Published: Sep 1, 2005
“To me, politics is sort of the art or the science of managing all of the
diverse opinions and dynamics of public setting. Leadership is something that
transcends every walk of life. And whether it be professional, personal or
political, leadership is a characteristic or a trait that, well, transcends any
particular job description.”
Florida Senate President Tom Lee, 43, spoke
comfortably in his Brandon office. The room was a reflection of the man—clean
and down-to-earth, casual and comfortable, accessible and unassuming, cool and
calm—a place that seemed unfit, albeit pleasantly, for so many decisions that
affect 18 million souls. Lee’s demeanor and attire provided the departure, both
vastly more colorful than the small white-walled room.
“I knew it was
important to have some interest in what was going on in my government from the
time I was a kid,” he continued. “My father was involved politically, and I got
involved from a distance as a young adult. But in terms of actually getting
interested in becoming really active politically, as a private citizen much less
as a candidate, that didn’t come until I was recruited to run for the Senate in
A Rare Leap
He was not primed for the position or the run,
he said—at least, not in the traditional sense.
“I actually had what I
consider to be a fairly average person’s perception of politics and politicians,
and didn’t really migrate toward that realm of the world,” the 1984 UT economics
grad said. “We were in the homebuilding business, so I knew what was going on in
government because of zoning issues and things like that, but I never had any
interest in being part of the process.”
Lee’s immediate predecessor in
the district 10 seat, he was pleased to point out, was Malcolm Beard, former
sheriff of Hillsborough County and a fellow UT alumnus. When Beard announced his
retirement, business leaders began rallying around Lee, who had distinguished
himself in local business and civic circles, but still had expressed no interest
in the political realm.
Typically, a state senator’s career might begin
with a county commission seat, likely followed by a trip to the state House. But
in a rare leap, Lee went from the ground to an upper rung on the state’s
political ladder. He had never held or sought state or local office on any
level, but easily won election in 1996 to Beard’s seat, and with it, a seat in
the 40-chair upper chamber of the 160-seat state legislature. The machinations
of the whole process remain a bit of a mystery, even to Lee.
sure I’ll ever completely know,” he mused, “but from a variety of angles, people
recognized that the Senate seat was opening up … and approached me to consider
running for it. I got some encouragement from my father, who thought this would
be a good direction for me in my life.
“Having had some success in
business, I got some encouragement from people involved in the (Brandon) Chamber
(of Commerce) and the community and places where I’d served civically—and
“At first, I was very, very reluctant. I thought it was just a
big change of direction in my life. But ultimately, I decided that I would run,”
he said, pausing with a thoughtful finger to his lips, “because I really did
love my community.”
His pause imparted a desire to override any hint of
cliché. This was to be no hollow aside, no standard, rubber-stamped blathering
of what the folks at home want to hear. Whatever down-to-earth language might
leave in danger of falling to home-base platitudes would be driven on by shear
“I mean, it was a great place. It had done so much for my
family, so much for me. I wanted to raise my kids here, and to me, it was a
great way to give a little something back, to re-invest in the community that
had done so much for me.”
Already involved in countless projects
civically and philanthropically (both topics that he quickly dismisses), Lee
obviously appealed to local powers.
It’s been an extraordinary experience,” he said of his senatorial
life, his face brightening from within, as it often does, as he mentally
composed his list.
“The people I’ve met…. The talented people, some of
them very brilliant…. The education in human psychology….. The dynamics of the
political process…. Testing myself as a small businessman stepping out of that
environment…. Some of the pressures of operating in a public setting, where all
your successes and failures are played out through the media…. They’ve all been
an extraordinary learning experience.”
What was the biggest adventure
yet? No pause necessary.
“The presidential recount in 2000.”
served as the rules chairman for John McKay, then state Senate
“That was a surreal experience. We had television cameras,
radio, print media from all over the world converge on that capitol, and we were
pretty much at the center of a process that would ultimately determine who would
become President of the United States. It was, uh—a pretty neat experience. A
lot of pressure, and a couple trips over to the Supreme Court—I sat through
those oral arguments.”
Hearing Lee, a Republican, talk about the
experience was to know he relished it, pressure and all. He was understandably
(and cautiously) mum on the political ramifications of the outcome. Regardless,
the sense was that he relished the significance of the process itself, whatever
its outcome, and the stunning fact that, a mere half-decade after having had
nothing to do with the political arena, he was not only in it, but a key player
in an unprecedented and historic moment.
“I’ve had a chance to do a lot
of things,” he continued with characteristic enthusiasm that quickly hid any
other event’s also-ran status. “I’ve dined with some great people and fun people
and people I would never have had a chance to meet. Republican National
Conventions—I was an elector, I was a delegate to the national convention. I met
some really famous people.
“But overall,” he said, unable to resist
returning to his favorite, “the most profound historical moment that I’ve had a
chance to live through was that recount.”
100 Nights a
Answers come quickly to Lee, who ponders deeply but efficiently when
asked vague questions like what he likes most about being a state senator.
Confounded for only a moment, he replied with a momentum indicative of
inspiration, an answer dropped whole into his head. He frequently pauses during
sentences, but rarely between them.
“I recognized early on that the
answers that people get out of their government depend on who does the asking.
The ability to pick up the phone and help people in my community or in my
district somewhere get the best answer out of government they can get is a great
personal pleasure to me. And so, you know—helping people,” he said, “helping
people,” concluding the thought, then repeating it after a pause, almost
inaudibly, as if to relegate it to infinity.
The Florida Legislature’s
biggest star in recent years estimates that 50-100 calls a day reach his Brandon
office. Most, he said, are from political colleagues or business partners (he
maintains his position as vice president of Sabal Homes of Florida Inc.), but
many are from constituents.
“Oh, yes—yes, yes,” he said. “Lots. We get
phone calls, everything from child protection and protective services issues, to
child support payments that aren’t being made, to people who are in prison and
their families want to get them relocated to another prison so they can do
visits and things. I mean, you name it—everything under the sun.”
interview was interrupted briefly when an aid walked in and handed the senator a
paper that needed his immediate signature.
After quickly signing the
document, he picked up the conversation again, acknowledging the inevitable
“Sometimes,” he said, “people call us when they should
have called their county commissioner or whatever, but usually, if they call us
in error, we can tell them where they need to call.”
There is no rolling
of the eyes or other gesture imparting the slightest annoyance at the
If there’s a downside to being a state senator, Lee was
hard-pressed to find it, and resorted to listing aloud far more positives than
“I’m not sure I’d call it a downside,” he said. “I enjoy the
policy. I enjoy the leadership elements of it. I enjoy the consensus-building. I
enjoy the debate and the battle of public policy that results in some
accomplishment. I’m not much for the marketing and the sizzle, the
“The other thing that I would say is really challenging,”
he added, still eschewing any negative tag, “is its demands on your time. If you
want to maintain some balance in your life, which I think is really
critical—whether it be parenting or professional interests, which I’ve been
involved with in my family’s homebuilding business since I left college in
’84—you’ve really got to become a great manager of time.
“At some point,
you’re supposed to leave this business and go back to where you came from—in my
case, the homebuilding business—and I’d like to have something to come back
Those time demands include considerable out-of-town and travel time.
The Legislature’s annual regular session typically runs from March through May,
and Lee said he spends about two weeks a month October through February getting
ready for the session. Numerous special sessions also have been called during
Lee’s tenure. In all, Lee estimates that he spends about 100 nights a year away
Like any job, serving as a legislator has its humorous
moments, as well as its embarrassing ones. Lee remembers one incident (of course
it was in his first year) that fit both descriptions.
He and two other
senators were in the president’s conference room pulling a late-nighter when the
trio decided a pot of coffee would be a good idea. They filled the coffee maker
with water, not realizing that it had been set up for automatic water supply
from the sink.
“We turned around and the whole
conference room flooded. There was a big story in a newspaper somewhere about
it. It was a ‘how many senators does it take to make a pot of coffee’ kind of
Huge Bright Light
When he isn’t legislating, the
Legislature’s top gun likes talking sports. In fact, Lee is a golf enthusiast,
and attended UT on an athletic and academic scholarship. Specifically, golf
provided the athletic side of the equation. In those days, he had typical
collegiate aspirations of big-time success.
“I think everyone who gets
active in collegiate sports has the thought of taking it, uh, to the ultimate
level and, uh, the fame and glamour associated with that.
“I like to
think I was too smart for that, because I grew up in this area, and I watched
guys come through the golfing ranks as juniors and amateurs and collegiate
players, and get into more competitive situations, and really spend much of
their adult life trying to master a sport, only to never really quite be able to
elevate their game to a level where they could make any significant living out
“And I just thought the risk/reward was way out of kilter for me.
I think, as I look back on it, I mean, I’ve had a lot of success in my life,
that I draw from my experiences as a golfer, because there’s so many great
things about the game that teach you how to manage your emotions and what have
you in different settings. But I never really, over a long period of time,
seriously entertained the thought of playing professional golf.”
clearly as he relishes talking about his favorite sport, though, it’s the
reality of his place in society that dictates most of Lee’s social
“Depending on the setting, you like to talk about memories,
etc., that connect you with those people. But people ask a lot, when I’m in
settings where people don’t know me real well, but they know of me—they tend to
be fairly inquisitive about what it’s like to be in politics.
everybody has an issue. Regardless of what you do, government touches your life
somewhere, or you’ve had an experience somewhere with something, and people want
to talk about it. They want your views on it—they want some advice.
probably kind of like being a doctor, and every time you go someplace, someone’s
asking you, ‘You know, I’ve got this little thing on my finger—it doesn’t feel
right,’ and you’re supposed to have some answer to it.”
But that, too,
Lee said, is part of the political territory, and doesn’t become
“Every now and then, someone really doesn’t like your
answer, or they get wanting to probe so deep into something that….” He allowed
the thought to trail off into oblivion, then redesigned and resurrected it a
“Sometimes, as an elected official,” the architect of
public policy continued after making his adjustments and re-sharpening his
cerebral pencil, “you’re very knowledgeable about a lot of things, but sometimes
you’re sort of a mile wide and an inch deep on certain subjects, because the
nature of the process is that, when an issue is before the Legislature, there’s
this huge bright light shined on it.
“All of the intellect of the process
is brought to bear on this one issue. You get all the facts distilled out of
something fairly quick, so, the process works in such a way that not everyone’s
running around an expert on everything. They’re able to assimilate the
information when the moment is appropriate.
“A lot of people run around
that are experts on all kinds of things, and sometimes they expect you to be a
little bit more of an expert than is really realistic.”
His golf game has
been relegated to charity events and party fundraisers, he said, but he still
tries to enjoy his favorite sport for its own sake once in a while.
a quarter, I try to get with my buddies that I used to hang out with, and some
contemporaries of mine that are still in business here locally, and they go try
to play golf once a month. And every quarter, I try to catch up with them, and
that’s really nice,” he said with all sincerity, using “quarter” the way most
people would use “month” or “week,” and using it so casually as to make it clear
that he’s accustomed to squeezing it into a minimum unit of measure.
described those four-times-a-year golf buddies as “people you can just feel
totally relaxed around. You don’t have to, you know, worry about being on stage
at all, just go be yourself, and they like you for who you are, whether you’re
successful or not.”
He even forgoes the tie, he quipped, but after a
quick laugh, steered even that moment back from any fanciful world of who Tom
Lee is to the practical world of who he needs to be.
“I didn’t come out
of some political charm school,” the mentally tie-less Lee continued. “I really
didn’t do anything to prepare myself to be in public life. I am what I am;
people make mistakes; none of us are perfect; I never really spent a lot of time
trying to pretend that I didn’t have my shortcomings, whatever those might be.
“They know that about me,” he said, presumably steering back to that
non-pressurized place where friends and leisure lay, the quarterly place where
public opinion, editorials, bills, speechmaking and the tie of the day don’t
“When you have an image and you have a presence, and
there’s an expectation, particularly if you rise to the position of presiding
officer, some of it really is a stage,” he concluded.
“Some of it really
is a voice and a dress code and a way of conducting and carrying yourself that
you do because you know there’s a certain expectation to fit into the role of a
reporter or photographer or what have you, or a Senate president that is not
necessarily who I am —it’s just what I do.”
The First Since
Tom Lee describes his position as president of the Florida Senate
as “pretty much soup to nuts. I mean, you run the institution—all the employees,
every piece of legislation that goes out of there has to be signed by the
president of the Senate and the speaker of the House. There just isn’t anything
that goes on around there that we’re not ultimately responsible for, directly or
through delegation of authority.”
The signature is a constitutional
responsibility, Lee explained. The Senate president and House speaker must sign
bills that leave their respective chambers. Those signatures do not make them
law—only the governor’s signature can do that—but are constitutionally mandated
for passage of the legislation. The rest is accepted protocol.
does not get to the floor of the Senate without the support of the president, or
at least, the willingness of the president to support someone else who wants it
to get to the floor. It’s really a lot of responsibility—a lot of power and a
lot of authority to be given one person.”
It is his or her peers who give
that power and authority to that one person. It is unusual, to say the least,
that a senator with as relatively little seniority as Lee would be voted to the
chamber’s highest office.
But much more unusual is a senator from
Hillsborough County being tapped to run the show. In fact, Herbert Hoover was
President of the United States and America was in the impoverishing grip of the
Great Depression when Patrick C. Whitaker led the body in 1931, the last time a
Hillsborough legislator held the position until Lee took the gavel in 2004.
(Louis de la Parte was picked in 1974, but because of redistricting
complications, never presided.)
And if you think the distinction is
limited to minions of the party line, think again. Lee publicly criticized Gov.
Jeb Bush in 2003, shortly before he was chosen to assume the Senate leadership,
accusing the governor of sugar-coating what Lee said could be a bitter financial
pill for the Sunshine State. When he assumed leadership, he made it clear that
“this is a bipartisan Senate.”
Lee’s business acumen was apparent when he
warned fellow legislators from the Senate floor that “the day of reckoning is
coming” as he pushed for a plan to better manage the state budget.
The one thing that links Tom Lee’s usually disparate
worlds is travel. His Web page on the Florida Senate site lists it along with
golf as the senator’s “recreation,” but the senator himself said travel is much
more than that.
“Unfortunately for me, doing what I’m doing, my travel
opportunities are shorter, but I get a chance to mix business and pleasure and
politics and fundraising and pleasure a lot,” he said.
He offered as
example the previous weekend, when he was picked up and driven to the airport,
flown up to Daytona Beach, and whisked into a prime box seat for the Pepsi 400.
Later in July, he said, he would travel to a fundraiser in New York City, where
he would watch the Yankees play from George Steinbrenner’s box. (He’d bring his
kids with him on that one, he said.)
“But I don’t do the week and 10-day
things anymore,” he said. “It’s just really hard to get away for that length of
His favorite destinations are the Big Apple and California,
especially the wine country, Pebble Beach and Carmel.
“I’ve never been to
Hawaii,” he remarked, “and I’ve actually never been to Key West, something
that’s sort of a bizarre statistic that most people are stunned to hear. It’s
not that I didn’t have a lot of opportunities,” he said, lamenting the missed
chances before his election to the Senate. Since then, he said, “It just never
once lined up with my schedule.”
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