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State Sen. Dorothy Hukill dies at 72

The Port Orange Republican had announced Friday that she was entering hospice care and ending her re-election bid after "an aggressive recurrence" of cancer.
Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R- Port Orange, left, reacts after her tax cut bill passed the Florida Senate, Monday, June 15, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times)
Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R- Port Orange, left, reacts after her tax cut bill passed the Florida Senate, Monday, June 15, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times)
Published Oct. 2, 2018
Updated Oct. 2, 2018

State Sen. Dorothy Hukill, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, died Tuesday after a second battle with cancer, her family said Tuesday. She was 72.

The Port Orange Republican, who represented parts of northern Brevard County and southern Volusia County, had announced Friday she was ending her re-election bid and entering hospice care after "an aggressive recurrence" of cancer. She had been absent from the campaign trail in recent weeks.

"Dorothy has passed away peacefully in hospice care surrounded by her family," her family wrote in a Facebook post. "She was a faithful daughter, a loving wife, and a caring mother. She also took great pride in her work, the work of improving the lives of people she cared about."

The long-serving senator, who first joined the Legislature after her election in 2004, rose to become one of its top lawmakers on education during her 14-year tenure, colleagues said.

“She was as fierce as she was loving,” incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said in a statement. “She demonstrated grace and beauty in suffering and maintained her fighting spirit until the very end.”

Dorothy Hukill was born Sep. 20, 1946 in New York City and moved to Florida in 1988. The teacher-turned-lawyer quickly became involved in local politics as a councilwoman in the town of Ponce Inlet in the mid-1990s, before being elected mayor of Port Orange in 2000.

Constituents continued to call her “Mayor” even after her term ended and she was elected to the state House in 2004, said outgoing Senate President Joe Negron in a statement. In the state House, Hukill developed a particular interest in education.

In 2012, she ran for the state Senate and won. There, she rose to chair of the Education Committee and vice chair of the Regulated Industries Committee — and earned a reputation for her quiet but effective approach to legislating.

“Dorothy was one of those very, very large voices that a lot of people didn’t always hear because she was not always there for the spotlight,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, recalling her ability to win colleagues over in several legislative fights. “Dorothy kept us so informed, it was difficult for me to find myself on the other side of something … She was very good at seeing around the corners.”

Hukill was no-nonsense about her work, colleagues added, even when it meant reminding fellow lawmakers to focus on matters at hand.

When Sen. Travis Hutson, a fellow member of the Volusia County delegation, sometimes joked around with other members, “she would kind of give us a stare and tell us to straighten up,” he recalled. “She enjoyed people having fun, but she also knew when it was time for business.”

But the senator was also quick to ask about her colleagues’ families and coo over their children’s photos, he said. She also nurtured a fondness for personalized welcome signs for other members and the Star Wars franchise — to the point that when new Star Wars movies came out, she would take office members with her to the theaters, said longtime aide Elizabeth Fetterhoff.

Fetterhoff, who is now running for the state House, even made her Princess Leia ears one year for Halloween: “She thought that was a hoot.”

Shortly after winning her re-election bid to the Senate in 2016, Hukill began receiving treatment for cervical cancer, which precluded her ability to travel to Tallahassee for the following year’s legislative sessions.

But the diagnosis did not hold her back from staying involved. Watching the Florida Channel, she juggled watching the House on her iPad while keeping tabs on her computer on the Senate, she recalled at the time.

“I was able to set the agenda, review the bills, go over concerns or problems or amendments,” she told the News Service of Florida shortly after her cancer treatments concluded. “I actually probably watched more committees from afar than I would have there, because there I would have been in a committee.”

She also made certain her fellow legislators, who stepped up to help with her responsibilities, knew she was watching.

“I could hear from Dorothy at 6 a.m. in the morning or 11 p.m. at night,” said Simpson, who chaired the chamber’s education committee during Hukill’s absence. “She was on her game. She understood what was going on.”

“It was her agenda, her lineup,” he added. “She did not let up at all. She was completely engaged and responsive to policy.”

She remained meticulous reading her constituents’ work, too — when Jim Cameron of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce wrote his regular legislative status report newsletters, “I would write them with her in mind, and I’ve been doing that for years.”

Hukil was a regular reader, he recalled. “If I had a misprint or something like that, she would call and she would comment… I’d be very careful with these newsletters.”

When she returned to the Senate in 2018, she remained focused on education and financial literacy — a cause she had carried for several years. The bill passed the Senate this year, as it has in years past, but did not make it past the House.

Both Simpson and Hutson said last week they hope to carry the legislation in the 2019 session in Hukill’s memory. Fetterhoff, Hukill’s aide, said if she is elected in November she also intends on ensuring the legislation is passed in the House.

Hukill was “a crown jewel of the Senate,” Simpson said. “You can’t replace a Dorothy Hukill.”

But Hukill’s passing, about a month out from the election, means that the local party will have to pick someone who will succeed her if she wins — it is too late to officially replace her name on the ballot. Hukill was opposing Democrat Melissa Martin of Cocoa in the general election.

Hukill’s survivors include her son Jonathan. In a statement, her family asked for donations to Halifax Health Hospice in Port Orange, where she passed away, and said public services would be announced at a later date.