TALLAHASSEE — Inside his spacious Capitol office, Senate President Jeff Atwater lost his cool as he worked feverishly to save major rail projects and keep a special legislative session from becoming a political disaster.
Running out of time as he bargained separately with fellow Republicans, Democrats and the state AFL-CIO, Atwater made a move Tuesday to secure the necessary 21 votes.
He wanted a written guarantee from Gov. Charlie Crist's administration that the state was willing to try to protect eight unionized railroad signalmen's jobs on the CSX freight corridor in Central Florida as part of the state's purchase of the track for the new SunRail commuter line.
The union guarantee couldn't be added to the bill without setting up a showdown with the House, which refused to legislate union protections. Atwater wanted a side agreement to save the jobs — in the hope it would placate the state AFL-CIO enough to win over a few Senate Democrats.
One of the most even-tempered people in the Legislature, Atwater "lashed out" in a phone conversation with state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos — according to Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson, who was in Atwater's office at the time. Kopelousos herself was weary of endless negotiations, and her cell phone mailbox was full and couldn't accept Atwater's frantic messages.
"You will do this!" Atwater told Kopelousos, according to Lawson's recollection. "What are you trying to do? I've given everything I had on this. Day and night, I haven't been sleeping, and you are screwing me around. … If you don't do something, I'm going to lose this whole deal."
Kopelousos did write a letter to Atwater, released Wednesday, in which the Department of Transportation commits in writing to "(1) eliminate the signal work from the scope of the current contract, (2) separately procure the signal work and (3) require that the bidders for the signal work be 'rail employers' under the Federal Railroad Retirement Tax Act."
Kopelousos declined to comment on her conversation with Atwater but confirmed she wrote the letter at his request. Earlier Wednesday she said: "The Senate was working to get the votes. There were a lot of conversations."
With the letter — and what the AFL-CIO says are much larger verbal assurances from the DOT on union jobs on South Florida's Tri-Rail system — the union withdrew its opposition to the rail legislation Tuesday afternoon. That freed a number of pro-union Democratic senators to vote yes.
With Atwater's intervention, the logjam was broken, resulting in a surprisingly lopsided 27-10 vote for the rail bill. It also boosts funding for Tri-Rail, sets up a new rail "enterprise" at the DOT and was passed in the hopes of improving Florida's chance to win $2.5 billion in federal bullet train money.
Atwater, a Republican candidate for chief financial officer, could not be reached. His spokeswoman, Jaryn Emhof, said the Senate president was working to "keep the dialogue going" to bring the special session to a successful conclusion. During such moments, "you might get a little intense," Emhof said.
The result reflected a rare instance of organized labor, a bulwark of the Democratic Party, seeking a measure of relevance in a strongly Republican Legislature, as it pushed a two-prong message of worker protections and rider safety.
"We've all been under a lot of pressure to try to reach a compromise," AFL-CIO president Mike Williams said. "All we've been asking for is to keep rider safety in place and protect current and future jobs on Tri-Rail and SunRail."
Like the Republicans who have long advocated the new rail projects, Williams, too, is now touting the "thousands" of new jobs SunRail will create. Doubling of the rail line will mean those jobs will be eligible for union protections.
In addition, Williams said, the leadership of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail, has agreed at its meeting Friday to keep existing protections in place for more than 100 signal and maintenance workers pending new negotiations for those jobs.
Two weeks earlier, Williams accused the transportation department of "union-busting" activities for hosting a seminar for contractors seeking to keep their workplaces non-union.
An electrician by trade, Williams said he was under no illusion that labor "had that big stick" with senators over rail legislation.
"At this time, the house of labor in the state of Florida will never singularly guide and direct how legislation ends up and travels through that Capitol over there," Williams said from his office, a few blocks away. "But coupled with allies, we can make the difference."
He acknowledged Atwater for making "every effort," along with Lawson and the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, to get the bill passed.
Times/Herald staff writer Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Florida's transportation secretary is Stephanie Kopelousos. Earlier versions of this story used in print and online misspelled her name.