LaKisha M. Kinsey-Sallis, Johnson Jackson LLC
Recently, people from all different walks of life participated in the March for Our Lives to advocate for gun control. At the forefront of the march are teens from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who, in a little over six minutes, had their lives forever changed when a shooter killed 17 of their classmates. Media outlets have described the march as one of the biggest youth protests since the Vietnam War and the largest single day protest in the history of the nation’s capital.
On the heels of this march, I write this blog post to recap those two days in February 2018, when LT ‘18 watched, not from a TV or some other remote means but up close and personal, these same students demonstrate on our state’s Capitol in a rally cry for legislative action. To be clear, this blog post is not about Parkland or its current impact on the political climate; there is a bigger theme at play here. On February 21st and 22nd, 2018, LT ‘18 had a front seat to what would lead to this historical moment and what has taken over the political scene in Florida and nationally. This. Is. LT ‘18’s Tallahassee Retreat.
The Lead Up
It’s 7:00 a.m. LT ‘18 traveled to Tallahassee joined by Joanne Sullivan (LT’91), Director of Community Relations, USF Health, who is a real trooper for embarking on this journey with us. Upon arrival in Tallahassee, LT ‘18 received greetings and a specific charge from Bob Rohrlack, President and CEO of the Greater Tampa Camber of Commerce. That charge was for LT ‘18 to be engaged, to ask questions, and to be mindful of the Chamber’s efforts to strengthen its voice and create a strategic position to advance Vision 2026. LT ‘18 accepted and tackled that challenge. Josh Baumgartner, the Chamber’s Senior VP of Strategy, reviewed the Chamber’s state legislative agenda and highlighted the guiding principles as the framework for that agenda. Workforce Development. Healthcare. Transportation. Business Economic Development. With that, LT ‘18 was off to watch the state political machine in motion.
The Main Event
Day 1 at the Capitol
To set the stage for the days ahead, through a panel led by H. Lee Moffitt, LT ‘18 received a preview of the state legislative agenda from experienced fixtures in the state political landscape—Jan Gorrie, Darrick McGee, Mac Stipanovich, and Mark Walsh. Naturally, giving the timing of the Tallahassee trip, a significant portion of the panel talk centered around the Parkland shooting and how it had changed the direction of the legislative agenda. However, for Moffit, efforts to receive an increase in the distribution Moffit Cancer Center receives from Florida’s cigarette tax, were also an important aspect of this legislative session. This became abundantly clear as Moffit reminded LT ‘18 of the impetus of what is now known as the #1 cancer hospital in the Southeast and Florida—the loss of his friends Joseph Lumia, Honorable George Edgecomb, and Judy Barnett to cancer. According to Moffit, it took him seven years to persuade the legislature to sway the cigarette tax distribution and now he was “at it again” because the Center is out of room and in need of expansion.
The shared perspective of the panel was that the Parkland tragedy was a “gamechanger”. In fact, Moffitt commented that he couldn’t remember a time when the legislature acted as quickly as they were doing right then and there. Stipanovich’s opinion was that the Parkland tragedy and what’s happening in state government is all about a measure of the gun culture in Florida and the strength of the NRA. According to him, there’s aura of being “untouchable” as it relates to the NRA and that there will only be some change if the NRA suffers some defeat. The lawyer in Stipanovich could not help but to take to task the argument that regulating guns would somehow impair the Second Amendment where there already exists restriction on guns as it relates to ex-felons, concealing weapons in Florida, etc.
The panel also discussed the idea that placing more guns in schools may be the solution. Walsh shared his belief that schools are targeted for mass shootings because weapons are not allowed on campus. However, according to Walsh, there remains a shared belief that this restriction remains the best way to proceed and that bringing extra guns on campus will not help the situation. It’s his belief that the legislature will continue to back this notion.
The million-dollar question . . . how is Governor Scott going to respond to the call to action? Well, according to McGee, it is going to take the Senate to lead the charge on proposing legislation to keep schools safe. He mentioned his thought that many members of the House do not want to lose NRA funding and hope the issue will die down by the primaries. It was his thought that, because Governor Scott has his own money to support an election campaign, the call-to-action may not phase him much. Stipanovich disagreed saying that what really happens in Florida on this issue depends on what happens on the national level; three weeks from now, he surmised, neither school safety, gun issues, nor mental illness will be an issue. Walsh added that the NRA is as powerful as it is because of the strong number of voters who support its agenda and who turnout to vote.
Turning to the mental health piece that has also been a hot topic following the Parkland shooting, our very own Dean Julie Serovich shared that her program has been at the center of the discussion. According to the Dean, there has been a significant decline in coordinated mental health services even though 25% of the population experiences mental health issues. The Dean highlighted the fact that individuals who are mentally ill are more often times victims of a crime than they are the ones committing the crimes. She ended by noting that her program has observed a “change” since 2016; there has been a increase in violent occurrences. On this issue, the panel appeared to agree that, while legislative action might result in more money targeted toward mental health as a result of Parkland, there was some concern that the money might not be directed to the agencies with expertise in addressing the issue. As a final thought on the topic, Gorrie shared her thoughts that the Florida House has been an advocate for SafetyNet providers such as TGH and Moffitt whereas the Senate has taken a different approach by spreading money across all hospitals.
Speaking of funding, the panel shared their perspective on whether there is money available in Florida or nationally to take legislative measures to make schools safer. Walsh stated that while we can expect to see some increase in K-12 funding by the end of the legislative session, that increase would not be enough to make an impact given the growth in the number of schools in Florida. Moffitt agreed stating that Florida’s budget is not keeping up the population, which he believes is putting a strain on the government’s ability to fund certain causes like education.
#MeToo. The panel discussion would not complete without a discussion regarding the MeToo movement and the impact on state government. On that, the panel members who spoke on it primarily shared that there will be a lot of change in that area and that it was time for change. Before LT ‘18 moved on to the next activity, McGee directed LT ‘18 to keep an eye on the Constitution Revision Committee while Moffit directed LT ‘18 to be more informed and involved citizens in the legislative/political process.
After the informative panel discussion, LT ‘18 took on the Capitol. . . . literally. Our Day Chairs, Clint Shouppe and Merritt Martin, sent us off on a scavenger hunt that required us to reach out to (and in some cases, stalk, due to the competitive nature of LT ‘18) our local legislators and to explore the historic Capitol grounds.
Next, LT ‘18 enjoyed a presentation in the Florida Senate Chambers followed by greetings from Senator Dana Young (District 18). Senator Young provided LT ‘18 a preview into certain bills she filed this session including her bill to move 25 million from rail funds to TBARTA and a bill to ban fracking in Florida. Regarding the first bill, Senator Young shared “it’s a big lift” but “it’s moving” along. With respect to the second bill, Senator Young mentioned that 77% of Hillsborough County residents live in areas where fracking is prohibited. According to her, Tampa is in a good legal position on the issue but she wanted to be sure to send a message that it’s not good for Florida. [Quick commercial break here . . . for anyone like me who is new to “fracking” . . . fracking or “hydraulic fracturing” is a drilling technique that involves shooting water and chemicals deep underground, breaking up rock to get at oil and natural gas that cannot be reached by typical drilling methods].
Senator Young also discussed other local issues impacting Florida politics including school safety, bikesharing, and teacher pay issues. On the Parkland shooting, Senator Young disclosed that the Senate had been in caucus trying to figure out what they could do. Some bills or discussions have centered around increasing funds to pilot a mental health program in schools, placing more school resource officers in schools, and developing a process that allows a party to seek a protective order in instances where a person experiencing mental illness is in possession of a firearm.
The day ended with a reception at the Governor’s Club where LT ‘18 had the opportunity to host and network with members of the Bay Area Legislative Delegation, including Representative Sean Shaw, Senator Bill Galvano, Representative Jackie Toledo, Representative Ross Spano, and Senator Jeff Brandes. Because no LT ‘18 program day would be complete without a “debrief” of sorts, LT ‘18 capped off the night with dinner at the Township.
Day 2 at the Capitol
It’s the top of the morning. LT ‘18 participated in a breakfast and briefing with political communications expert Sarah Bascom and political strategist, Steve Schale, on the present and future political scene. Schale defined politics as “combustible” due to its back and forth nature in terms of who runs government—Republicans or Democrats. He predicted that it will be that way for a while. According to Schale, the signs are that the Democrats will have a good year in state and national elections . . . “the ‘blue wave’ is coming”, he said. Bascom agreed, stating that while you cannot predict what will happen with any surety, she is hearing that the Democrats are poised to take on Republicans except in the House and the Senate on a national level. Schale left LT ‘18 with his prediction that Former Vice President Joe Biden may make a bid for the presidency in 2020 and that the “showdown” will be between Biden and President Trump.
The two panelists ended their presentation with the following recommendations to LT ‘18 for connecting with legislators so we can be more involved in the process: (1) make it personal; (2) be respectful of the legislator’s time; (3) make friends with the legislator’s aide (they are the gatekeepers to the legislators); (4) be careful of what you do and say while at the capitol; and (5) do not speak to legislators on social media outlines.
Before we could head to the Capitol for our second day on the hill, our Day Chairs had to announce the winner of the scavenger hunt . . . there was no “you are all winners in our eyes” in this battle. Congratulations to Nikki Foster for showing us all up and clearly studying day and night to plot how she was going to be “the” winner of the LT ‘18 Tallahassee Retreat Scavenger Hunt. Now back to the serious stuff . . .
Unlike Day 1, where LT ‘18 moved about the Capitol building with an ease and much like a group of tourists, Day 2 had a different feel. On Day 2, the Capitol was busy with media outlets, protesters and posters, politicians and constituents, and us. Students from Parkland and friends of the cause had taken over the Capitol this time and impacted everything that was happening that day. According to our planned agenda, we were to have a House Chamber talk with Minority Leader Janet Cruz followed by a Senate session viewing and recognition. However, the presence and political activism of the Parkland students changed our course.
First, we had a tour of the House. There we learned that there are currently only 120 members of the House, 13 of which represent the city of Miami alone. We also learned that the House Speaker selects seating and that Minority Leader Cruz’s seat is located in the back aisle, which is reflective of her experience and power in the House. Following the House Tour, we sat in the halls between the House and the Senate above the words “We, the people of the State of Florida” (which are etched in the capitol’s structure) and observed the Senate in session. There, we watched how the Senate, in recognition of the 17 lives lost in Parkland, took the longest 17 seconds in history in the most moving moment of silence. There, we listened as the Senate Speaker spoke with a spirit of admiration coupled with grief about Peter Wong who sacrificed his own life on February 14, 2018, to save the lives of some of his Stoneman Douglas classmates. There, LT ‘18 witnessed the aftermath of the “gamechanger” in action.
Before we left the Capitol, we had a special session in which we heard from local legislative contacts including Sarah Scwirian (legislative aide to Senator Tom Lee), Senator Jeff Brandes, Andrew Wiggins (Florida Chamber of Commerce), Representative James Grant, and Representative Jackie Toledo. From this presentation, LT ‘18 learned about the Chamber’s increased advocacy efforts, how LT ‘18 can increase its advocacy efforts, what Tampa politicians are working on in Tallahassee to help us locally and on a state-level, projections of what issues like transportation, criminal justice, and gun control will look like in the next 5 to 10 years, and just how significant the 2018 election year really is for our state.
By midday, the Capitol building bid LT ‘18 farewell but only pointedly against the backdrop of a demonstration right on its stairs in the name of change. And, LT ‘18 was right there in the midst of it all. I cannot speak for the entire class, but I would be shortchanging the experience if I did not admit that the LT ‘18 Tallahassee Retreat left me forever changed. As I walked back from the Capitol building to the board the bus home, I stumbled upon these words in a marker on the ground . . . “There were hundreds and thousands of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.” LT ‘18 shall be in that number of ordinary people who will do extraordinary things.
Thank you Clint and Merritt for your vision and work on this retreat!