TALLAHASSEE — State tea party leaders proudly announced the grand opening of their "Tallahassee headquarters" for the upcoming legislative session on Thursday.
The location: Room 227 of the Senate Office Building.
The Tea Party Network — a group of 70 Florida tea party and 9/12 groups — utilized the conference room to educate new volunteers about their movement's talking points and to meet with elected officials who stopped by.
They say keeping a space at the Capitol will help them during the hectic days of session, when they need to react with speed to lawmakers' surprise amendments and unfavorable votes.
"Legislation can change like that," said Tea Party Network chairwoman Patricia Sullivan, snapping her fingers. "It's just a wise use of our volunteers' time."
Still, the group's news release begged the question: Can a political party set up shop in the Capitol?
Well, sort of. Senate President Mike Haridopolos said groups frequently use vacant meeting rooms during session, but he clarified Room 227 does not belong to the Tea Party Network.
"They are not going to have a full-time office, no, in the Florida Senate," Haridopolos said.
Senators routinely reserve vacant rooms for constituents, he said. Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, asked for Room 227 this week on behalf of constituents who belong to the Santa Rosa Tea Party Patriots.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, requested the use of a different room for Oct. 19, and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, wants another one Nov. 15.
The requests are reviewed on a weekly basis, said Haridopolos spokeswoman Lyndsey Cruley.
A few hours into their kick-off, the activists backtracked on calling their space a "headquarters."
"It was never meant to be a permanent room," said Sharon Glass of the Santa Rosa Tea Party Patriots. "We didn't mean that to sound like we possessed the building."
Glass thought the group reserved the room for all interim committee weeks this fall. She already has a room in the Capitol lined up for people to meet during the first day of session — just like last year, she said. "I guess I'll go down and find out what the review process is. We're not out to cause any problems."
A few activists and lawmakers huddled around an office telephone in Evers' office Thursday and took turns being interviewed by a conservative radio talk show host in Gainesville about their plans. Among them was Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who promoted his bill that repeals the Florida Renewable Fuel Standard Act, a "Charlie Crist-era" ethanol mandate.
The activists planned to spend the rest of the day watching committee meetings and talking with legislators about pet projects, including repealing Florida's septic tank inspection law.
"As we see folks in the halls, they seem to have a smile," Sullivan said, "but we'll see how it goes in committee meetings."