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Then and now: Florida budget bosses Denise Grimsley and J.D. Alexander

The Legislature’s two chief budget negotiators — Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales — are well suited to work together. In part, that is because they were in the same first-grade class in Zolfo Springs in 1965.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

The Legislature’s two chief budget negotiators — Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales — are well suited to work together. In part, that is because they were in the same first-grade class in Zolfo Springs in 1965.

TALLAHASSEE

Back in the fall of 1965, we watched Bewitched and Bonanza, the Beatles were on their second U.S. tour, and the antiwar movement was spreading across the country.

In Hardee County, first-graders at Zolfo Springs Elementary School were rehearsing the play Froggy Went-a-Courtin'. Two of the 6-year-olds were Denise Grimsley and John David Alexander.

Neither knew that 46 years later they would be Rep. Denise Grimsley and Sen. J.D. Alexander, charged with crafting a nearly $70 billion budget for Florida.

The soft-spoken Grimsley, a registered nurse and citrus grower, is the first woman to control the House purse strings as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

By coincidence or design, it was a wise decision by House Speaker Dean Cannon to pick Grimsley to be Alexander's partner in the Capitol's most difficult and elaborate dance.

In a session marked by fierce behind-the-scenes infighting, Grimsley and Alexander were the picture of cooperation — usually.

In the Speaker's Office, Grimsley is known as "the horse whisperer" for her ability to tame Alexander's legendary volatility. But the session nearly collapsed in chaos last week after Alexander blasted Cannon for "bad faith" and "gamesmanship."

The mutual animosity that Cannon and Alexander have for each other is Tallahassee's worst-kept secret. Grimsley deftly played the good cop to Cannon's bad cop.

Alexander, a wealthy citrus and cattle baron, is the most influential member of the Legislature other than the Senate president and House speaker. Many people resent his single-handed control of the budget, but they rarely say so publicly. He has too much power.

Shrewd, wily and well informed, he has an encyclopedic memory on the budget and is known for an unpredictable temper. "Yeah, every once in a while I growl a bit," he said this week in a rare moment of self-reflection.

He's one of those politicians who would rather be feared than loved, but it's a sign of respect that he's universally known only by his initials. For the past nine weeks, nearly every major issue hinged on what "J.D." thought, and once again, he made sure his cherished USF Polytechnic campus in Lakeland was generously funded ($46 million).

He drew praise for an emotional speech on immigration that rebuked the tea party's send-them-back mentality: "I've never seen such hard-working folks. They were here for one reason only: to save up enough money to go home and replace the shack they live in."

Alexander looked weary Tuesday morning after pulling a near all-nighter to get the budget deal done. He couldn't remember that first-grade teacher's name.

"S-S-Sell … I can't remember," he said, holding a Styrofoam coffee cup like usual. "You would ask me that on two hours' sleep. I'm better at numbers than I am at names."

A bright-eyed Grimsley instantly recalled it: Ruby Sellers. She also remembered that towheaded Alexander boy at Zolfo Springs Elementary — though they weren't classmates for long.

"He moved away to the big city of Frostproof, and left me in Zolfo Springs," Grimsley said.

Alexander is about to leave Grimsley again because he's term-limited in 2012. The lawmaker with designs on succeeding him in the Senate is — you guessed it — Denise Grimsley.

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

Then and now: Florida budget bosses Denise Grimsley and J.D. Alexander 05/06/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 6, 2011 11:27pm]
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