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Pocket of Power

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  • | 8:40 p.m. March 26, 2009
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A triumvirate of powerful legislators, all hailing from Manatee County, are setting the agenda for this session — for the last time.


What. Manatee County is home to three Florida legislators in key leadership positions, creating an unusual pocket of power.
Issue. It's rare for three legislators from the same medium-sized county to claim major leadership roles in the Legislature, but term limits spoil the triumvirate's party in 2010.
Impact. Constituents in Manatee County and adjacent areas benefit, but the threesome respect their role in shaping an agenda for all Floridians.

Bradenton has reason to brag — in fact, three good reasons: State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Florida House Speaker pro tempore Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton.

Bradenton, Bradenton, Bradenton. Population 54,184.

When Reagan, who represents East Bradenton, East Manatee County, and parts of Hillsborough and Sarasota counties, was elected to replace newly elected Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, as speaker pro tempore on March 3,
Manatee County already wielded strong influence in the Florida Legislature due in no small part to the triumvirate's combined 20 years in legislative service and 130 years living in Manatee County.

But Reagan's assent to the number two slot in the House hierarchy also propelled fellow Bradenton resident and Rules and Calendar Chair Rep. Bill Galvano to another key chairmanship: that of the House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review.

The committee's decisions may determine the very nature of Florida as a gambling state and who stands to gain or lose the billions of dollars in potential construction and gaming revenue. Galvano represents west Bradenton and part of Hillsborough County.

Meanwhile, Bennett, whose district covers nearly all Manatee County, including Bradenton, plus parts of four other counties, had secured the chair of the coveted Community Affairs Committee.

It's an especially key committee post in a year in which growth management rules are being targeted for reform to help right the state's economy. As such, it is no surprise he also serves on the especially empowered Senate
Select Committee on Florida's Economy, not to mention eight other Senate committees plus the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida.

Former state House Speaker Dan Webster of Orlando served in the Legislature from 1980-2008 and is the “go to” guy for Florida legislative trivia. Webster says it is “certainly one worth noting, having three people in such high positions” from an average size county.

Webster compared it to when he served as Speaker at the same time Toni Jennings, also from Orlando (population 234,130), was Senate President. But that was only two of them, and he says that was somewhat orchestrated, unlike this situation. Webster notes that Bradenton's bragging rights are part happenstance thanks to the resignation of former Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, just as the regular session was set to get underway.

Webster recalls that there were some pockets of influence in South Florida in the 1980s, but sees the uniqueness surrounding Bradenton, saying, “I think that it is to some degree unusual for that many people, in so many significant positions, especially since it's such a small area.”

The roads taken
They each took different roads to reach their political milestones.

Bennett, the 64-year-old elder statesman of the threesome, has been in the political game the longest, having served first in the House from 2000-2002 before being elected to the Senate in 2002 and again in 2004 after reapportionment. Bennett defeated Reagan in 2000, but Reagan smiles about it now, having gained much from the experience and now the friendship. In 2008, Bennett, a four-tour Vietnam veteran who has managed to maintain a sense of humor to go along with a strong personality, was re-elected for a final four-year term.

Reagan, 54, a local insurance agent, rebounded from that loss and was elected to the House in 2002. He's now serving his final two-year term ending in 2010.

Reagan served as majority floor leader and whip beginning in December 2008 until his election to Speaker pro tempore. His ability to weigh-in on a variety of issues together with an amiable persona and overall legislative experience made him a logical choice for the post.

Also intimately involved in calendar discussions is Galvano, a trial attorney focusing on commercial transactions and business trial practice with the Bradenton law firm Grimes Goebel Grimes Hawkins Gladfelter and Galvano. As chairman of the Rules and Calendar Committee he holds significant sway over what bills get heard by committees and on the House floor. Galvano is also well-respected and nearly defeated Sansom for House Speaker last year.

The youngest of the bunch, Galvano will be just 42 in April, he also sits on four other committees, including the high profile Joint Legislative Budget Commission and the House Policy Council.

Despite his relative youth, Webster says, “Galvano gave Sansom all he could handle as far as running for speaker. It took a while to settle that one as I recall.”

Today, typical of the mild-mannered Clark Kent look-a-like, and not one to hold a grudge, Galvano says he and Sansom are “very good friends.”

And, like Bennett and Reagan, he knows he still has a future in politics.

The roads ahead
While they came to their positions in the Legislature from different directions, Bennett, Reagan and Galvano are all working together now. They also have eyes on the future.

Asked if there is a common legislative theme they share, Galvano says, “I remember the day after the primary we met, the three of us talked about working together with Manatee County. We came in after a prior delegation that was not getting along as well. We can disagree with each other on policy, but when it comes to our area we were going to work together. I feel like we've done that.”

In response to the same question, Reagan adds, “We probably share the fact that we need to live within our own means and be very cautious with the people's money.”

Bennett takes a similarly broad perspective: “We represent the people of the state of Florida. A lot of people don't understand that when you're working for the majority you have a responsibility to protect the minority. All three of us care about the future of Florida...”

In separate interviews, each had high praise for the other two and it's clear they have each other's back.

While the triumvirate gets broken up beginning in 2010 when Reagan and Galvano face term limits, the two House members may face-off in 2012 for Bennett's seat.

At least by 2012, Bennett will be looking for a new job in politics, possibly seeking the District 13 congressional seat held by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. What Buchanan decides may depend on whether Gov. Charlie Crist takes a run at the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Mel Martinez in 2010. Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio recently announced he is running for the seat.

So, a lot could happen depending on what others decide. If Buchanan were to run for the U.S. Senate, or perhaps governor, and Bennett runs for Buchanan's seat in Congress, then Bennett's Senate seat could come open in 2010, creating an earlier opening for Reagan or Galvano to seek Bennett's seat then.

Reagan would like to stay in politics. He says, “I will be deciding this summer whether to run for the Senate or a local position.” He hopes to have Bennett in his corner, saying, “Mike was one of my supporters from the beginning.”

Bennett's plan depends largely on what Buchanan decides. Bennett says, “If he runs I'm sure I would be looking at his seat.”

As for Galvano, he says, “I enjoy public service. I haven't made a commitment, but the state Senate (seat) opens up in 2012, and that's certainly something I would consider.”

Asked if he thinks the Bradenton area will ever see such a concentration of power again, Galvano is optimistic, saying, “I think so,” but adding, “We've been very lucky. We had tremendous power with Sen. John McKay. We've been very fortunate in that respect in the Senate.”

Still, Galvano is cognizant of the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the trio's pocket of power: “I think we can continue to have a strong presence in the Florida House and Senate in our region, but there's definitely going to be a period until we get the new people in there.”

Having acknowledged the statistical likelihood of lightning striking twice, Galvano remains hopeful for the future of his district, adding, “I think we can still cultivate influence in the Legislature from our region.”


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