By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
Much has been whispered about the things that supposedly happen at private clubs and homes not accessible to the press. St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan wrote a story last month about some of the more colorful shenanigans of legislatures past, including how Florida legalized racetracks in the Thirties after lobbyists shipped a "carload" of whores to a Senate hangout just outside the state capitol.
Not that today's legislators have such expectations. "I used to hear about these crazy parties in a barn somewhere," offers Gus Barreiro, tentatively. "I didn't see anything." He adds that he doesn't even do the bar-hopping circuit anymore: "When you first get elected, you go to all these spots. After a couple of years, though, you just go home. You don't want to see people who just want to talk to you about legislation."
One favorite meeting place on that Tallahassee circuit is Café Cabernet, from which more than one legislator, including Alex Diaz de la Portilla in his bachelor days, has reportedly been known to stagger. Another is the Silver Slipper, an expensive steak house in business since 1938. The Slipper is a veritable museum of Florida politics, filled with old photos of paunchy, grinning men in antiquated haircuts and bad suits. Legislators love the place because the food they aren't paying for is good and the long tables are divided into little rooms with heavy curtains at the front that can be pulled closed or left open.
The Mambo Kings party is no match for the Slipper, even on a slow day -- just a lot of tipsy folks from Miami wandering around Kleman Plaza on a chilly night, Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez's raspy tenor leading a bunch of people in an off-key rendition of "Guantanamera," and legislator Ralph Arza enthusiastically spinning a young lady on the dance floor to the disco hit "I Will Survive." One attendee later offered this judgment: "Last year there was such debauchery that people were on their guard. This year was a bit boring."
Bill Cotterell, political editor for the Tallahassee Democrat (and a native Miamian), once asked a retiring sergeant of arms what the hardest part of his job had been. "He said, 'Keeping the session wives from meeting the real wives,'" he recalls with a laugh. "What happens in Tallahassee does pretty much stay in Tallahassee."
Not all legislators are boozing, whoring party animals. Some of them do have other interests. Basketball, for instance. Many Wednesday nights, several of the Miami-Dade crew -- regularly including Dan Gelber, Gaston Cantens, Marcelo Llorente, and Manny Prieguez -- play pickup games with legislators from other parts of the state, a few lobbyists, Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, and a writer from the St. Petersburg Times.
The ability to just hang together outside the capitol building is one of the things several delegation members cite as an example of the new unity of the Hispanic delegation. "You don't have family up here, so we become each other's family," says J.C. Planas. "Sometimes we go over to Rene Garcia's house and I cook for everybody. My specialty is Italian. I make a good risotto." Gus Barreiro and state Sen. Rudy Garcia ride their motorcycles up to Tallahassee from Miami before each session.
Barreiro and Prieguez share a rented house while in session, which they've done since they were elected in 1998. Cantens used to room with them but now has accommodations with his son Michael, who is attending Florida State University. Last year Julio Robaina moved in, showing up on their doorstep with "a suitcase with one sheet and one pillowcase," Barreiro chuckles. "He'd never been away from home. I had to educate him on what a bed-in-a-bag is."
Barreiro continues: "It's like going back to college almost. I became the housewife, making sure people pick things up. I warned them not to use too much hot water because we all have to share. One day I walk by the bathroom and steam is coming out of the walls. In the kitchen there's Manny eating Cocoa Puffs and Julio's eating cereal. I asked Julio if there was someone in the shower. He said, 'No, I'm doing my laundry.' He was putting his shirts on hangers and steaming them so the wrinkles would come out. I had to explain to him why that wasn't a good idea."
The Florida Legislature presents only the illusion of equal representation. In reality a small leadership cadre in the House and Senate tightly controls the vast majority of processes. This has become even more apparent in recent years, with the advent of term limits. Now that lawmakers are held to eight years, they have much less time to learn the procedures and rise through the ranks. Thus they are more dependent on party leadership and lobbyists for both information and political support. This dependence comes at a price.
The easiest way for the public to understand the phenomenon is to watch the House in session. As most bills are brought to the floor for debate, only a handful of legislators appear to be paying attention. Why should they? Most issues have already been worked out in committees, where the influence of lobbyists is most evident. For the majority members, party leaders dictate how they should vote, and most of the time they follow orders. Members of the Democratic minority are more often able to "vote their conscience" because it usually doesn't matter how they vote. "This talking [on the floor] is just what they do for the public," cracks one of the security guards manning the observation area above the House floor. "The funny thing is when a group of kindergartners or first-graders comes in and asks their teacher, 'How come when someone's talking they aren't paying attention?' The teacher never has a good answer."