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New Faces in Florida Legislature May Bring Change

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Tallahassee, FL – The combination of term limits and this year's election means many new faces in the Florida Legislature. Tom Flanigan reports that could change the dynamic of the lawmaking body during the 2011 Session that begins in March.

The day is Tuesday, Nov. 16. The place is the fourth floor of the Florida Capitol between the big bronze main doors of the House and Senate chambers. The milling crowd is made up mostly of lobbyists and others with a vested interest in what lawmakers are up to. Many are watching big screen TVs as new House and Senate members are sworn in.

This year, the oath is being taken by 54 brand new lawmakers. In the House, 41 of the 160 members, about one in four, are newbies. For a significant number, it's their first elected job. There are 13 new members in the Senate. Not all of them have no previous experience, though. Miami Republican Anitere Flores. She comes to the Senate after three terms in the House, making her one of the more senior members in the Legislature. She sees the dozens of first-time lawmakers as a healthy thing.

"Well, I think that the good thing about having so much new blood is showing that we truly are a citizen legislature. So many people come to the Legislature with no political experience, and I see that as a good thing."

But Flores admits there's a steep learning curve. She plans to guide some of the freshmen to help them get up to speed.

"Six years ago when I started in the House, I was very blessed to have several people who helped me and mentored me along the way, so I've tried to get a couple of people under my wing," said Flores. "Also to teach them things like the typical - yes, sometimes we really don't know where the bathroom is - to sometimes just really figuring out what are the best alliances you can make to get your legislation passed."

The vast majority of newcomers are Republican, so they're likely to find life in the Legislature a bit easier than the severely outnumbered Democrats. Over in the House, Tallahassee Rep. Alan Williams, a Democrat, has one bit of advice for new lawmakers regardless of party affiliation.

"Understand the rules, read as much as you can, but mostly keep your word," he said. "When you give your word on issues that are important to other members, keep your word. In this process and in life, it's all we really have."

Then there's another Democrat, Legislative Dean Al Lawson. Term-limited out of office after 27 years as a lawmaker, he attended the reorganization session in the Senate.

"Well, my best advice is for them to study hard, to learn the process, and to recognize that these are critical times in the state of Florida," Lawson said. "We need them to be more conscious of people who are less fortunate that's really going to be affected by a downturn in the economy, and I think if they do that and they do what's right, we will be able to survive."

It's not only fellow lawmakers who have advice for the newcomers. Wherever there are lawmakers in Tallahassee, there, too, will you usually find lobbyists. During the reorganizational session, many lobbyists held freshly-printed guides as to which face and bio belonged to which new legislator. Ed DePuy is, literally, a veteran Tallahassee lobbyist. His prime client is a company that provides health care services for U.S. military facilities. He thinks he'll find a receptive ear among many of the Capitol's first-timers.

"As a veteran myself - military - I'm glad to see that we have so many members who are veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan," said DePuy. "Now, that doesn't directly impact many things that come before the Florida Legislature, but it has a tremendous impact on how they look at their role in government and public safety and our national security and all."

Very different advice is coming from Niceville Republican Senator Don Gaetz. He's urging the newcomers to resist the siren songs from lobbyists and even fellow lawmakers.

"There is, I think, a prairie fire sweeping across Florida of political engagement and involvement by folks at the grass roots like I've never seen before in the years that I've been a citizen of this state," Gaetz said. "So I would expect that the 13 new senators and the many, many new house members, would be listening to people in their communities and we need to listen to them."

Underscoring once again, the seismic citizen forces that sent so many of Florida's 54 new lawmakers to Tallahassee in the first place.