Senate women find unexpected clout
On the final day of the 2012 legislative session, Sen. Paula Dockery worked the Senate chamber, counting "no" votes on a bill to turn failing public schools into private charter schools.
She and fellow senators —mostly women — had rallied against the controversial proposal for weeks.
"Are we still good?" asked Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, as Dockery walked by.
"As of now, we're still good," Dockery replied, worried about possible swing votes.
By Dockery's count, the bill should go down on a tie vote (there are no tiebreakers in the Florida Senate). But she stood tense at the vote screen, biting a nail. The computer tallied the vote, and her hands swung over her head.
The tie was another proud moment for Dockery, a Lakeland Republican, and her ragtag caucus of Senate floaters.
Together, they defeated a massive expansion of private prisons, blocked an omnibus antiabortion bill from debate and prevented unregulated, out-of-state companies from taking over state-sponsored homeowners insurance.
The unexpected force of unofficial leaders and whips had crossed party lines to build moderate coalitions aimed at thwarting priorities of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and his deputies.
The Senate's 13 women didn't always vote together — in fact, a woman sponsored the so-called "parent trigger" education bill. But there was enough camaraderie among them, enough powerful voices to influence nearly every close vote of the session.
In the 40-member Florida Senate, where three men hold the most powerful positions, another group came into their own.
The women of the Senate.
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The coalition wasn't premeditated or organized. And it often included men like Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole.
"It was spontaneous combustion," Detert said. "We all hated the same bills."
The rebellion grew out of frustration in both parties that Republican leaders were using their super majority to force divisive bills, ignoring the more moderate voices, Dockery said.
"They didn't really care where we stood on issues," Dockery said. "When you combine the 12 Democrats with us unhappy Republicans it became a matter of getting just one or two more votes."
In a cramped Capitol office, six female senators gathered for an impromptu interview. The subject: their underestimated clout.
"None of us have been shrinking violets," said Nan Rich, the Senate Democratic leader and the only woman in a top political slot.
These women characterize themselves as self-appointed leaders. They get by on charisma and discipline, refusing to be intimidated, studying every bill, asking pointed questions, and being more prepared than their male colleagues.
The Senate is known for its independent streak. But backbone has a price in a chamber where loyalty is rewarded with privilege and leaders keep control with intimidation.
Regardless of gender, lawmakers who cross leadership see their bills disappear from agendas.
After Dockery antagonized Senate leadership during her 2009 crusade against SunRail, her bills seldom made it to committee calendars, let alone to the floor for a vote.
Dockery was punished further, relegated to offices on the second floor with members of the minority party and excluded from the powerful Senate Budget Committee.
Dockery lost one of her hardest fought battles against Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who pushed through a measure to immediately break off USF Polytechnic in Lakeland into its own university, bypassing an approved incremental plan for the branch's independence. The bill passed the Senate 36-4.
"It was the best example of political muscle I could think of," Dockery said.
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Politics is still a boys' club, the women say, and rather than follow the fraternity rules, they've created their own.
Detert recalls that when she was elected to the House in 1998, a colleague said that if she aspired to be a part of leadership, she would have to follow the lead of current leaders.
Detert chose another route. While not a "leader," Detert has been instrumental in landmark legislation to offer assistance and scholarships to foster children and prevent child abuse in day cares.
"Women usually don't think that way,'' she explained. "We don't wait until we're leaders. We just start right in."
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, agreed. "If you wait until you're the leader, you'll never get it.''
The disparity between women and men in elected office is well known.
Six women are serving as governors in 2012. Women make up 17 percent of Congress and about 25 percent of legislatures, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.
Rich is the Senate's first female minority leader.
Two women — former Sen. Toni Jennings and Sen. Gwen Margolis — have served as Senate presidents. The House has never chosen a female as its speaker.
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The Florida Senate, in some ways, is a tug-of-war of cultures.
Leaders frequently travel to sporting events linked to fundraisers out of state. And they turn to their male friends, instead of the females, to raise campaign cash and publicity, said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.
"The women, even though they get involved in the fundraising and they are excellent at it, they're not involved in the various events where the guys get together and they do big things," she said.
Put another way, it's a man's Legislature.
In February — during a bitter fight over who would become Senate president in 2014 — Bradenton Sen. Mike Bennett bought neckties for five of his male colleagues.
The ties repeated a phrase in Latin: "Non illegitimi carborundum." Translation: Don't let the bastards grind you down.
Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, joked that Bennett couldn't afford ties for all 40 senators, so he gave them to the chamber's male Republican leadership.
The Florida Senate steers women toward family issues, Detert says, while men focus on issues of money and power.
Health and Human Services, for example, was considered a women's issue until health costs skyrocketed and swelled to nearly one-third of the budget. Then men wanted to chair those committees, Detert said.
"As a woman, you can do the touchy, feely stuff the guys have no interest in," said Detert, who chairs the Commerce and Tourism Committee. "That is until it becomes a big money issue, then the guys want it."
The women laughed as they described the reaction of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, when he found out he was "the token male" on the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.
Latvala said he's not the "warmest, cuddliest guy," but he learned a lot from that committee and is glad he was placed there.
Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he believes the male-female divide is fading.
Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, for example, chairs a budget subcommittee on civil and criminal justice and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, chairs the budget subcommittee on tourism, transportation and economic development.
It's too early to decide who will chair the Senate's top committees next year. But Gaetz said it should include an equal share of men and women.
"I think about what people's interests are and about which senator has the courage to carry an issue through a firestorm of opposition," he said. "The women in this Senate are as capable, if not more capable, than the men in that area."
The women of the Senate know that, of course.
They showed it in 2012.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.