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Students don't find these kinds of lessons in civics books

Tampa's Chamberlain High School got some bad press last week when five students were charged with looting a string of trading-card stores.

This is about some good kids from Tampa.

Six of them _ two from Chamberlain and four from Ben Hill Junior High _ were in Tallahassee the same day as the bust, lobbying legislators for their schools and their future. Their civics classes could not have warned them how tough that would be. The Legislature listens but it does not hear. Still, 16-year-old Kelly Tripp of Chamberlain tried to teach them a lesson on leadership when he addressed the House Appropriations Committee.

You've got to be courageous, he said. That's why you were elected. A politician should help shape public opinion, not just follow it.

"You must lead this state into the 21st century even if we're kicking and screaming," he pleaded.

The six students got into the thick of another legislative battle when they held a press conference in front of the House chamber to display cigarettes they had bought from a vending machine in the Capitol cafeteria. Adults had been watching. None intervened.

"It's just appalling to me. It's disgraceful," said Tripp.

Rich Thomas, also of Chamberlain, showed a pack he said he had bought face to face from a clerk in the Capitol gift shop.

"They didn't ask for my ID," he said. "I showed them my ID. It shows I'm 16 years old. They still sold me cigarettes."

The students had gotten the idea from watching Rep. Lois Frankel's controversial home video documentary that showed teen-agers in seven cities displaying the cigarettes, snuff and chewing tobacco that had been sold to them in violation of a law that is rarely enforced and almost universally ignored. Frankel and Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, are trying to put teeth in it. Their bill would ban cigarette vending machines from most public places, license dealers and apply the fee to enforcement of the law that forbids sales to minors. It's tough going. The tobacco and retail lobbies are telling legislators the bill isn't necessary. Those kids from Tampa can tell them better.

"The kids are going to win. They're going to shame us into it," said Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

Maybe. It is awfully hard to put Florida's Legislature to shame.

Sen. Patsy Kurth, D-Malabar, has a "thank you for not smoking" sign on her office desk and she's a co-sponsor of a bill to toughen the Clean Indoor Air Act. In committee, though, Kurth has voted against the Grant-Frankel bill. She says it's only because small merchants can't bear any more licenses or fees and not because her daughter, Martha Lynne Kurth, is one of the Tobacco Institute's four registered lobbyists in Tallahassee.

Daughter doesn't lobby mother on the issue. The senator said her daughter's boss, powerhouse lobbyist Guy Spearman, hasn't lobbied her either. Neither Kurth is breaking any rule. But it would look a whole lot better if the senator could at least take a walk whenever that bill comes up.

Students don't find that kind of situation in their civics books. Nor the one that follows.

Steven Uhlfelder is a Tallahassee lobbyist whose paying clients include some of America's largest corporations. He lobbies gratis for the American Heart Association on smoking issues such as the Clean Indoor Air Act, the so-called "smokers' rights" bill and the Frankel-Grant legislation. A noble deed, you'd say.

But that's not how Spearman and some other lobbyists see it. He and John French, whose clients include Philip Morris, have been pressuring Uhlfelder to drop the Heart Association. Sarcastic remarks were made to one of Uhlfelder's partners, who had to warn him of possible trouble for their paying clients.

I'm told there's an unwritten code that professional lobbyists oppose each other only for pay, not principle _ although if there is, former House Speaker Lee Moffitt has never heard of it. He lobbies against the tobacco industry on behalf of the Moffitt Cancer Center and charges no fee. He has paying clients too. Nobody dares to say boo to him.

Spearman wouldn't discuss it on the record. French did, admitting that there has been "a certain level of what I would call, tongue-in-cheek, "harassment' of Uhlfelder."

"Several of us feel he's jeopardizing the living we're trying to make," French explained. "I never like to be on the other side from a friend on an issue, but if they're doing it for professional reasons, I understand."

From Uhlfelder's perspective, the reason is even more compelling. His father died of cancer. He was 55. The doctor blamed smoking.

French tells me that I am a "bigot on the smoking issue with a capital B." Yes. But I lost a father to heart disease and a father-in-law to lung cancer. Both had smoked most of their lives. That's why I'm with Grant, Frankel, Uhlfelder and those kids. I hope you are too.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.