The 2014 Florida legislative session is still two-and-a-half months away, but this week the majority Republican caucus officially chose who will be Senate President following elections next fall. Forty-four-year-old Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) says he’s planning to focus on the improving the economy, conserving natural resources and reforming education.
Gardiner has served a combined 13 years in the Florida Legislature, including time in both the House and Senate.
Speaking at his designation ceremony, Sen. Lizbeth Benaquisto (R- Fort Myers) said all Republicans should aspire to be as compassionate as Gardiner is.
“Since the first day we met you, you have been exactly the same person: someone who is uniquely focused on making sure that you are inclusive of all attitudes and abilities and viewpoints,” Benaquisto said.
Gardiner has a young son with Down syndrome, and he’s known for pushing legislation aimed at helping people with disabilities. Last year, he co-sponsored a law requiring parents of special-needs children to give final approval of their child’s education plan. That decision used to be up to the schools.
Pembroke Pines education blogger Armand Colson, whose own daughter has a severe learning disability, says, “This is something that’s good for people in general, good for these students. I’m just happy that somebody had the you-know-what to be able to do it.”
He says the law Gardiner got passed will provide more students the chance to succeed because it forces their parents to get involved—and gives them the chance to insist on more challenging classes when necessary.
“My daughter was lucky. She literally was lucky. She’s doing extremely well. Extremely well. But I’ve seen so many in her class—and you get to know these kids…as they grow up. And I’ve seen so many in her class who just didn’t progress at all,” he says.
Colson, who identifies himself as an independent voter, says what he knows of Gardiner leads him to believe the future Senate President doesn’t put politics first.
“I just think he looks at individual issues and says, ‘How is this going to help or not help?’” Colson says.
Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) spoke during the ceremony, saying he and Gardiner have become good friends since they were freshmen representatives in 2000.
“Senator Gardiner has the vision we need,” Simmons said. “He has the vision to make Florida an even better state.”
Gardiner then laid out a few specifics of that vision. His first priority is to improve the business climate, he says, with targeted tax incentives and better zoning. His second priority is to use the state’s projected budget surplus to address issues with natural resources, especially water. And in his vision, he says ecotourism would follow.
“We’re all known for our theme parks, but we should be known for our rivers and our lakes and our bike trails all across this great state,” Gardiner said.
Finally, Gardiner says he’d like to see the elimination of the special diploma and more support for college programs focused on training for specific trades.
He also acknowledged he’ll be President of the entire Senate, not just of the Republicans who selected him, and then he addressed future Democratic Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner.
“The journey that you and I will embark upon the next couple of years, we will be arm in arm, and I will do everything I can to help each member of your caucus to be successful in doing what’s best for the Florida Senate and for the state,” he said.
Joyner says over the past 13 years, she’s come to know Gardiner as someone who’s strong in his views but never condescending to those who disagree with him.
“I’m sure that we’ll be able to work together amicably because that’s what happens when you have a leader who respects the opposition. And he does,” she says.
Joyner stopped short of saying how her priorities might differ from Gardiner’s. She says she’s just focused on this session’s Democratic caucus agenda of civil rights legislation