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Lucy Morgan

Looking back to a friendlier Florida Senate

TALLAHASSEE

As he lay dying, Florida Sen. Jim King was worried that people might forget him.

Pancreatic cancer was claiming his life during the summer of 2009 when King told his longtime staffers to be sure that people would think of him and laugh together as they recalled the good times they shared. In his honor a small group gathered on a "wonderful Wednesday night" for "vitamins," the code name King gave for the libations that came at the end of many legislative days.

Sarah Bascom, the woman King called "Short Stuff," gathered the group together at her office in downtown Tallahassee. It included staffers who worked for King, a few lobbyists who spent a lot of hours eating and drinking with him, a number of senators, some old friends from Jacksonville who loved him and a single reporter who was present when King entered the Legislature in 1986.

The stories they told had everyone laughing.

King spent more than 20 years of his life helping Republicans gain control of the Legislature, but he never adopted the extreme positions of either camp. He was the last of a breed that could swing votes with a heartfelt speech made on the floor in the midst of battle. He always displayed a self-deprecating sense of humor.

And he is sorely missed.

It is hard to believe that the departure of one senator — just one man out of 160 legislators — could so radically change the place.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos was the first to note that King would probably not like where his Senate has traveled since King died. On opening day last week, Haridopolos noted that the Senate is finally as conservative as he is.

"He used to call me his favorite knuckle-dragging friend," Haridopolos recalled. "He said you can disagree without being disagreeable. I think he'd like the way we are talking about him."

Sometimes King's mere presence changed the tone of the debate. Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, recalled the day he debated his first bill on the floor and had a particularly strident exchange with a member who opposed the bill. Afterward, King rose and walked across the chamber to stand behind Richter as the chamber continued to discuss the bill. King didn't have to say a word to let the others know he was behind Richter.

King could also take care of those who opposed him. Lobbyist David Ramba recalled the night that King killed all of the bills his clients were supporting — and offered him a drink. Ramba represented a chiropractic institute that didn't like King's efforts to establish a chiropractic school at Florida State University.

Summoned to King's office, Ramba found the senator holding a list of all of his clients and instructing his staff to kill all of his bills.

"They all died, but he didn't take it personally," Ramba recalled. "Taught my client a lesson — me too."

"Nothing would have made him happier than knowing we are here laughing," noted lobbyist Gus Corbella, the staff director for King when he was president of the Senate.

Corbella recalled a day they were visiting his hometown of Gainesville. King made him take him to the small house where Corbella grew up. They knocked on the door and no one was home.

King instructed Corbella to leave his business card on the door.

"They'll know that whoever grows up in the house could grow up to be chief of staff of the Florida Senate," King told him.

Next year they'll do it again, lifting a toast in honor of a lawmaker who might have made them all look better in a year when a spirit of meanness pervades the Capitol.

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Looking back to a friendlier Florida Senate 03/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2011 7:16pm]

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