TALLAHASSEE — Mark Heidrich is a full-fledged citizen of Florida again, and he couldn't be happier.
Heidrich, 57, of New Port Richey made a serious mistake more than a decade ago and served his time. But he has been paying for it ever since he walked out of prison.
So when Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet voted to restore his civil rights, he wept in public as the years of humiliation melted away.
"I can actively be part of society again. I can be a responsible citizen," Heidrich said moments after the unanimous vote last month. "They are trusting me to do the right thing."
Heidrich was once a Pasco County funeral director and a member of the local Chamber of Commerce board who got hooked up with the wrong crowd and was caught dealing LSD and cocaine, which sent him to prison for 21/2 years.
Behind bars at low-security Madison Correctional Institution, Heidrich didn't cause any trouble. He had a prison job and his parents visited him every other weekend.
He left prison in 1998, has stayed out of trouble, and has been trying for seven years to get his civil rights restored. He works six days a week as a chef at a Beef 'O' Brady's in Port Richey (his drug conviction cost him his license as a funeral director).
Heidrich's one-man struggle for redemption illuminates the cumbersome, time-consuming and highly secretive clemency system in Florida.
Bespectacled and dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, he's the human face of the monstrous backlog of petitions from people who broke the law and paid the price, only to discover they are barred from full citizenship by law for years later.
The backlog is getting bigger again, for two reasons: a series of cuts to the Parole Commission's budget, and the decision by Scott and the Cabinet last March to eliminate a streamlined civil rights restoration process. In most cases, ex-offenders seeking full citizenship have to wait for a public hearing.
Struggling with a backlog of 95,000 pending cases, the agency is asking the Legislature for an additional $642,000 next year to hire 10 more workers.
At the current rate, with no new cases coming in, the agency would need five years to get through the backlog, Parole Commission chairwoman Tena Pate told legislators.
Heidrich had given up hope that the state would ever consider his plea, only to unexpectedly get a letter from the Florida Parole Commission telling him his case would be taken up.
"This came out of the blue. I had no idea this was going to happen," Heidrich said.
He put his frail 87-year-old mother in his Buick, and the two of them drove to Tallahassee for the Sept. 21 hearing.
"Case No. 40, Mark L. Heidrich. Mr. Heidrich is here," the clerk announced, and Heidrich nervously stepped to the lectern in the basement Cabinet room of the state Capitol.
"I made some really bad decisions in my lifetime," he began.
Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi at first appeared skeptical that Heidrich was rehabilitated.
"Governor, I would just point out that this is trafficking in cocaine and LSD, and he's only been released since '98," said Bondi, who suggested Heidrich wait a few years and reapply for citizenship.
Bondi noted that Heidrich has had two speeding tickets in the past decade.
The clemency staff told Scott that with the backlog, Heidrich's case might not come up for five more years. Inexplicably, the mood changed and Bondi extended mercy.
"Governor, I have no objection. He's stayed clean for quite a while," Bondi said.
"I move to grant restoration of civil rights," Scott said.
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you," Heidrich said.
He's now awaiting a confirmation letter from the state, which he needs to register to vote, 13 years after leaving prison.
Heidrich credits a friend from his high school days in Fremont, Ohio, for giving him the motivation to persist. Susan Suffecool reconnected with Heidrich and urged him to keep trying to get his rights restored.
"He had pretty much given up," Suffecool said. "But if there's one guy I've ever known who deserves a second chance, it's him."
She still can't believe it took him seven years.
"I think that's an outrage," she said. "It doesn't say much about the state of Florida."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.