TALLAHASSEE — As Andy and Camille Gardiner drove home from the hospital with their newborn son Andrew, relatives crowded into their Orlando home to greet them. Andrew had just been diagnosed with Down syndrome and, as the car neared their home, they circled around the block to buy some time.
"We drove around for a while, just the three of us, and we made a commitment then, to Andrew,'' Andy Gardiner recalled in a Times/Herald interview. "We were going to raise him just like every other child. We were going to push him and expect him to do things. So, here we are."
Gardiner's promise to his son that September day 11 years ago has shaped the trajectory of his 15-year legislative career. He became an advocate for children with special needs. Now, as the newly sworn-in president of the 40-member Senate, he has pledged to improve opportunities for Andrew and tens of thousands of others like him.
"It's a fleeting moment, but I'm in a position where we hear from other families — about challenges that they're having — and we can address some of those things,'' he said.
Gardiner, 45, is one of the most powerful politicians in Florida. He's using his two-year term, the capstone of a long career, to usher in an array of legislation aimed at providing a path to economic independence for, as he says, people with "unique abilities."
The list of bills ranges from expanding scholarships for students with disabilities, to promoting employment, adoption and creating university and college programs for students to graduate with a meaningful degree. The bills are on a fast track in the Senate, and many are moving in the House.
"The Senate has embraced this journey and I'm forever grateful,'' Gardiner told his colleagues Tuesday as he lowered the gavel to open the 2015 session.
Moments earlier, Gardiner had posed for pictures with his wife, and children — Andrew, 11, Joanna Lynn, 7, and Kathryn, 4 — in his Senate office.
His Bible lay open on his desk to Proverbs, Psalm 9, the prayer for wisdom. A wooden gavel with a brass nameplate sat at its side. And the room erupted with energy as his daughters, dressed in coordinated coral-colored dresses, whirled in.
They barely paused to let their grandmother pin a rose corsage to their taffeta when Kathryn began opening all the drawers in her father's desk. Andrew entered close behind. Standing rail straight, he let his grandmother pin a rose to his lapel and his dad clipped a tie to his shirt.
Reaching up to his lanky father, Andrew then planted a kiss. "I love you Daddy,'' he said.
The Gardiners did not know of Andrew's diagnosis before he was born and the news shocked them.
"When we started this journey, we knew nothing,'' he said. "We were overwhelmed."
But by 2010, Gardiner was sponsoring legislation requiring ultrasounds for first-term abortions, and had already moved several other bills to revise how students with disabilities were treated by educators. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the ultrasound bill, but Gardiner said he was motivated by the medical data that showed that 90 percent of the pre-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome end in abortions. He also believes that if more people understood that most stereotypes about the condition are wrong, that medical science and treatment has progressed — even in the last decade — and that children can lead vigorous normal lives, parents would have less to fear.
About 400,000 people nationwide have Down syndrome, a condition identified through visible physical traits. In most cases, as with Andrew, it is caused by a congenital defect where the 21st chromosome in each cell appears with three copies instead of the normal two.
The Gardiners, who vowed early not to treat their son differently, quickly discovered that society, government, and education are not as enlightened.
"The hardest part about having a child with down syndrome is not Andrew,'' said Camille. "Of our three children, he's the easiest going. He gets up in the morning. He gets dressed. He makes his own lunch. He's very independent, responsible. But it's society's lack of understanding. When people meet him, they think more about what he can't do than what he can do. That's a big hurdle to overcome."
Unlike everyone else, she says, people with Down syndrome can't hide their condition.
"Think about it: What if we all walked around and couldn't hide what our weaknesses were?'' she says with a laugh.
Gardiner is a conservative Republican, who served as GOP leader in both the House and Senate, and grew up in the same town he now represents. He spent most of his career pushing local bills — protecting Disney, establishing commuter rail and, this year, seeking $2 million in state funding for construction of a soccer stadium for the Orlando City Lions.
But he is proudest of the lower-profile legislation that has helped to break the barriers for people with special needs. In 2013, he worked to put an end to the special diploma and replace it with a plan that requires schools to involve parents in the development of individual education plans for students with disabilities and include students with special needs in regular classrooms in a meaningful way.
"We were the first state to define what inclusion is,'' Gardiner says proudly. "We would hear stories from parents who said my school district's idea of inclusion is bringing my child in for art class and then taking him back out to a separate location."
In 2008, Gardiner nearly brought the session to a halt as he pushed through a bill with then-Speaker Marco Rubio to mandate insurance coverage for children with disabilities. Gardiner had attempted to have the bill cover a broader range of disabilities, but with the session running out of time and the Senate worried about budget implications, the final measure ordered coverage only for children with autism.
"Many of the therapies for children with autism can help children with other disabilities and everybody should have an opportunity with, what I like to say 'a unique ability,' to benefit from what is being offered,'' Gardiner now says.
Another goal for the Gardiners is to change the lexicon.
"I hate when people say 'Oh that kid is "high-functioning",' '' she says. "I've never heard anybody say that someone who went to Harvard is high-functioning. We say they worked hard. They applied themselves."
She is convinced that Down syndrome children are shaped by their opportunities, just like other children, and she co-founded the Down Syndrome Foundation of Florida to help provide families access to services, tutoring and programs to help expand options for their children. The foundation also works with teachers, to help them learn how to better teach children with disabilities.
When Andrew was 5, Camille visited kindergarten programs for Andrew to attend the next year. She was told by one private school that his attendance in their program would be "bad for other children." At another school, they conducted a routine assessment and commended him for knowing his alphabet and being able to identify all the sounds. But, they noted, the physical assessment found he couldn't jump.
Camille laughs now but it angered her at the time. "Why did he need to jump?'' she said. The next year, in 2009, she began homeschooling Andrew and has continued since, now home-schooling all three children.
Andrew is on grade level with 5th grade in reading and math, his mother reports. He knows his long and short division, his multiplication facts, and is learning fractions.
"He's just a regular kid,'' Camille said. "If anything, we probably push him more than we push our girls. I know we are hard on him, but society is going to be hard on him."
But changing expectations is difficult even for those trained in medicine.
Camille recalls the time she walked into a therapy appointment with Andrew and the receptionist said, "Oh he's Down syndrome."
Camille replied, "No, he's Andrew.' The lady looked at me like I had sprouted a second head!" she said. "He does have Down syndrome, but it's not who he is. It's just what he has.''
One of the Senate bills would help expand a pilot project at the University of Central Florida that now allows students to live and take classes at the school for a modified degree or certificate.
Like many parents, Gardiner says he expects his son to go to college and he prays for his son "to have a passion for something" that motivates him to succeed, work hard and be happy.
Right now, Andrew's passion is basketball. He loves the Orlando Magic, watching ESPN and plays on his church's full-court league.
"If Andrew is the first one up in the morning, he gets the paper and reads the basketball news in the sports page,'' Camille said. "He can tell you everything about these players — whose brother plays for what team, where he played in college. I'm like, how does he know that?"
Rise to leadership
Although the bills are important to Gardiner, he has left how they are handled and written to the sponsors and committee chairmen — a hands-off style of leadership that nearly sidelined his rise to power in the bare-knuckles, money-juiced world of legislative politics.
"He's a low-key guy who is not a big self-promoter,'' said Jon Johnson, Gardiner's long-time friend, a Tallahassee lobbyist who first met Gardiner when Johnson ran a Bible study and Gardiner, then a legislative aide, attended.
"The very thing he's getting accolades for now — for being an even-handed presiding officer — was the same personality set he was criticized for when he couldn't bring it together."
One of the more dramatic displays of cut-throat political maneuvering occurred in February 2012, when Gardiner had not quite locked up a majority of the Republican votes to secure the 2014-15 Senate presidency over Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Then-Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the former party chairman and former speaker of the House, with the assistance of Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, orchestrated a move to replace Gardiner with Thrasher as president in 2014 to be followed in 2016 by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a longtime friend of Gardiner's.
The schism, however, backfired and created an opening for Gardiner to cut a deal with Senate moderates, who were outraged at the coup. In the end, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, worked with Latvala and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, to outmaneuver Thrasher and, this fall, Gardiner rewarded Simmons by making him Rules chairman, the most powerful position in the chamber next to the president's.
"It's been a real eye-opening thing for me,'' said a humbled Gardiner at the time.
Thrasher sought the presidency of his alma mater, Florida State University, and did not return to the Senate.
'God put us in this position'
Meanwhile, Gardiner and his wife, who are steeped in their faith, believe that it is more than politics that brought them where they are.
"God put us in this position for a reason," Camille said. "Andy being in the Legislature and having Andrew is not a coincidence." She is considering running for Gardiner's seat when his term expires in 2016.
Gardiner is Methodist but attends Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Orlando every Sunday with Camille, said Fr. Roland Nadeau, the church's pastor.
"He calls himself a servant-leader and I believe it's genuine,'' Nadeau said. "As a dad, he is totally devoted to his son. He wants to bring a balance for these people as they grow older in life. Not to be taken care of but take care of others. That is a remarkable value."
When Gardiner was sworn in as president in November, he used the opportunity to speak directly to Andrew from the podium.
"There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think about what we can do in this Legislature to help you and others,'' he said, choking back tears. "I love you son, and I'm so proud that you're my son."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.