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After more than 20 years away from office, South Florida Democrat running again

In a year when a record number of term-limited former lawmakers are seeking their old jobs, the story of Tom Gustafson is the strangest of them all.

Two decades after leaving state politics, Gustafson, a former state House speaker from Fort Lauderdale (1988-90), is running for a legislative seat in Palm Beach County. Democrats chose him to replace a candidate who dropped out in July for family reasons.

Gustafson is taking on an incumbent, Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, in a coastal district where Republicans have a slight advantage over Democrats.

If Gustafson wins, it will speak volumes about how far Democrats have strayed off-course in Florida.

One of the party's most glaring deficiencies is its lack of bench strength, the result of too little effort developing a new generation of leaders.

Gustafson is a University of Florida law graduate with a keen intellect who would bring much-needed historical perspective in today's revolving-door state House.

In the 1980s, he advocated a more thoughtful strategy to deal with troubled teens rather than warehousing them and creating the next generation of criminals. He has spent the past decade in academia in South Florida, focusing on the oceans and transportation.

He was exceptionally long-winded and had a scattershot style that earned him the nickname "Whirlybird." Lobbyists mockingly wore beanies on his final night as speaker.

He is a walking, talking (constantly talking) political time capsule.

"Gustafson is very smart," says J.M. (Mac) Stipanovich, a lobbyist who worked in the governor's office in those days. "But converting that logically into effective leadership overwhelmed him."

Gustafson, 62, was first elected to the House in 1976, three years before incoming Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel was born.

"I was a kid in a hurry. I was all business, and I wasn't socially adept," Gustafson says of his previous political life.

To secure his once-shaky speakership against the threat of a bipartisan coup, he rewarded six Cuban-American lawmakers from Miami-Dade with prime committee assignments, bypassing some Democrats in the process.

In 1990, Gustafson was the lieutenant governor running mate of Bill Nelson, who ran for governor that year but lost the Democratic primary to Chiles, who defeated Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.

If elected in November, Gustafson hopes to be part of a bipartisan consensus to focus on long-term issues, such as protecting the state's land and water and improving Florida's economy.

"Change isn't bad. I'm not an advocate that any one party should control the state forever," he says. "People vote for what they want, and they get what they vote for."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com.

After more than 20 years away from office, South Florida Democrat running again 09/10/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 10, 2012 11:01pm]
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