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Tell the Truth, Screw the Politics

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  • | 6:51 a.m. May 11, 2012
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Sen. Mike Bennett is hardscrabble all the way. From his days as a wild youth to his time in the Florida Senate, the rough edges just never rubbed off -- at least the surface ones.

The 68-year-old Bradenton Republican remains who he has always been: A rough-and-tough, walking, talking dichotomy.

Bennett graduated 251st out of 252 at Sarasota High School in 1962. “I was a real hell-raiser,” he says, with so small sense of satisfaction.

But he became a professor of marketing at Iowa State University after earning an M.B.A. from Drake University and will be the commencement speaker at Sarasota High this spring.

He grew up incredibly poor. Born in northern Minnesota, the family moved to Florida, camping the whole way. His mother got sick in Bradenton, so they found a hotel that let them camp in the backyard.

But about 35 years later, he bought that hotel — then, the Hoosier Manor Hotel. In fact, he has bought and sold several businesses, built businesses, developed land, and made millions of dollars along the way. Suffice to say he has not been poor for a long time and has a net worth between $3 million and $4 million. But he drives a 2005 Yukon and his wife's Yukon is 11 years old.

Bennett sounds like a strong conservative when he says the country is on the road to socialism and needs to turn around. But the American Civil Liberties Union named him “Defender of Freedom” in 2011.

On the hard, gruff surface, Bennett can be all businessman, tough politician and political maverick, shrugging off ideologues and lobbyists.

But when he talks about his wife of 45 years, Dee, volunteer work and treating other people, you sense there is a place of marshmallow beneath the crusty surface.

He's been called the male Nancy Detert -- and she the female Mike Bennett — because both are feisty, straight-talking, against-the-grain kind of sluggers. Apparently unable to take offense, he has no problem with the designation, even though they have been on the opposite side of many issues.

“Nancy Detert and I have had some wonderful wars,” he says, kicking his feet up on his desk and thinking about the Venice Republican. “There's no one I respect more.”

Bennett is leaving the Senate because of term limits after rising to the second-highest position, Senate President Pro-Tem. It's a good thing he's leaving.

“It was the most addictive thing I've ever done in my life,” he says in his trademark candor. “I'd have never given it up.”

And yet he is opposed to term limits, in their current setup.

That's Mike Bennett.

A judicious intervention
Fed up with a hard life, Bennett's mom encouraged a move to Florida. “If we're going to be poor, we might as well be poor where it's warm,” Bennett recalls her saying.

His mother's place of illness was a providential turn, although Bennett might not term it that way. Around the corner from the hotel where they camped was Ward Electric. Bennett's dad got a job there and the family settled in Bradenton.

Bennett, with an obvious flare for the sentimental, also bought Ward Electric many years later.

His years as a teen going to Sarasota High School were not Boy Scout years. Too much drinking and too many bad ideas.

Bennett ended up in the courtroom of Judge Lynn Silvertooth, after whom the judicial center in downtown Sarasota is named. Silvertooth gave the youthful Bennett an option. Go downstairs and meet with the military recruiter, or show up back in his courtroom in a few weeks. The judge did not recommend the latter.

Bennett joined the U.S. Navy and served four tours in the waters off Vietnam doing search and rescue. It was a lot of boredom and card-playing punctuated by some incredibly intense moments jumping from a chopper to help a downed pilot.

He met his wife during a leave in California in 1966. One week later he proposed. She accepted and they've been married 45 years -- still best friends.

It was in the Navy that he picked up his religious views, which are somewhat non-standard — that is, typical Bennett. He said you never knew the faith of the chaplain you would see next, but they all provided him some help.

While he believes in the life hereafter and a certain judgment, he says, “Religion to me is what you need it to be for your own soul.”

After the Navy, he squeezed everything he could out of the G.I. Bill for education, ending up with his M.B.A. After teaching at Iowa State, he wanted to get out and “do,” and became a freelance consultant for businesses, eventually getting hired as the national sales manager for a large Midwest manufacturing firm.

He was good and made a lot of money, but he wanted to be the boss.

So he and Dee (they never had children) moved back to Florida, and in 1985 he bought Ward Electric, which had revenues of about $600,000 and about six employees. In 1998, he sold Ward, which was doing about $15 million a year with more than 200 employees.

He had a deft hand with businesses, from ice skating rink turnarounds to land development. He mostly made money.

Into the arena
It was while conducting business that Bennett kept coming across government rules and regulations trying to strangle him. The tipping point was in 1987, when he discovered he was paying more for workers comp insurance than he was for medical insurance for all of his employees.

“I got pissed,” he says. “I thought, 'there's got to be a better way to do business.'”

But it took four years of working legislators to get workers comp partially reformed. He told Dee that he wanted to run for office to change things. It took another five years to persuade her because he wasn't running without her support.

After winning a seat in the House, he realized he could not get enough done in that chamber. The House leadership controlled everything. When Sen. John McKay, also a Bradenton Republican, retired from the Senate because of term limits, Bennett ran for his seat and won.

“I'm the only person to ever beat Ronald Reagan in a Republican primary,” he says with a wry smile of his victory over Bradenton Republican Ron Reagan — no relation to the late president. You get the idea it's a line he's used a few times.

In the Senate, he still ran into some of the roadblocks he found in the House.

“Too much power in the legislative process is controlled by people whose No. 1 ambition is to get re-elected,” he says.

But he hit it off with the late Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, a powerful member of the Senate, when it came to cutting government regulations. That relationship helped his initial rise in the Senate.

Bennett was able to work with Democrats on bills and hated the common tactic of killing a bill by the committee chairman not allowing it to be heard. He said he allowed every bill to get a hearing and vote if his was the committee of first reference.

“I killed a lot of them, but they got a hearing,” he says. “They (the bills' senators) were elected just like me. They deserved to have their bill heard.”

Bennett's terms were marked by pragmatism to get government spending and regulations under control, but also some left-of-center views — particularly for a Republican. He considers himself more pro-choice than pro-life, believes in assisted suicide, and he sided with the husband of Terri Schiavo in removing her feeding tube.

Growing growth
Not surprisingly, Bennett's biggest impact was in the area broadly known as growth management.

Coming at the problem as a businessman and developer, he knew well the challenges with Florida's restrictive, time-consuming and expensive growth management laws.

So he authored and led the fight on Senate bill 360 -- often known as just “360” -- to dramatically alter Florida's growth control landscape. But initial attempts were fought by environmentalists and slow growth advocates. When the economy and real estate collapsed, the tough restrictions began to look a like a luxury and the bill finally passed. However, it was then overturned in court on a technicality and had to be passed again.

One of the key principles in the law is to return to local government control over local land decisions. A constant frustration for developers and many local elected commissioners was that a decision on land use by a locally elected body could be overturned by a bureaucrat in Tallahassee. SB 360 returned those final decisions to city and county commissioners.

The law also relaxed concurrency requirements. Concurrency is when a developer must build roads and lanes to meet the expanded demand the development will place on the road systems. That could block developments in urbanized areas where local officials were trying to direct development to discourage sprawl. Government worked against government.

But in keeping with the Bennett dichotomy, he was named 1,000 Friends of Florida's Legislator of the Year. That's unusual given the group's slow-growth and pro-environmentalism.

Bennett considered a run for Congress because of being term-limited out of the state Senate. But he is choosing instead to run for Manatee County Supervisor of Elections.

Why? “It's basically a business,” he says. Plus, he would be in charge, not just one of many.

That's probably the position in which he is still most comfortable.


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