Aubuchon — the Florida lawmaker who helped keep rail on track

In a few years, we can ditch the gas-guzzling Buick, step onto a plush rail car and zip from Tampa to Orlando in the time it takes to read this newspaper.

That was a glimpse of Florida's future as described this week by legislators who passed the most ambitious rail legislation in the state's history.

Gov. Charlie Crist will hit the road next week amid much fanfare on a multi-media-market bill-signing tour.

Is this a bold, progressive and long overdue vision?

Or is it a wildly expensive boondoggle — the ground transportation version of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal?

Time will tell. But if rail becomes a reality, one of the people who deserves a share of the credit is an obscure second-term state representative from Cape Coral named Gary Aubuchon.

In a state House that has endured its fair share of dysfunctional distractions in the past couple of years, Aubuchon is a symbol of what a conscientious legislator should be.

Well-informed and even-tempered, Aubuchon alone managed the rail bill to an 84-25 House vote. What little suspense surrounded the legislation was in the Senate.

In an era when term limits have ravaged the House of much of its institutional knowledge, Aubuchon encouraged his peers to look far beyond the horizon.

Asked how SunRail, the Central Florida commuter rail, could possibly help his gridlocked constituents 200 miles away, Aubuchon said mass transit will encourage smart, low-density growth — the kind his Sanibel Island constituents prefer.

"It doesn't mean we have to grow the way we have in the past," Aubuchon said.

In a time when shallowness and partisanship far too often substitute for substantive policy discussion, Aubuchon mastered the details.

A 47-year-old builder and father of three daughters, he was the Republican Party's surprise pick to replace Jeff Kottkamp when Crist chose him as his running mate in 2006.

The story of how Aubuchon became a Floridian doesn't involve rail transportation, however. It's about roads — I-75 to be specific.

It's reflective of a familiar migration pattern of mild-mannered and politically moderate Republicans who, beginning in the 1950s, followed Interstate 75 from the upper Midwest to Southwest Florida.

Aubuchon's father had retired to the area for health reasons and the son, while a junior at the University of Michigan, came south for spring break in 1983 and had what he calls "an epiphany."

"I fell in love with the area," Aubuchon recalled. "I decided to take a chance in real estate, figuring I would bring my Midwestern work ethic and apply it down here."

The work ethic was on display in the Capitol this week as Aubuchon put in long days, keeping the rail bill on track.

One of Aubuchon's mentors is J. Dudley Goodlette, a former House member and now House Speaker Larry Cretul's chief of staff.

"He built a niche in a subject he really liked — transportation," Goodlette said. "And he's prepared. He's not lacking in self-confidence, but he's not cocky."

Aubuchon's biggest shock was going to his Capitol office and seeing a blanket and pillow on the couch in the reception area. He discovered that a key staff member, working nearly round the clock, was sleeping on the couch during the session.

"What I had done was nothing to what she had done," he said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Aubuchon — the Florida lawmaker who helped keep rail on track 12/11/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 11, 2009 9:47pm]

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