Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

State Sen. Gary Siplin, a Central Florida Democrat, doesn't fall in line

TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Gary Siplin charts his own path through the Florida Legislature.

He's a Democrat who cuts deals with Republicans. Even in hard times, he brings home money to his inner-city Orlando district. Despite a series of missteps during a 12-year political career and well-financed campaigns to oust him, Siplin has never lost an election.

Now facing the inevitability of term limits, he is arranging for his wife to take his place.

Siplin, 57, is a survivor, a political operator and a throwback who puts his district first.

This year, he is working with Republicans, not Democrats, to pass a bill expanding prayer in public schools. Last year, it was supporting reforms to public schools that tied teacher pay to the performance of students.

"It ain't about Republican or Democrat," Siplin said last week during an interview in his office. "It's about District 19."

• • •

The Capitol buzzed last week about the Senate's economic development budget, which, despite having to help cover a nearly $2 billion shortfall, contained $4 million in earmarks for two blighted Orlando neighborhoods. The consensus: Siplin delivered again.

"Wouldn't that be my job?" he said.

While other Democrats say they don't begrudge Siplin for looking out for his district and forming alliances across the aisle, some votes do vex them.

"It's certainly no secret that I wish the caucus would stick together, particularly on issues I consider to be Democratic principles," Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich of Weston said. "Senator Siplin does not vote with the caucus on a number of what I would consider to be Democratic issues."

It was Republicans who carried Siplin's effort to expand prayer in public schools, although critics say it's unconstitutional and divisive. Two other Democrats voted in favor of the legislation, but Rich said most were opposed because it violated the separation of church and state.

Siplin also has so far refused to go along with the Democrats opposing a plan to privatize prisons in South Florida. He says he isn't sure how he'll ultimately vote, but is intrigued by reports that the proposal could save the state millions of dollars.

Former state Sen. Al Lawson, who served as minority leader and is a mentor and a friend to Siplin, encouraged him to play nice with Republicans.

"Instead of bashing people everyday when they are in control, you have to try to work with them in order to make a difference," Lawson said.

Siplin puts his Central Florida constituents first, Lawson said. Democrats may not always understand that.

"He sees it as something you have to do in order to be successful in this process because Republicans are in control," Lawson said.

• • •

Siplin's district winds through low-income areas in Orange and northern Osceola counties, including the housing projects where he grew up. In District 19, about a third of residents are African-American, another third are Hispanic and roughly one in five people lives in poverty.

During grade school, Siplin earned money by picking oranges. He washed dishes to put himself through college and graduate school. After earning a law degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, he moved to Miami and became a county attorney. Eventually, he returned home to Orlando.

During his first legislative session in 2001, Siplin backed a Republican-led effort to eliminate ticket taxes on certain sporting events, figuring the move would benefit sporting events in his district.

Since then, his reputation as a lawmaker who bucks the party line has only grown. So has his flair for getting Republican leaders to support his own proposals.

And so has a reputation for getting into trouble, even if few of the charges ultimately stuck.

In 2004, an appeals court tossed out a grand theft conviction after he was accused of directing Senate staff to perform campaign duties on state time.

Two years later, an Orange County sheriff's deputy cited Siplin for failure to obey commands after he refused to follow directions outside a football game. Siplin paid the fine, challenged his conviction on ethics code violations and beat the citation.

A case stemming from his 2008 re-election is still pending with the state Elections Commission. The panel has so far found probable cause that Siplin paid poll workers using campaign funds and allowed donors to exceed campaign contribution limits.

Siplin has survived it all — fighting off a primary challenge in 2008 while dodging attacks financed by lawyers, teachers and unions.

Central Florida Urban League president and CEO Allie Braswell Jr. said Siplin's efforts to bring resources to his district have earned him the respect of constituents. Past troubles are disregarded by people who judge the senator on what he has produced.

"I don't hear a lot of conversation about that when I talk to people," he said. "What I hear people saying is 'I want somebody to fight for me and to continue to look forward.' "

Siplin puts his foibles in biblical terms. They were all tests, preparing him for a blessing from God. He's just not yet sure what that next step will be.

He has indicated he may run for Congress, possibly in a new district that will cater to Hispanic voters. The latest legislative issue he's championing, in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants, would play well in that race.

This time fellow Democrats are lining up behind him, and Republicans are on the opposite side.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Tia Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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