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Fearful of protesters, Florida Chamber of Commerce hires security, assigns threat levels

TALLAHASSEE — Fearful that protesters might storm their doors during the legislative session, the Florida Chamber of Commerce is on lockdown — hiring off-duty Tallahassee police officers to stand guard in the parking lot and establishing security codes (red, orange and yellow) so employees know the threat level.

Chamber president Mark Wilson said Thursday that he ordered the precautions after hearing of protests that led to the destruction of public property in states like Wisconsin.

"We've been picketed by ACORN before," Wilson noted. "They brought people in on buses and pushed open our front door a few years ago."

Its office, with about 45 employees, is about four blocks from the Capitol.

The chamber felt cautious, Wilson said, because of its support for plans by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature to cut benefits for public employees, lay off state workers and end tenure for teachers.

"If two months from now session comes and goes and we never encounter anything like what is happening in other states and it looks like it was overkill, I'll take that embarrassment all day long," Wilson said. "I don't think you can ever be too prepared."

Barney Bishop, head of Associated Industries of Florida, the state's best-known business lobby, testified this week in favor of pension reforms the unions oppose, but he has done nothing to beef up security at his posh Tallahassee headquarters.

"I told the staff if they get any protesters to take them some bottled water and Girl Scout cookies," Bishop said. "If they start breaking windows, we'll call the cops, but the truth of the matter is you can't be afraid of these people."

Bishop said someone did dump over his garbage can at home the day he testified, leaving his wife, Shelby, a state employee, to clean it up.

"I'm just glad I wasn't home," Bishop said jokingly.

Some chamber directors and officers said they were unaware of the security precautions and one called it "an overreaction at a minimum."

Former House Speaker Allan Bense, now chairman of the chamber's board of directors, said he was unaware of them.

"I was never worried about it, but it's a different world out there now," Bense said.

Larry Cretul, another former House speaker and now director of the board of governors, said, "I knew they were doing Boy Scout stuff, being prepared. But that's the mother ship, I'm just at the base camp down here in Ocala."

Protesters for and against budget cuts and other reforms that will affect state employee unions gathered at the Capitol and across the street in front of the Leon County Courthouse this week, but the crowds were small and peaceful. Tallahassee police officers at the scene described it as "a beautiful day" with no problems.

Wilson said another concern of his was the presence among the protesters of Susannah Randolph, a former ACORN organizer and wife of state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. Working with Progress Florida and America Votes, Susannah Randolph helped organize Tuesday's rallies at the courthouse and the Capitol.

"But we have no interest in being at the chamber," she said Thursday. "It's hilarious that little ole me would be considered a threat."

Asked about reports that he assigned military ranks from captain on down to his chamber employees, Wilson said his operations team established security codes but did not use military titles.

Wilson recently took to the airwaves with commercials accusing government union bosses of busing in protesters to picket elected leaders in Florida. PolitiFact Florida gave that claim its lowest rating of Pants on Fire, finding that local teachers peacefully protested outside the offices of three Central Florida lawmakers but none arrived by bus.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Fearful of protesters, Florida Chamber of Commerce hires security, assigns threat levels 03/10/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2011 11:39am]
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