Two lawmakers' post-mortems on the Legislature

By: 
Apr. 28, 2016

Florida Sens. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, and Garrett Richter, R-Naples, are no longer as intelligent, as funny, as interesting or as tall as they were six weeks ago in Tallahassee.

The two two-term senators completed their final legislative sessions March 11. And come Nov. 9, they will be “formers” — former Sens. Detert and Richter.

Sen. Richter ran into the wall — the eight-year term limit.

Sen. Detert, on the other hand, hit another wall. She decided it was time, even though, because of redistricting, she could have served another two years. That would have given her 18 years in Tallahassee — from 1998-2006 in the House and from 2008 to 2018 in the Senate.

But she had that feeling throughout the the most recent session. “You knew it was time to go,” she said recently over a salad at a Venice Cracker Barrel. “It was a wonderful, awesome eight years, and I'm glad we finished in an orderly manner. But I don't want to go back.”

For Richter, a banker at heart (45 years and counting) and a legislator for 10 (including two years in the House, and unopposed in three elections), the experience was equally memorable. When he reflected on his decade in his office, he cited three perks: the people he met and with whom he worked; learning all that he did about Florida and the issues it faces; and the satisfaction that comes from helping a constituent.

“Their gratitude is overwhelming,” he said.

Detert and Richter are now in transition mode, detoxing from the capital scene, where, Richter says, there is a Kool-Aid stand on every corner. That's the Kool-Aid, he joked, that many legislators drink, making them think they suddenly are smarter, funnier, more interesting and taller than before they were elected.

Although they are serving out their terms until their successors take the oath in January 2017, Richter is back in his role as president of Naples-based First Florida Integrity Bank, and Detert is beginning to focus on campaigning in the Republican primary for a Sarasota County Commission seat.

With their departures from the Senate, Detert and Richter no longer have many of the constraints on them that would make them reticent to tell it like it is; to share their post-mortems on how the Legislature works; and what they would do differently if given the magic wand.

For those who know the two senators, then, you will not be surprised by the knife-like candor of Sen. Detert, her trademark; or that Richter is more reserved in his assessment. He is, after all, a careful banker.

How the Legislature has changed since 1998.
In a 90-minute discussion, Detert expresses her harshest critique for the new lawmakers coming into the Legislature, especially into the House of Representatives.

“They're getting younger. And more arrogant,” she says. “I don't see courage. I don't see commitment. It's not about principles. They see it as an entry-level job to use to climb to the next step. They've had no life experiences. They're politicians.”

She's getting revved up.

“You don't argue issues,” she adds. “They don't read the bills. Everything is a trade. It's not the floor of the House; it's like the floor of the stock exchange. Everything is about power, climbing and trading.”

The difference between the House and Senate.
“The House is like diving into a mosh pit,” Detert says. “The Senate is like walking into a library.” Richter describes the House as more like a fraternity than governing. “In the Senate, it's like watching the grass grow,” he says.

Or put it this way: In the House, the speaker and his pro-tem and majority whips whip the party members to stay on the speaker's game plan. It's all top-down, say Detert and Richter.

And it causes many newly elected lawmakers almost the moment they are elected to begin lobbying their peers and horse-trading legislation for leadership slots. If you don't get tabbed or, say, go against leadership on important legislation, your career can easily stall. Richter remembers a 118-2 vote in the House. Afterward, the two who voted no lost their committee chairs.

The common refrain about being in the House is: “You can't get anything done” — a belief that Detert rejects and one that irritates her “because they pass that culture on” from one class to the next.

The Senate, on the other hand, avoids the top-down culture. Richter offers a simple mathematical explanation: “80,” he says. That's the difference between the number of House and Senate members — 120 to 40. There are far fewer opinions with which to contend.

“There is more ownership and independence in the Senate than in the House,” Richter says.

Detert explains it less diplomatically: “We're all grownups. You don't whip senators. It's very businesslike. Many of the members have been House members, and they've matured. The senators who are not politicians have done things in business or for their communities. There's more respect. And the culture is to work things out in advance.”

The effects of term limits.
Detert and Richter believe eight-year limits have demonstrative negative effects.

Detert attributes the House's culture of power seekers to term limits.

She and Richter also echo the common belief that term limits have increased lawmakers' reliance on their staffs and lobbyists. Those groups have the institutional memory.

But don't interpret that as confirmation that the legislative staffs and lobbyists run Tallahassee. Detert and Richter say that's a myth.

In fact, both senators give high marks to the competence and commitment of their staffs. Detert says many people have lost faith in government. But ever since she has been in the Legislature, she has conducted her own poll among new lawmakers on their opinion of state government after they've seen it action a while.

“One-hundred percent say it runs better than they thought,” Detert says. “They're not deadbeat bureaucrats. They're hard-working people who care.” In Richter's farewell speech to the Senate, the first people he mentioned and praised were his Tallahassee staff members — “friends that I hold in the highest esteem ... compassionate, dependable, caring, smart, hardworking and humble.”

Their views of lobbyists are similarly sanguine.

“Lobbyists are a platform to present information and facts,” Richter says. “The pros and cons, why for and why against. They're presenting the best cases of each side. It's up to you to make up your mind.”

Detert looked at lobbyists simply as marketing representatives, making their case to make a sale, “just doing their job.” She listened to all of them — “unless they lied; then they weren't allowed in my office anymore.”

If Detert and Richter had their way, they would extend lawmakers' terms to 12 years.

The media.
“They love to stir it up,” Richter says. Still, he concedes: They “absolutely” influence the course of the Legislature.

Predictably, Detert is more direct and less complimentary. She has watched the media deteriorate over the years. “Everything is now a 'narrative,' she says, imitating quote marks.
“That's just spin. They're no longer reporting straight facts.”

Detert says the 24-hour news cycle contributes to the dumbing down of reporting. She notes: “You can't have good government without having good media.”

Their signature legislative accomplishment.
For Richter, it was insurance.

By 2007, the state-owned, taxpayer-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. had grown to 1 million policies and $500 trillion in property exposure. Through a series of Richter- and Rep. Nelson Bryan-led legislative changes — and help from Mother Nature — Citizens reduced a proliferation of sinkhole fraud claims and sold off and shifted more than 500,000 policies to the private sector.

Citizens' exposure is now below $200 trillion, and, Richter says, the legislation helped remove a potential $12 billion assessment from Florida taxpayers.

Detert calls her signature legislation her “obituary bill” — the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act.

It started in 2002 when she was in the House. A teen-age girl from Charlotte County walked into Detert's Tallahassee office on Foster Care Day. At the time, Detert was chair of the House Committee on Children and Family Services.

The girl was brutally direct. “Why does the state of Florida keep screwing up my life?” she asked Detert. “You're spending all this money, and you're not helping me.”

Says Detert: “She was like, 'Fix it.'”

For the next two hours, Detert's staff took notes. And so began an 11-year legislative journey. In 2002, Detert's first foster care bill became law, limiting how many times a child could be moved. By 2013, the Legislature and governor adopted reforms that, most significantly, shifted a broken system from a relationship between a foster child and a state caseworker to one between the foster child and foster family. This was so groundbreaking that Congress asked Detert to go to Washington and explain it, after which Congress adopted the reforms federally. That was also the same year Florida extended foster care services up to age 21, from 18 — no longer leaving 18-year-olds to fend for themselves.

“Just that was worth being in the Senate,” Detert says.

If they had a magic wand.
Richter: “I don't see a critical need to change anything.”

Detert: “Regardless of legalities and if I were the queen, I'd eliminate dark money.” It's ridiculous, she says, that an individual can give you $500 for a campaign, but individuals and organizations can contribute, say, $50,000 or more to Florida's seven other types of campaign funding committees and organizations. Says Detert: “It's becoming pay to play.”


Fatherly & Legislative Advice
LESSONS FROM RICHTER'S FATHER
The following is an excerpt from Sen. Garrett Richter's farewell to the Senate: “As I reflect on the past 10 years, I'm also reflecting back over my lifetime to various meaningful pieces of advice I got from my father. Early on, Dad told me that above all, 'be true unto yourself.'... He told me that I didn't have a good enough memory to lie.

“When I got my first job out of high school, a janitor at Mellon Bank, my Dad told me to 'dress for the job you want, not the job you have.' When I returned home from Vietnam, my Dad told me that the windshield is 100 times larger than the rear-view mirror. He was proud of my military service, but he let me know the future was in front of me, not behind me. He suggested that I glance into the rear-view mirror from time to time to see where I've been, but he encouraged me to focus on the windshield.

“And finally, he told me that a great recipe for life is to “Learn, Earn and Return.”

ADVICE FOR ASPIRING LAWMAKERS
In 2006, soon after Garrett Richter and his partner, Gary Tice, sold their first Naples bank, First National Bank of Florida, Richter received encouragement to seek election to the Legislature.

He visited two friends in Tallahassee, Cliff and Lee Hinkle, long-time veterans and observers of the Tallahassee legislative scene. Cliff Hinkle, now deceased, gave Richter two pieces of advice:

1) “There are only two reasons people want to be a legislator. They want to be something. Or they want to do something.

“If you want to be something, go home and rethink this.”

2) “If you want to do something and get elected, don't drink the Kool-Aid.” Or, don't let your position inflate your ego.

Richter says he managed to stay off the Kool-Aid “most of the time,” thanks almost entirely to the fact his wife, Diana, was able to live with him in Tallahassee during the sessions. Says Richter: “She provided me good counsel.”



Know your basic civics

If you think you need help from the Legislature to change an existing law or adopt a new one, Sen. Nancy Detert offers the following advice:

1) Know your basic civics. “I'm not in charge of Roe v. Wade,” she says. “Or Social Security or Obamacare. And I'm not your personal lawyer.”

2) Call your legislator if you need help. Don't send canned or group emails. Personal, direct calls make a difference.

3) Don't wait until session starts. By then, it's too late. Start on your issue immediately after a session ends or during the summer.

4) Call and visit all of the senators and representatives in your region. Be ready to outline your issue. Propose a solution.

5) Work with the lawmakers through the summer and into the session.

6) Be patient. Says Detert: “Sometimes the simplest things take four years.”