Strong arms and strong stands in Tallahassee

Published Feb. 22, 2012


What are things in the Florida Legislature coming to when one senator needs protection to walk on the Senate floor? • The debate over privatizing much of Florida's prison system last week probably marks one of the few times a couple of senators provided an escort for one of their colleagues — from the opposing political party, no less. • It attracted little attention last week when Sens. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, walked onto the Senate floor before the debate on privatizing prisons with Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, between them. • Bullard, who has been seriously ill with a recurring heart condition, had been in tears after days of pressure from Senate leaders and lobbyists who wanted her to be the deciding vote in favor of a bill that would have privatized 27 South Florida prisons.

"I told everyone to leave her alone,'' recalled Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston. "Stress is not good for her. ''

Bullard ultimately withstood the pressure and voted against the bill. The 21-19 vote against privatizing South Florida prisons was a rare defeat for the Senate leadership. In the Legislature, bills are rarely brought up for a vote by the full House or Senate unless the leaders are certain of victory.

This defeat was a particular public embarrassment for its supporters, who included Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne; incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville; Rules chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine; and Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

They don't take defeat well. It's probably no coincidence that this week Gaetz and Thrasher unsuccessfully tried to seize control of a battle over who will follow Gaetz as Senate president. One of those contestants happens to be Latvala, one of the key opponents of the prison privatization bill.

The Senate vote on prison privatization followed weeks of intrigue. Several senators questioned why the Republican leadership rushed the bill through without allowing it to be considered by committees that traditionally review criminal justice issues. And the search for votes to support it was relentless.

The Democrats, including Bullard, were solidly opposed. That didn't stop Republican supporters of the legislation from beating a path to her door.

On the day of the final Senate vote, Rich and several other women senators accompanied Bullard back to her office after extricating her from a committee room where she had been lobbied by Thrasher and Alexander.

Summoned by Rich, Sens. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, stayed with Bullard for the remainder of the day to fend off colleagues determined to change her mind.

"It was straight out of a gangster movie,'' Gibson said as she described the effort. "Arthenia and I are her sorority sisters so we wanted to sit with her and let her know we had her back.''

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Gibson said supporters of the prison privatization bill were "dead-set to get it through at whatever cost."

"But we had the same vehemence to make sure she was able to be there and vote and not in the hospital,'' Gibson added. "Nobody should pounce on somebody's weakness. That's just not right.''

Gibson and Joyner got lunch for Bullard and watched as Dean came to visit and promised to protect her. Bullard said Dean, a gruff former sheriff who is also a veteran legislator, had tears in his eyes when he arrived at her office.

Dean said he told Bullard she would be safe "with the biggest guy in the world sitting next to you.''

Bullard wasn't the only senator feeling the heat.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was stripped of his chairmanship of a subcommittee that reviews spending for the criminal justice system by Haridopolos because of his opposition to privatizing the prisons. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, says she was removed from the criminal justice committee because she opposed privatization and a bill that would help bail bondsmen.

Dean and Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, like Dean a former sheriff, were summoned to see Gov. Rick Scott but still refused to support the bill. Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, declined a request by Steve MacNamara, the governor's chief of staff, to meet with the governor.

"I said there wasn't any point in wasting both of our time,'' Jones said. "He wasn't happy with me, and I wasn't happy they waited until an hour before session.''

Several senators said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Tampa, was offered a chance to trade her vote and keep a women's prison open in Hillsborough County that has been slated for closure. She declined and voted against the bill. Storms did not return repeated telephone calls.

The debate on the bill was tense at times. After Latvala questioned why supporters were "breaking arms to get it done,'' he was admonished by Haridopolos.

"That was meant as a joke,'' Latvala said with a smile. "I meant why are we working so hard to get it done.''

Responded Alexander: "I have not broken any arms or twisted any to get anyone to do anything.''

After a Times reporter interviewed Bullard and several other senators this week, Alexander met privately with her in her office. He later denied pressuring her last week and called such suggestions "wrong and malicious and very inappropriate.'' Bullard was pleased by the visit and added, "He doesn't want anything but the best for me.''

Bullard says she has had five heart attacks in the past couple of years and was considered dead after one of them.

"They brought me back,'' Bullard said. "I believe the Mighty One revived me and re-energized me for a reason. It's miraculous.''

She wonders if she survived to vote against privatizing prisons.

Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at