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  1. Opinion

Dreadful disease strikes one of the good ones in Tallahassee

Published Jun. 24, 2012

TALLAHASSEE

This is hard to write. Harder to watch.

Former state Sen. Ken Plante has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease.

Former legislators are a dime a dozen around Tallahassee and many of them, like Plante, stayed around to become lobbyists. But he is special.

The sleaze that frequently touches politicians and lobbyists has never come close to him. When reporters look for a man of honor who might talk about what's going on in political campaigns or the Legislature, they frequently turn to Plante.

When governors seek advice, the smart ones have turned to Plante. Former Gov. Jeb Bush persuaded Plante to leave a lucrative lobbying practice and become his lobbyist when Bush was elected in 1998. Many credit Plante with Bush's success with lawmakers.

A Republican born in Orlando, Plante was elected to the Senate from Winter Park in 1967 and remained until 1978. He served in an era when there were few Republicans and many were considered moderates. He did not seek re-election after financial disclosure laws were upheld by the courts because he saw them as an invasion of privacy. He was one of several legislators who sued in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn the laws pushed by then-Gov. Reubin Askew.

Plante also challenged term limits and the law that requires lobbyists to disclose their income. But he helped create a professional association of lobbyists designed to improve ethics among those who seek favors from lawmakers and has long been pained and outspoken at some of the shenanigans that go on around him.

He has lived in Tallahassee since shortly after he left the Senate in 1978. He and his wife, Sandy, have seven children, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. As a lobbyist, his clients have included Southeast Toyota, Tampa Bay Downs, the Southland Corp., Southern Bell, Duke Energy and others. Plante often kept his clients out of trouble by riding herd on their political contributions, making sure every step they took was legal.

It took months to figure out what was wrong with him when he started having problems last year. He has now traced the beginnings of his ALS to weakness he felt in his arm and shoulder almost three years ago. He thought at first it was a degenerative disc in his lower neck but noticed other weakness and shortness of breath by the summer of 2011. The disease is characterized by a steady loss of muscle control, paralysis, breathing difficulty and speech impairment. There is no cure.

No one knows why ALS strikes. Experts are looking at possible causes. Most people diagnosed with it die in three to five years. Plante is 72. Some live longer and some have been known to survive for as long as 50 years. Men are more often affected than women, and the disease most often attacks people between 40 and 60.

Researchers have yet to settle on a reason for it, but they are looking at possible environmental causes, and they know that some cases have a genetic link. The ALS Association says that the disease occurs twice per 100,000 people.

Something is wrong. All of a sudden I know way too many people who have developed it. In the past year, Florida Republican Party chairman David Bitner and former Times reporter Dudley Clendinen died, the victims of the dreadful disease.

Plante is determined to do as much as he can as long as he can. He is busy writing a book or two, planning a television program and trying to find a state university that will create a school like the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He wants to see it focus on state government, analyzing programs that have worked and those that didn't.

He has lost 90 percent of the use of his shoulders and a lot of the use of his hands and has difficulty breathing. He recently put his Tallahassee office up for sale and is working from home. He made his only trip to the Capitol this year on the last day of the legislative session.

He also wants to write about the Las Vegas nature of Wall Street, taking a look at the phony values established for certain stock. He may also write about his experiences in the legislative process.

For years Plante and a few others have been exploring ways to reform elections, hoping for a way to eliminate the proliferation of PACs and committees that now control the process, but U.S. Supreme Court rulings keep getting in the way. "The damn money is just obscene,'' he says.

But most of all he wants to spend time with his children, grandchildren and Sandy.

"I plan on being here for a while,'' Plante said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Later this month Leadership Florida will give its annual Lifetime Achievement Award to Ken Plante. Well deserved.

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@tampabay.com.

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