TALLAHASSEE — Never known to bask in the limelight, Dennis Jones promised he wouldn't make a big deal about his farewell speech to the Florida Senate on Tuesday.
But his colleagues, who call the 70-year-old Seminole Republican the "Dean of the Senate," didn't cooperate, giving him several standing ovations before surprising him by renaming one of his bills the Dennis L. Jones Beach and Shore Preservation Act.
Jones wiped a tear from his eye as he looked at the big screen in the Senate Chamber with the bill bearing his name.
"You caught me off guard," Jones said as his voice shook and he squeezed the hand of his wife, Susan. "So I just want to say, thank you."
With 32 years in the Legislature, Jones is the longest-serving current state lawmaker but term limits are sending him home. His departure is a break from the past and means the ranks of moderate Republicans will grow smaller.
When Jones became a state representative in 1978, lawmakers still smoked in chambers and a few even spit tobacco juice into spittoons. The state budget of $7 billion his first year grew another $70 billion over his career.
With snow white hair and a calm demeanor, Jones displays an independent streak rare in a Capitol controlled by top-down politics. He represents a large chunk of Pinellas County, from downtown St. Petersburg to the string of beachfront communities along the county's north coast.
The chiropractor son of a high school principal father and schoolteacher mother from Erie, Pa., Jones said he has been surprised by the direction his political career has taken.
"I didn't want to be a maverick," Jones said. "It just happened that way."
He's bucked his party on issues including abortion, Terri Schiavo, private school vouchers and this year's battle over prison privatization, in which he was the first Republican to register a vote in opposition.
"He's a little bit of a moderate in the tradition of the Pinellas County Republican," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
But Jones' brand of Republicanism didn't always stand as the outlier it is in today's Tallahassee.
It was common in the 1980s for Democrats and Republicans, who were in the minority then, to work together on bills.
Jones co-sponsored a dozen bills with former Rep. Fred Lippman, who was part of the state's Democratic inner circle and leader of the then-powerful Broward County delegation.
They worked together to pass a bill requiring children 6 and under to wear seat belts, which got pushback from conservatives who viewed the measure as intrusive.
"I worked with a lot of Republicans," said Lippman, who served in the House from 1978 to 1998 and is now the health professions chancellor at Nova Southeastern University. "With Dennis, his capabilities were well-known. So I viewed him as someone I could work with. Back then, it was more about philosophy than partisanship."
Despite opposition, the seat belt bill became law in the mid 1980s. Jones points to it as one of his top achievements.
"We saved a lot of lives," Jones said.
He's a strong advocate of expanding gambling in Florida, even though he doesn't gamble.
And although he voted to prohibit lawmakers from accepting meals and gifts from lobbyists, he now says that has done more to change Tallahassee for the worse than just about anything else.
"That was a mistake," Jones said.
He can relate somewhat to Sen. JD Alexander's aggressive push for a 12th university because he pushed for a chiropractic school nearly 10 years ago. That sparked a larger debate over the role of politics and policy in the state university system that mirrors this year's battle at the University of South Florida. In the end, the board that oversees the university system killed the project, calling it a financial drain.
"It was a big disappointment," Jones said. "But you move on."
Even with time away from his chiropractic business over 32 years in Tallahassee, Jones has done well financially. His net worth bloomed from $143,000 in 1978 to $2.6 million in 2011. He says he would have done better if he hadn't served but added that was the choice he made because he loved the legislative process.
Another veteran state lawmaker, Rep. Jim Frishe, who has served 12 years in the House, has filed for Jones' District 13 seat and is considered a strong favorite.
Many say Jones' legacy will be the beaches. In a state with 880 miles of beach, Jones earned the nickname "Sandman" because of his efforts to replenish them. He helped create a fund in 1998 for their upkeep that now receives about $20 million a year from state taxes. "Any beach that has been renourished in Florida in the past few years, Dennis Jones has had a hand in it," said Pete Dunbar, a veteran lobbyist and longtime friend.
As he said goodbye Tuesday, Jones told his colleagues where they can find him after the legislative session ends next month.
"When we return to Pinellas County in a couple of weeks," Jones said, "Susan and I will be on one of those beaches."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]