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Legacy of Barron lives in dull times

Count me among those who miss Dempsey Barron, the legendary former state senator who was laid to rest last week. In fact, I began to miss him not very long after his defeat for re-election in 1988, which proved it's true what they say about being careful what you wish for. If he had stayed too long _ 32 years _ the Legislature was still considerably duller and diminished without him.

As we said in an editorial at the time, the problem with "My Senate," as Barron once called it, was not that he was so strong but that so few of his remaining colleagues were. The Senate sorely missed such other giants as Verle Pope, John E. Mathews Jr., Reubin Askew, Bob Shevin, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, Mallory Horne and Louis de la Parte, who had been lost mostly to higher offices, failed campaigns for higher office or retirement. In their day, no one bossed anyone.

Now, as was noted upon Barron's passing, term limits mean that we will likely never see their kind again. That may be a little too pessimistic, as the Senate will continue to benefit from the experience of term-limited House members.

But God help the House. It is fated to wallow in the mindless mediocrity it displayed last session, with few senior leaders to challenge the partisan dictatorship that has taken root there.

Even in the Senate, there will be too little of the institutional memory that Barron represented. In Florida's entire Legislature this year, there was no one who remembered why Florida needed a strong chancellor, backed by a blue-ribbon Board of Regents, to make the universities work together instead of against each other. One great mistake _ term limits _ swiftly begat another.

I must quibble, however, with those who say that the secret of Barron's power over the Senate lay in his not wanting anything for himself _ beyond, of course, the power itself. There were things he conspicuously wanted, such as Florida State University's branch campus at Panama City and a strong junior college there. What was true, points out Phil Lewis, another former Senate president, was that nobody else could use them to force a trade.

He was also shrewd at getting others to front for what he wanted _ so much so that we'll probably never know how often he did it.

But there is one example that can now be told. It may enlighten Florida Bar members who still wonder why $5,000 of their dues were spent in 1976 in support of was widely known as the "shoot to kill" bill.

The bill, represented as an initiative of the Bar, specified that it would be legal for private citizens to kill in defense of their homes and while resisting "forcible" felonies elsewhere. It defined the home broadly, to include the "curtilage" _ the area immediately surrounding the home, including barns and fenced yards.

The most significant feature, as then-Attorney General Robert Shevin objected in recommending a veto, was that it eliminated the long-settled requirement that a person using deadly force must "reasonably believe that such force is necessary."

On that count, the legislation was also known as the "shoot-the-Avon-lady" bill.

Why on earth was the Florida Bar backing that?

The Bar's president, J. Rex Farrior Jr., of Tampa, was one of a handful of people who knew, and he never said why.

This is the story.

Farrior's term coincided with a low point in relations between the Bar and Barron. Though a lawyer himself, Barron aligned with the insurance industry and the Florida Medical Association in their endless wars with the legal profession.

Farrior, following a well-worn trail to Barron's office, arrived for his obligatory courtesy visit. He made a major mistake. He fawned. Barron did not respect people who did that. But he would use them.

If there's anything we can do to help you, Senator, just tell us, Farrior said.

Well, said Barron, there's one thing.

He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out the shoot-to-kill bill. If it made sense to a cattle rancher like Barron, it was far removed from the world of a silk-stocking lawyer like Farrior. As another participant later recalled, "You could hear him sweat." But Farrior's bluff had been called and he had to make good.

The Bar found two Pinellas legislators, Sen. Richard Deeb and Rep. Richard Price, to sponsor the bill, and plenty of yahoos to vote for it.

But throughout the debate and the extensive press coverage, Barron's name never came up. His fingerprints were nowhere on the bill. At Barron's funeral last week, Lewis said it was news to him.

The Bar had a new president when the question of trying to override Gov. Reubin Askew's veto came up. Board members couldn't recall ever having endorsed the bill in the first place, and that was the end of it.