Parkland mayor returns to Tallahassee, this time with a very different message

Christine Hunschofsky has met with President Donald Trump at the White House and appeared on national television. She met with Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday, and dozens of legislative leaders in the last 48 hours.
Mayor Christine Hunschofsky [AP | Evan Vucci]
Mayor Christine Hunschofsky [AP | Evan Vucci]
Published Feb. 28, 2018

Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky drove all night Sunday for her second trip to Tallahassee this year carrying a message she never imagined she would bring.

Six weeks ago, Hunschofsky was working with the League of Cities on a campaign to urge legislators to reject legislation aimed at taking away local control. Lawmakers, led by the House, had filed an unprecedented list of bills that would preempt local government authority on everything from vacation rentals to business and environmental regulations.

This time, she was delivering to legislators the message of parents of children killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and she was asking lawmakers for their help.

"Remember that we're here to work for the safety of our children and not for political futures or agendas," she read from a personal message from Tony and Jennifer Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina, was killed in the shooting.

For the last two days, Hunschofsky sat through House and Senate meetings, listening as passionate and angry members of her community expressed frustration at the failure of lawmakers to accept the need to limit access to high-powered assault weapons like the one that killed 17 students and teachers in six minutes.

Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was among those killed, called the legislation "a minimally acceptable" effort, Hunschofsky said.

"This should have been done long ago," Hunschofsky read from Guttenberg's statement. "While I support this bill as a minimal first step, we need to agree that this is not enough."

The mayor, a self-described "stay-at-home mom," had served on the Parkland City Commission before she was elected in November 2016 to the non-partisan post. But, since Valentine's Day, she has been thrown into the national limelight like the rest of her community.

Hunschofsky has met with President Donald Trump at the White House and appeared on national television. She met with Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday, and dozens of legislative leaders in the last 48 hours. But the mayor whose previous worry was that the Legislature was threatening her ability to respond to her constituents, now found herself asking lawmakers for their help.

"We had a very tough time in Parkland, as you can imagine," she told the Senate Rules Committee Monday. "Since we're such a small, tight-knit community everybody knew someone who was affected."

Hunschofsky told legislators that she doesn't agree with arming teachers, but she appreciated any step toward funding mental health and school resource officers.

The bills advanced by House and Senate committees Tuesday would impose a three-day waiting period for all firearms, prohibit licensed firearm dealers from selling a firearm to anyone under 21, and put put $400 million into programs to hire more gun-wielding school safety officers in schools, pay for mental health counseling and raze the building where the shootings took place, and replace it with a memorial.

"What you have before you is not a perfect bill," Hunschofsky told the Senate Rules Committee late Monday afternoon, a sentiment she also expressed before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. "But three weeks ago, who here would have thought this bill would ever be here?

"I can tell you that my friends, who have just buried children, they want action," she said. "It's not perfect but make it a first step in a longer discussion. Something has to change and action must be taken."

Unlike attempts to take away the ability of local governments to decide what is best for their constituents, the bill at least allowed school districts to decide whether to arm teachers, she said.

"Cities come up here all the time and say you should be allowing us to have our home rule,'' she said. "We are the ones closest to the people. If people don't like something we're doing, we're going to hear about it at Publix. We are completely held accountable for our actions."

Hunschofsky said it is "too early" to know what her community may want to do to go beyond what the conservatives in the Republican-led Legislature could agree to, but, she said, the issue will be a priority for her city for years to come.

"The ripple effects of this cannot be underestimated," she said. "What's happening here can make a difference in the lives of real people, who have been devastated by a tragedy."