Thursday, April 26, 2018
News Roundup

Meet Dennis Baxley, the lawmaker who always stands his ground

OCALA — Dennis Baxley has always stood his ground in Florida's political arena.

The Republican state representative who championed the self-defense law at the heart of the Trayvon Martin case is back in a familiar place: the national spotlight.

Baxley, 59, an Ocala funeral director, is a fifth-generation Floridian, devout Southern Baptist and father of five. He has the calming presence of a small-town undertaker and speaks with the determination of a conservative true believer.

"People tell me, 'You can't legislate morality.' Yes, you can," Baxley says. "Every bill we pass is founded in somebody's value system."

For nearly a decade, no other politician has been so closely identified with as many emotional political battles that transcend party and state lines. And no one has drawn as much attention, from MSNBC to the New York Times to Playboy to Fox News.

Baxley has been called "a one-sided lunatic" by a constituent in print and "a true blue reformer" by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

"He's a committed conservative," says Sen. David Simmons, a Maitland Republican and lawyer who helped write the "stand your ground" law. "He's a very even-keeled individual."

Baxley started his political career on the biggest stage imaginable.

Days after he was elected to the state House in 2000, Baxley eagerly joined fellow Republicans in trying to ensure that George W. Bush would be declared winner of the presidential election in Florida while votes were still being recounted — an act he told National Public Radio was a "great honor."

A few years later, Baxley led the crusade to stop a judge from ordering removal of a feeding tube for Terri Schiavo, a Pinellas County woman whose case transfixed the nation.

Last year, Baxley sponsored an overhaul of Florida voting laws that he said was needed to prevent fraud. The law remains the subject of a fierce legal fight, with Democrats and voter advocacy groups accusing Baxley and his party of trying to suppress voter turnout in ways that would hurt minorities and young people.

On the left-leaning MSNBC, as the Rev. Al Sharpton hounded him and the words "Block the Vote" appeared on screen, Baxley smiled and said: "I don't see why you have to impugn other people's motives."

But it was a gunshot fired by George Zimmerman at a Sanford townhouse complex that ensured that Baxley's signature accomplishment would be his sponsorship seven years ago of the "stand your ground" law.

A lifelong National Rifle Association member who's been known to sip his coffee from an NRA mug, Baxley has sponsored numerous gun laws in a career marked by his close friendship with the tenacious gun lobbyist Marion Hammer, whom he calls "awesome."

He once joked in public that they were having a love affair.

Baxley is proud of the "stand your ground" law and thinks it has saved many lives, but based on news accounts, he does not think Zimmerman can use it to justify pursuing and killing Martin.

"I still don't think it applies," he says. "Nothing in this statute authorizes 'pursuit, confront, provoke.' "

The son of a Baptist minister, Baxley abides by a faith that guides his politics.

He has frequently voted for restrictions on abortions, supports using tax money so students can attend religious schools, and favors greater freedom of religious expression in public.

He supports the "Right on Crime" agenda that promotes an expansion of faith- and character-based programs for inmates and fewer mandatory sentences for drug offenders.

Religion helps drive Baxley's personal opposition to casino gambling. But in a county dotted by large horse farms, he's a strong supporter of thoroughbred racing.

The first bill Baxley filed in 2001 would have required state legislators to undergo random drug tests, and he was the only House Republican who joined Democrats in a vote to ban fundraising in special legislative sessions.

Baxley and his wife, Ginette, had three children and adopted two more, including Jeffrey, who was shaken as an infant, suffering blindness and brain damage.

The experience helped to make Baxley a spokesman for people with vision problems. He founded the Vision Caucus in the Legislature that spawned a "State of Vision" specialty license tag to promote awareness of vision issues.

Another Vision Caucus member is Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who disagrees with Baxley on almost everything, but respects him.

"Dennis believes in what he's doing," Kriseman says. "You can't say that about everybody."

Baxley's political views draw abundant admiration and contempt, but nobody takes him lightly.

"Dennis didn't come to Tallahassee to do little things," says former Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat who clashed often with Baxley when they both served in the House. "He's a true believer and he takes on big ideas, some good and some pretty bad."

As House Democratic leader, Gelber said he could always rally caucus members by exploiting their dislike for Baxley.

"If I wanted to wake my members up, I would get Dennis to speak on an issue," Gelber said.

After Gelber's mother died, Baxley made the five-hour drive to Miami Beach to pay his respects. The two men embraced in the street near the family hearse.

"I love Dan," Baxley says. "He fights for things he cares about."

Since the Feb. 26 shooting of Martin, hundreds of people across the country have emailed Baxley on all sides of the "stand your ground" controversy, with some demanding repeal of the law and others urging Baxley to stand firm.

Robert Silverman of Wimauma told Baxley that the Legislature should review and fine-tune the law. "As it is now, the law is way too open to abuse, and the abuses are, in fact, mounting in number," he wrote. "Some boundaries need to be set."

"Keep this law on the books," wrote Kathy Shrout of Pella, Iowa. "We need this law here in Iowa too!"

"Stand strong for the law-abiding citizens of Florida," Anthony Wood of Gainesville told Baxley.

Baxley and his son Justin operate a network of six funeral homes in Florida. Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services has existed since 1885, and Baxley has prayed and sung with a lot of families in mourning in Marion County.

Baxley has a net worth of $6 million, according to public financial disclosure forms.

In 2003, Baxley's firm paid a $10,000 fine after an investigation by then-Comptroller Bob Milligan surrounding 556 charges of improper sales of funeral contracts. Baxley says the investigation was retaliation for his defeating a bill that Milligan supported.

"That whole ordeal was called 'Sticking it to Baxley,' " he says.

Baxley left the House in 2007 to run for a Senate seat vacated by Nancy Argenziano, who was named to the Public Service Commission. He lost to Republican Charlie Dean, and returned to the House in 2010.

Baxley is favored to win another term next fall in conservative Marion County, but he's not taking chances in a year of reapportionment.

He will move so he can represent the older, eastern half of Marion County, where he has served as a small-town mayor, rather than represent what he calls the "more temperamental" newcomers in western Marion's planned subdivisions.

Barbara Woodson of Ocala chided Baxley in a letter in the Star-Banner newspaper that people should not be surprised that Baxley didn't help homeowners in a dispute with a developer.

"If Baxley were asked to introduce legislation requiring the public display of firearms in golf carts or prohibiting abortions in retirement communities, it would have been done," Woodson wrote.

Times/Herald staff writer Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected]

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