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Bucher nearly done holding GOP to the fire

TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Susan Bucher has been awake since 5 a.m., marking up bills with highlighters. Yellow means bad. Pink means really bad.

It has been a really bad morning. Six hours later, Bucher is in her office, still going.

"This is my problem area," she says, pointing at papers on her desk. "This pile right here is something I have been working on, and that's CSX railroad in Orlando. And this is another project that's on fire. It just doesn't smell right."

Not much has sat right with Bucher since she was elected eight years ago to the Florida House. No one else has asked more questions, investigated more issues and agitated more colleagues than her.

Pronounced "booker," the 49-year-old Democrat from West Palm Beach has just two weeks left before being forced out due to term limits. She will leave without a significant piece of legislation to her name.

But Bucher will be long remembered and she may remain in the public eye: She is challenging the Democratic incumbent for Palm Beach County supervisor of elections.

At a time when some might feel reflective or focus on an upcoming election, Bucher is as hard charging as ever.

"I didn't come from an illustrious background," said Bucher, who was born into a farming family in California and raised herself from age 15. She never completed college. "Maybe I appreciate being here a little bit more than some."

Bucher is a tenacious debater, her playbook a list of handwritten notes and bills splashed with highlighter. The ritual is so common, lawmakers on the receiving end have a term for it: Buchered.

"You're not a state representative until Rep. Bucher asks you a question," House Speaker Marco Rubio told a freshman Republican who was introducing his first bill this month.

But Bucher does not go after only easy targets. When other Democrats were afraid to criticize Rubio during the height of his power last year, Bucher questioned some of his hiring decisions.

Last week, she blasted another top Republican, Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park, for producing a huge strike-all amendment to an important growth management bill.

"You've asked 22 questions," Cannon said.

"You're counting?" Bucher said.

"Yes," Cannon said, "22."

"I've read the bill and I think I'm entitled to some answers."

Cannon shut her off, but members on both sides of the aisle credit Bucher's watchdog spirit. If anything, she makes representatives understand the legislation that bears their names, but is often crafted by a lobbyist.

Rep. Jack Seiler, a veteran Democrat who sits next to Bucher, said Republicans frequently come over before debate to see if she has issues with their bills.

"She has no ulterior motives, and she's been good for the process," Seiler said. "You can compare her to the Sunshine Law. If you can shed a little light on a subject and get into the details, it's a good thing."

The irony is that Bucher rarely gets her own legislation passed. Partly because she is a liberal Democrat. But also because her doggedness has marginalized her, turning her into a caricature, a nasally voiced, grownup hall pass monitor.

In 2006, the only time people can remember Bucher passing a bill, all Republicans jokingly held up their microphones as if they each had questions for her. (The bill, requiring disclosure of medical records sent outside the U.S., died in the Senate.) When Bucher's husband, a high school math teacher, showed up last week, he was given a standing ovation.

"If you don't choose your battles carefully, people have a tendency to tune it out," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a ranking Republican from Fort Lauderdale.

"It's unfortunate," Bogdanoff added. "I think she has tremendous value in the process. When she does her homework, she does it well."

Bucher says she is comfortable in her role. If she can make other bills better or at least expose a conflict, she feels she has achieved her purpose. "You can get a lot done when you don't care who gets the credit.

"There's a lot of people that get here and want press, they want to be recognized, and want everyone to like them. But they don't necessarily concentrate on policy. There has to be some workers. We can't all be rock stars."

• • •

Bucher was born in 1957 in Escondido, Calif., an agricultural center outside San Diego. Her father, a second-generation Mexican immigrant, worked on a farm growing avocados, grapefruits and oranges. Her mother assembled circuit boards.

The couple divorced, and Bucher and her older brother went to live with their mother. When Bucher was 15, her mom was killed in a car accident. To help cover house payments, Bucher served soup and homemade pie at O' Happy Belly.

She took community college classes, got a job with a gas company, married, moved to Florida in 1985 and began working as an assistant to the Palm Beach zoning official.

Anyone familiar with local government knows how dry meetings can be, a numbing series of motions and public testimony. But the grind sparked a sense of purpose. "I would sit in the meetings and ask, 'Who makes these really dumb laws?' " Bucher recalled.

She eventually met state Rep. Ed Healey, D-West Palm Beach, and became his legislative aide. They worked together until his death of a brain hemorrhage in 2000, two weeks into his 11th two-year term. Bucher won a tightly compressed contest to succeed him.

• • •

Bucher may be powerless in Tallahassee but she enjoys an almost Teflon experience. Her West Palm Beach district is so solidly Democratic, she never faced serious opposition. So she takes on the attack dog role for the party, attacking issues that others cannot.

The role has landed her in trouble. In 2003, Bucher accused Republicans of circumventing state regulations so a big-time political donor from Central Florida could expand a hospital at The Villages.

The following year, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd ordered an investigation after Bucher accused the leadership of greasing a health care bill in exchange for campaign contributions. It resulted in a reprimand letter telling her to watch her words.

"I tried," Bucher said. "But honesty is honesty, and I'll continue to do that."

Times capital bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Bucher nearly done holding GOP to the fire 04/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 3:42pm]
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