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Lucy Morgan

Career of honesty and good humor

We have seen the end of an era. And we are the worse for it.

State Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, died Sunday after an all-too-brief battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 69.

No one had a better understanding of the legislative process. And no one could explain it better when the House and Senate were behaving badly.

King grew up in St. Petersburg but gained political fame as a Republican from Jacksonville, his chosen city. Few people know that he once worked as an intern for the St. Petersburg Times — oddly enough reporting to my husband, Richard, bureau chief in Treasure Island at the time.

He entered the Legislature in 1986 — not long after I took over as capital bureau chief for the Times. You might say we grew old together — on opposite sides of the wall that always separates reporters from lawmakers.

No one was better at describing the silliness that frequently surrounds a legislative session.

On one particularly bad day that ran into late-night hours in the House, I asked him to describe the situation.

Tired and out of sorts from struggling to settle a redistricting dispute, King said, "If we were in somebody's home, they would have already spanked us and put us to bed without dinner.''

On another day, King said the legislative session reminded him of his dates as a younger man: "There were such great expectations and so many disappointments. I was eager when we started, and simply anxious to go home by the end.''

It was classic King.

He was an early advocate for the right to die and frequently felt the sting of attacks from opponents who didn't think any Republican should take that position. But King had watched his own parents die, and he knew how difficult those decisions could be.

He also learned a thing or two about hatred the year he introduced a bill that would have expanded the punishment for hate crimes. A white Episcopalian, King filed the bill to help Jewish and black members and quickly began getting threatening phone calls from people who wanted to keep minorities "in their place.''

The threats only made him angry and more determined to fight.

Sometimes we crossed swords. He didn't always like what we wrote, but it was never personal. He fully understood the role of newspaper reporters and their value to society.

And of all the legislators who passed through the Capitol in the 20 years I watched them, it was King who could always be counted on to answer a question. Where others would bob and weave and try to say as little as possible, he would wade into any controversy full speed ahead.

That's the way he lived life: full speed ahead. Lots of laughter, good food and lots of rum and coke. While he was Senate president from 2002 to 2004, he often referred to drink time as "vitamin'' time. Everyone knew what he meant.

He was nearing the end of his legislative career and had only one regular session left. Term limits would have claimed him in 2010. He briefly flirted with the notion of trying to become the next chancellor of the state university system, but the cancer diagnosis put an end to that. He would have been miserable in any other role than a state legislator anyway.

It seems eerie to contemplate, but I wonder if King knew what was coming before any public announcement was made. Earlier this year, he co-sponsored a bill that will allow people to have their remains spend eternity on a college campus of their choosing. And that's where we hear King's ashes will go, on the campus of his beloved Florida State University. The governor signed the bill on June 24, after cancer began to claim King's life.

There is no replacement for a lawmaker who answered questions honestly and had the sense to make things happen in a process where lesser beings too often hold sway.

He was not perfect. None of us are. But few have the sense — or the confidence — to admit that.

He was one of a kind. Gone before his time.

Career of honesty and good humor 07/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 27, 2009 7:38pm]

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