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Lucy Morgan

Little known, but with a big impact

You won't see it in a lot of headlines, but an era is ending in the state Capitol this year. No, it has nothing to do with a governor leaving office to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent. Or a millionaire who could be governor, or even the possibility we could elect Florida's first woman governor.

It's a departure that has much more significance than a mere change in governors.

Jill Chamberlin is quietly retiring as director of communications for the Florida House, taking her practical advice and deep knowledge of government and its people with her. Her last day on the job was Friday.

She started life in Tallahassee as a reporter and bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and in 1979 left the glamor of reporting to become a speechwriter and deputy press secretary for a newly elected governor, Bob Graham. Before Graham left the Governor's Mansion and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1986, she was his press secretary.

She is a different breed of cat than most of the people who dispense information from government agencies. I daresay we'll never see the likes of her again.

In recent years we've seen elected officials appoint acolytes who view their main job as sharing the political views and covering the backsides of the people who hire them. When someone screws up, they do all they can to keep from admitting it and generally wind up really aggravating the reporters who are trying to get information. They forget they too are working for the people of Florida.

Jill has always seen part of her job as dispensing public information — stuff that already belongs to the people. Sometimes the stuff is damaging to the folks in charge. Sometimes it's not.

There are few people left in government who see themselves as a conduit between the public and information gathered by the state.

Perhaps the most important part of her job was the one few reporters ever see: telling truth to people who didn't want to hear it. That was the difficult part, but Jill never wanted to work for anyone who wasn't ready to hear her frank analysis.

And believe me there were lots of people who didn't want to hear Jill's view of things.

After Graham left office Jill went to work for Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter, another Democrat. She stayed on when Republican Tom Gallagher was elected to the office.

In the mid 1990s Jill went to work in the House of Representatives as the communications director for Speaker Peter Wallace of St. Petersburg, a Democrat. She left the Capitol to work for a spell at Florida State University for president Talbot "Sandy'' D'Alemberte and returned to the House to work for Republican Speaker Marco Rubio in 2006.

They should have called her "Nanny,'' because Rubio's House needed a lot of hand-holding and few appeared ready to listen to anything that wasn't adoration.

She stayed for the Ray Sansom speakership and some of the roughest days she would ever have. When Sansom resigned and was indicted, she remained as a steady hand for the "Accidental Speaker" Larry Cretul.

Some of the conservative Republicans in the House bitterly resented Jill's prior work for Democrats and her refusal to get involved in political campaigns. But Cretul seemed to understand he needed someone who would speak truth to power.

I should confess here that somewhere along the way Jill became a friend. As a friend, I'm glad she's moving to another chapter of life, hopefully one that will require fewer hours and fewer headaches.

She says she might write a book. Now that ought to set a few hearts fluttering. She's also become a licensed private investigator and could apply her skills in almost any arena.

She has a better antenna for looking at a situation and predicting where trouble lies than anyone I know. Her departure from the state payroll is a loss to the state and its citizens.

Lucy Morgan is a Times senior correspondent.

Little known, but with a big impact 09/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 6:59pm]
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