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The legacy of Bill Sadowski

Published Mar. 21, 2004|Updated Aug. 27, 2005

Whenever someone writes about how much lobbyists spend to influence the Legislature _ as my colleague Lucy Morgan did this month _ the winers and diners plaintively insist that they don't discuss actual legislation over good food and drink. It's only about getting to know one another, they say.

That's probably true. But it misses the point.

As the lobbyist and legislator perfect their friendship, it's awfully easy for both of them to forget who's not at the table. You have to suspend belief in human nature to accept the notion that this doesn't matter when the time comes to vote.

Not a workday goes by during a session without at least one major lobby hosting a luncheon, cocktail reception or dinner. The biggest by far is the grand garden party Associated Industries stages at its palace just a few doors from the governor's mansion on the evening before the Legislature convenes. Thousands of people go to see and be seen, and to take note of which lobbies are paying for it.

The late Frank Trippett, this newspaper's first bureau chief in Tallahassee, captured the significance in his 1967 book, The States: United They Fell:

"By providing and financing lavish entertainment (liquor, women, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, banquets, balls) the true constituency establishes itself as the host at the state Capitol. It dramatizes its position as the well-spring of bounty and power and affluence, and by casting the Legislature in the role of guest it dramatizes through the social charade the command which it exercises over the Legislature in other substantial ways . . . By accepting the role of guest the Legislature similarly dramatizes its actual role as an intimate and affectionately subservient adjunct of the true constituency."

Once in a while there are legislators who don't play the role. One of the best of them was Bill Sadowski of Miami, who served in the House from 1976 to 1982, when he chose to leave so that he could watch his children grow up, and who died in a plane crash in 1992 while serving as Gov. Lawton Chiles' secretary of community affairs. He was only 48.

He had never allowed the lobbyists to buy him meals or drinks, but that didn't mean he disrespected them. To the contrary, he wrote a 16-point creed for legislative service in which respect for the right to lobby was high on the list.

Lobbyists were perfectly welcome in his office but he thought it was better for everyone if they kept the relationship at arm's length. He brought his family to Tallahassee every session and went home to them instead of to the party circuit. Invited to the home of an old friend who had become a lobbyist, he refused to go until his wife, Jean, persuaded him that taking a bottle of Grand Marnier would set it right.

"He felt like there's a place for lobbyists, but you don't have to do wining and dining," she explained the other day.

If you were to ask the veteran lobbyists, I think they'd tell you they never met a legislator they respected more than Bill Sadowski.

And here's an encouraging sign about the future of your Florida House of Representatives. On the second day of the session, Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, put on every member's desk a copy of the 16 principles that Bill wrote in 1982 for freshman members of the Miami-Dade delegation.

These are some of them: "Always respect another person's right to hold their own views . . . Avoid taking a position on an issue until you have talked to persons on both sides of the issue . . . Do not rely on others to adequately educate you on an issue. They will frequently have a bias . . . Public office is a public trust, both legally and conceptually. Never violate that trust . . . Your family is a source of strength and a point of real world contact. Preserve and protect that strength at all costs . . . You have two constituencies: one that elects you and one that you serve. The one that you serve consists of all the citizens of Florida . . . You are a politician in a democracy. Take pride in that. Use your office to generate public debate on important issues of the day."

Rubio, who never met Sadowski, said he was impressed by the creed because "They're great ideas." This matters because Rubio, 34, is in line to be House speaker for the two years beginning November 2007. He couldn't find better advice on how to use that power.

Though he supports term limits, he acknowledges that "one of the things you lose is access to mentors . . . to individuals who are grounded in the system." He particularly regrets that few legislators seem to take the time to know each other as people before they find themselves doing battle across a committee table. Sadowski's creed speaks to all that.

Because of term limits, there are no House members and only four senators who were here when Florida's affordable housing act was named for him, posthumously, in honor of his efforts to enact it. Let's hope his creed guides them as they vote on whether to let the governor kill the trust fund and siphon off the money.


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