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Cabinet shares power, glory

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Anyone who thinks that the Civil War isn't still felt in these parts need only wander into the basement of the state Capitol every other Tuesday morning. There, one can see a strange spectacle with its roots in Reconstruction, a system found only in Florida. For there in a large room, often filled to capacity, are the governor and six other statewide elected officials patiently listening to most anybody who wants to talk.

The speaker might be a mother from Sarasota complaining about school budget cuts. Or the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan trying to get his "damn civil rights" back. Or sunbathers who want to wear thong bikinis. Or oystermen who fear a golf course will pollute their oyster beds.

They're all pleading before the governor and Cabinet, a system that has been described as everything from Florida's town hall to the ultimate insider's game.

"It's like the ancient court of supplicants," said Wade Hopping, who was former Gov. Claude Kirk's Cabinet aide and now is a lawyer and lobbyist who represents clients before the Cabinet.

"People come and scream and yell and bring their children and read poetry to you. I don't know how (the governor and Cabinet) take it sometimes."

The Cabinet system is praised for the access it gives citizens to their government, and damned for its Byzantine, bloated bureaucracy.

"Few people in state government understand it," said Paul Bradshaw, Gov. Bob Martinez's chief Cabinet aide. "Hardly anyone outside state government understands it. But it affects a lot of people."

Voters often don't realize that the Cabinet races are among the most important on the ballot when it comes to statewide policy.

Unlike the Cabinet in Washington, Florida's Cabinet is elected to rein in the governor instead of being appointed to advise him. No other governor in America must share so much executive authority.

The six Cabinet officers _ the comptroller, the insurance commissioner and treasurer, the secretary of state, the agriculture commissioner, the education commissioner and the attorney general _ each has a department to oversee, plus many more duties they share with the governor.

The governor and Cabinet share power in great matters, such as buying huge tracts of land for preservation or cutting the state budget.

And they share it in small matters, such

as purchasing paper towels for the Capitol restrooms, or deciding whether a man may put a dock behind his house.

How the Cabinet

came to be

After Reconstruction, a turbulent time in which former slaves and Northerners vied with the traditional ruling class for power, it was agreed that there is nothing worse than a governor who has too much power, particularly if it's somebody appointed by the federal government.

So a constitution was drawn up and approved by voters in 1885 that checks the governor's authority not only through the Legislature and judiciary, but also through an elected Cabinet. The governor back then could serve only one term in office (now it's two terms), but Cabinet officers could, and still can, serve as long as the voters allow.

In the first decades of the century, Cabinet meetings were leisurely affairs held in a wood-paneled room in the old Capitol, complete with a brass spittoon in the corner. Few people watched the meetings, since the room was so small.

As a student at Florida State University in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jim Smith, who now is secretary of state, used to go to Cabinet meetings. "They'd sit there all day long and talk about this and that," he recalled.

The pace picked up when the flamboyant Claude Kirk became governor in 1967. Kirk, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, called the Cabinet, all Democrats, the "Six Dwarfs." Some of them retaliated by making Kirk's chair lower so that he would look shorter, Kirk said.

Kirk moved the meetings out of the comfortable little room to a cavernous auditorium, and he declared that the Cabinet would conform with the new Government in the Sunshine Law.

In 1969, the Cabinet underwent another transformation when state government was reorganized.

Now, instead of 48 Cabinet boards, there are six departments and six boards on which they all serve, plus the Board of Administration, which consists of the governor, treasurer and comptroller.

The governor is chairman of all the shared boards, directly controls another 12 agencies and appoints and suspends officials all over the state. On matters of clemency and budget, although several Cabinet votes are needed to take action, nothing can be done unless the governor wants to do it. But in many important matters, the governor is only one vote of seven.

Even those who work within the system admit that it's hard to list everything that is a Cabinet issue.

For example, the Department of Environmental Regulation falls under the governor, but the Department of Natural Resources reports to the governor and Cabinet. The Department of Citrus answers not to the agriculture commissioner but to the governor. Voters elect a commissioner of education, but education policy is made by the State Board of Education, which is the governor and Cabinet.

"You have to have a heightened tolerance for ambiguity to deal with the Cabinet system," said Bradshaw, the governor's aide.

"People to think for us'

If you think there is no possible way each Cabinet officer has time to fully research everything that they survey, you are right.

That is why there are Cabinet aides, a group with so much authority that some people call it the Mini Cabinet.

Altogether, the six Cabinet members have 20 aides. The governor's Cabinet aide is assisted by the governor's huge Office of Planning and Budget.

Each Wednesday before a Cabinet meeting, the aides get together for an informal but public meeting to talk about the agenda. The crowd is often just as large as the crowd that assembles for the real Cabinet meeting, for participants don't want to miss a chance to plead their cases with those who advise the governor and Cabinet.

The aides themselves say they hate the Mini Cabinet nickname, and insist their role is merely to advise, not influence. Some of the Cabinet officers ask their aides for recommendations; some want only an objective rundown of the issues. It's not uncommon for the aides to write a script for their bosses on a particular motion.

"I started calling the aides the Mini Cabinet, although no one wanted it to be known how much power they have," said historian Allen Morris, who covered the Cabinet as a newspaper reporter. "But it's hard to see how a Cabinet aide could help but influence the boss."

The aides system started under the Kirk administration with just a handful of assistants who met among themselves for maybe 20 minutes before Cabinet meetings, Smith said.

"By the time I became attorney general (in 1979), I was horrified to see that from that little seed had grown this monster," Smith said. "I am not a fan of the system."

The pendulum may be swinging back, however, as the Cabinet takes a bigger role in environmental matters and attracts more public attention.

"The demands of politics today are such that (elected officials) have to be a lot more responsive to people," said Gene Adams, who is Attorney General Bob Butterworth's chief Cabinet aide.

"They say that in the old days, if the aide was against a project, you'd never get it. That's not true now," Adams said.

Even Charles Blair, who has been Agriculture Commissioner Doyle Conner's Cabinet aide for 19 years, says he doesn't always know how his boss will vote on the controversial items.

Mark Ives, who has been Comptroller Gerald Lewis' aide for 10 years, said his boss lets him know when he has overstepped his bounds.

"One time, I wrote out a motion and a script for (Lewis), and he .


. turned to Doyle Conner, and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Isn't it great we have all these people to think for us?'


How well does it work?

It's easy to take shots at the Cabinet.

A frequent criticism is that while the system spreads power, it also spreads responsibility so thinly that it almost ceases to exist.

Education Commissioner Betty Castor said the recent problems with uneven statewide property tax evaluations can be blamed at least partly on the fact that the Department of Revenue has so many bosses.

"In Revenue, we've slipped," Castor said. "Responsibility needs to be more pinpointed. I don't have time to go through that agency thoroughly, just like I don't have time for (the Department of) Law Enforcement or (the Department of) Highway Safety (and Motor Vehicles)."

Unlike legislators, Cabinet officers are not allowed to discuss Cabinet business outside a public meeting. So the system is considerably more open to public examination.

But the Cabinet is such a weird system that many people wouldn't understand what they were seeing even if they looked.

Critics wonder why Florida alone needs this additional check on the governor's power. It's costly, cumbersome, widely misunderstood and fraught with possibilities for empire building and political pressure.

But in 1978, the voters resoundingly defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have transferred the powers shared by the governor and Cabinet to the governor alone. That loyalty has been rewarded.

As the public has clamored for tougher environmental protection standards, the governor and Cabinet have responded with pro-conservation votes that have amazedmany veteran observers. They've also been tough on growth management.

Some people feared that the governor and Cabinet, who for the first time comprise three Republicans and four Democrats, would split along party lines. But although Martinez initially had some trouble getting along with the Cabinet, lately they've presented a unified front on most big issues.

Ideas for reform, such as limiting terms or redefining duties, abound and may well be initiated. But the system itself seems solid.

"I think the question shouldn't be, "How can the Cabinet be improved?' but "How can the government be improved using the Cabinet?' " said Charles Lee, the Audubon Society lobbyist and an observer of the system since the 1960s.

"The Cabinet is not easy to explain," he said. "But I'm glad it's remained."