TALLAHASSEE — Ending nearly four years of political trench warfare, Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart was crowned Wednesday as next president of the state Senate and immediately promised to upgrade Florida's universities.
A soft-spoken lawyer and policy workhorse, the 54-year-old Republican will run the Senate for two years after next year's elections if his party keeps control as expected. Republicans now hold 26 of 40 seats.
He said his priorities as Senate president will be to repeal punitive juvenile justice laws, reduce discharges of pollution from Lake Okeechobee and improve universities with $1 billion more in performance-based funding — the amount of tax cuts Gov. Rick Scott wants in next year's budget.
"Let's make our good universities great," Negron said in a speech to the Senate, as Scott applauded politely.
Negron clinched one of the three most powerful posts in state government when his longtime rival, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, accepted Negron's offer to chair the powerful Senate budget-writing committee. Negron praised Latvala's efforts to unify the GOP caucus as their acrimonious battle dissolved a few weeks ago.
"It was a long and difficult leadership race, but I think that I'm stronger because of it," Negron told the Times/Herald "I feel like we're one team and one caucus, and I think it worked out well."
The Negron-Latvala battle, combined with repeated clashes with Scott and court battles over legally flawed redistricting maps, left the Senate more bitterly divided than it had been in decades. The low point came during a volley of name-calling during a special session in October.
A native of West Palm Beach and the oldest of seven boys, Negron was elected to the House in 2000 and the Senate in 2009, and along the way mounted unsuccessful campaigns for attorney general and Congress -— as a last-minute fill-in for U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, who abruptly resigned in 2006. His Treasure Coast district takes in parts of Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.
"Joe is a policy wonk," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who will be House speaker when Negron is Senate president. "When you sit down with Joe, the conversation is always about the substance of policy."
Known for his attention to detail, Negron a decade ago challenged a long-standing policy that set the salaries of elected state attorneys above those of elected public defenders. To the ire of prosecutors, he demanded that their salaries be equal.
"It was a big deal. People weren't happy about it," Negron told the Times/Herald. "I get great satisfaction from minor accomplishments. I'm not looking to change the world. I'm not even sure what that means."
He's a vocal defender of personal liberties such as restricting use of drones for police surveillance and opposing random drug testing of public employees.
"I believe in the supremacy of the individual," he said.
He said he supports making it easier for convicted felons to regain their civil rights except for people who commit the most violent crimes.
Negron is associated with a prominent law firm, Gunster, where he defends businesses. The firm's clients include major businesses that lobby the Legislature such as Associated Industries of Florida, AT&T and Wells Fargo. He said he will strictly comply with all ethics rules.
An avid sports fan, Negron plays softball, basketball and ping-pong. He displays in his Capitol office a framed copy of a No. 3 jersey worn by former Atlanta Braves star Dale Murphy (the Braves' spring training home for many years was West Palm Beach).
His wife, Rebecca, is a Martin County School Board member and candidate for Congress, and attended the ceremony with their three children and his parents, Joe and Pat Negron of Marietta, Ga.
In an acceptance speech that was both substantive and light-hearted, Negron recalled how his parents instilled a strong work ethic in him and did not hesitate to punish him.
"One of the reasons I became a lawyer was the complete lack of due process in my family growing up," Negron joked.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263 and follow him @stevebousquet.