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Not everyone needs a shower when legislative session ends

Published Sep. 13, 2005

The air seemed cleaner in Tallahassee Saturday. The day dawned with a sunny sky that beamed down on the flowers of spring. People were out riding bicycles and heading to the beaches at St. George.

The Legislature was gone.

It made me think of Ed Austin, former state attorney, former mayor of Jacksonville. Years ago he helped his fellow prosecutors lobby.

Each time he left Tallahassee, Austin said he wished there was a shower at the Leon County line so he wouldn't have to feel dirty all the way home.

Many people feel that way at the end of a legislative session. Perhaps former Secretary of State Jim Smith said it best when he described why a lobbyist friend was in trouble.

"He got to where he hated what he was doing," Smith told me. "He despised lobbying. He didn't have any respect for most of those whose sorry a----- he had to kiss."

And yet this year, they were all back walking legislative halls _ Austin as a member of the Jacksonville Port Authority board, and Smith for clients including the New York Yankees and AT&T.

No matter how much we complain, there is something that draws us all back _ a kind of energy that exists only in the midst of a legislative session.

Sure, there are some dirty deals that go down. Little people don't have much of a chance when billionaires like H. Wayne Huizenga can hire the Ronnie Books of this world and pass a few bills.

It was a good session for Huizenga and Book, if they survive the veto pen. Huizenga's car rental companies _ Alamo and National _ will not risk losing lots of money in lawsuits and they won't have to pick up the tab when a renter gets his car towed _ thanks to Book and Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami.

But there are a lot of good people caught up in this swirl of laws and lobbyists. Good legislators like Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor (Yes he has a terrible temper, but he means well), and Rep. R.Z. "Sandy" Safley, R-Clearwater, pushed hard to help the environment. They should not be blamed for failure. That credit goes to those who protect big business and agriculture.

Rep. Mary Brennan, D-Pinellas Park, worked hard to help pass a bill that would force insurance companies to pay for the treatment of mental illnesses. She failed, because try as she might, the insurance companies can afford better lobbyists than the mentally ill can.

But there are small victories that make this process shine. And there are people who earn everyone's respect by refusing to be compromised by what is going on around them.

It is an awesome process that swallows up some decent people. This need to raise more and more campaign money from lobbyists and businesses that always need more and more tax breaks and bills passed is godawful. No one likes it. But some seem to thrive on it.

Some of the good guys left this year. We can only hope they'll be replaced.

On Friday, Wayne Westmark, sergeant at arms in the House for 22 years, was among those saying goodbye. He'll spend sessions of the future traveling with his wife, Joyce.

Westmark worked with dignity, saving legislators from themselves. He worked with a sense of humor and honor, even when he ordered "all unauthorized persons" _ usually us reporters _ out of the House chamber.

He needed his sense of humor this year. His friends helped him celebrate retirement with one trick after another.

They put his truck up on blocks; stacked up all his office furniture and covered it with drop cloths; canceled the card that admits him to the building; and faked an official-looking letter that recalculated his retirement pay. They also removed the light switch in his office, declaring it a "non-essential office."

All in fun and love. The kind of fun that somehow makes legislative sessions more tolerable for us all.

It is part of what keeps bringing us back to a place where we see the best and worst Floridians can offer.