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UT Grad Presides Over Florida Senate

Published: September 01, 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 1995.”

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.

“I’m not 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 friends.

“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 sincerity.

“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.

Profound Historical Moment

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.”

Lee served as the rules chairman for John McKay, then state Senate president.

“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 Year

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.”

The 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 misdirected calls.

“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 fact.

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 negatives.

“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 self-promotion.

“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 to.”

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 from home.

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.

The result?

“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 thing.”

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 of it.

“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.”

As 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 encounters.

“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.

“And 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.

“It’s 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 tiresome—usually.

“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 moment later.

“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.

“Once 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.

He 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 even compute.

“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 Hoover

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.

“A bill 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.

A Bizarre Statistic

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 time.”

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.”

For more information, contact the Office of Public Information at or (813) 253-6232.