said it), I just said, "You must be looking at yourself in the mirror,' " Valdes recounted. "He grabbed my tie, and I was just trying to keep him away." He said Rodriguez-Chomat also tried to punch him.

Rodriguez-Chomat declined to discuss the fight in detail. "It came down to my children," he said, referring to Valdes' comments about him paying for private school.

The fight came one day after House leaders chastised Democrats for diminishing the dignity of the House by displaying sarcastic signs concerning the voucher proposal. Republican House Speaker Daniel Webster was not amused by Thursday's altercation.

"I think they owe the House as an institution an apology," he said. "They disrupted the House, and it was disrespectful."

Rodriguez-Chomat later said he had apologized to Valdes and would probably apologize to the full House on Monday. Valdes said he was merely trying to fend off an assault, and it was his respect for House decorum that kept the incident from escalating.

"If I had swung at him, I would have knocked him down," Valdes said.

Rowdiness is typical in the House, but it's been more than six years since a physical fight broke out. In December 1991, two other Dade County Republicans, Mario Diaz-Balart and Luis Rojas, tussled during a disagreement about legislative district lines.

Another legislator later reported that Diaz-Balart hurled an insult at Rojas, calling his mother a lesbian. Rojas was preparing to punch Diaz-Balart when others broke up the fight, according to the Miami Herald.

Word of the latest fight spread fast through the Capitol. Diaz-Balart, now a senator, expressed some disappointment that this brawl was more dramatic than his own.

The Senate has not been immune from such drama, either.

In 1981, lawmakers had to stand between Sens. Dempsey Barron and W.D. Childers after Barron reportedly told Childers, "You little s---. I'm gonna whip your a-- and throw you out of the Senate right now."

Senate President Toni Jennings, after receiving a blow-by-blow account of Thursday's incident from Webster, said she was not worried about fisticuffs in her chamber.

"We're pussycats by comparison," she said.
-- Tallahassee Bureau Chief Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.


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