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Tallahassee's different kind of lobbyist

Those well-dressed, well-heeled lobbyists. Cell phone to the ear. Hand to the wallet. The kind who buy lawmakers a fancy lobster dinner the night before an important vote.

You always hear about them and their lobbying wars, when millions of dollars are at stake.

Budd Bell is a veteran of the wars, too. She even has the burn marks on her arm to prove it. But her scars come from a unique brand of lobbying.

Bell wanted to draw attention to the need for state-supported child care for poor families. She spent the night baking 100 apple muffins _ she loves to bake _ burning herself in the process.

The next day, she set up a news conference and a muffin sale smack in the middle of the busy fourth floor of the Capitol, between the House and Senate chambers.

A remarkable thing happened: Lawmakers who are used to being wined and dined by lobbyists forked over $1 a muffin to Bell. Later in the session, they made a much bigger contribution: $19-million in the state budget for subsidized day care.

That is Budd Bell. A different kind of lobbyist.

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It starts with whom she lobbies for, Florida's most vulnerable citizens: the poor, the elderly, the abused and the mentally ill.

These are clients without big bank accounts, and her pay as a lobbyist reflects that. Zero. She takes not a penny.

For 26 years, Bell has volunteered her voice for the unfortunate in the Capitol, using household funds to bolster her lobbying efforts.

She gets results. She's credited with launching Florida's subsidized day-care program, for setting up programs to protect the rights of the mentally ill, for convincing state officials to resist weakening child-abuse laws, and on and on.

She just turned 80, and it's time to slow down. Her arthritis is making it harder to stalk the halls of the House and Senate buildings to keep an eye on what lawmakers are doing _ or not doing _ for Florida's neediest.

So this next legislative session, Bell plans to train her successor. She needs someone to run the Clearinghouse on Human Services, a coalition of more than 100 advocacy organizations that she founded in 1977.

Don't be thinking this is some little old lady whom lawmakers politely put up with. She is tough as nails. Budd Bell and her selfless dedication constitute a force to be reckoned with.

"She chose volunteer activities on a full-time basis," said former state lawmaker Elaine Gordon, who worked with Bell on social services issues for years.

"She has touched us all with her drive, her tenacity, her intellect."

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With her high cheekbones, Elizabeth "Budd" Bell still looks like the student who got the nickname "Buddha" in a college art class decades ago.

She was the model for the sculpture class. Her cheekbones, her wise face and her hair tied back in a knot prompted an instructor to observe that she looked like Buddha.

The name stuck. Soon the "ha" dropped off. She became Budd.

Bell still wears her hair tied back, usually with a colorful bow. In the high-stakes, big-bucks game of lobbying, she is an anomaly.

She doesn't buy dinner for lawmakers. Well, once in the 1970s, she confesses, she did pay for supper. It was for then State Rep. Richard Hodes, from Tampa Bay, who had forgotten his wallet. He repaid her promptly _ $6.43.

She doesn't walk around with a cellular phone attached to her ear.

"I just hate people getting phone calls in the middle of a discussion," said Bell, the social worker and people person.

When getting around with her cane became more difficult this past session, Bell broke down and bought a cell phone. "But I deliberately didn't learn my number so I couldn't give it to anyone."

Because she made no money as a lobbyist, her late husband Bill, an expert on aging at Florida State University, often paid the rent for her office space. At one time she shared an office with the American Civil Liberties Union. Sometimes she'd get donations or membership dues for expenses. But she's never gotten a paycheck.

"I don't know my social security number," Bell said. "I haven't had a salary in 26 years."

What she has, all her colleagues agree, is a remarkable mind.

"She has a photographic memory for dates, times, people, colors and smells," said Chris Schuh, who lobbies for the Association for Retarded Citizens.

Bell acknowledges she doesn't need to use an appointment book; that she can recall how lawmakers voted, going back years and years; that she can describe what all 161 guests were wearing at the 80th birthday celebration they threw her last month.

"I have always stored everything in my head," Bell said. "I just register stuff."

Her sharp tongue and strong views are legend.

When Bell was put on an advocacy committee for human rights at Florida State Hospital, a state mental hospital in North Florida, everyone there shuddered, recalled friend Kathy Shanley, then in forensics at the hospital.

"The name Budd Bell invoked great terror," Shanley said.

People learned quickly not to cross her.

"She told me when I first met her, the No. 1 rule is don't disagree with me," said Chris Card, who heads the Florida Network of Youth & Family Services.

Shanley and Card were among the speakers at Bell's birthday celebration _ which doubled as a fund-raising effort for an educational foundation to continue her work. It was attended by state officials, fellow lobbyists, family, friends and students. Bell has trained close to 500 students in social services advocacy.

One former student, Murdina Campbell, told a story from back in 1986. She and Bell spotted a man trying to make his way down the street in a broken wheelchair. He was obviously ill.

"Budd picked him up, put him in a car, took him to the hospital and whipped out a Visa card," Campbell said.

The man's hospital bill was paid.