It’s the end of an era in Florida’s Capitol. After parts of four decades, one of the Legislature's most prominent and at times, controversial members, Senator Tom Lee, will call it quits in November.
Lee was first elected to the Senate in 1996. He’s the last link to the bygone era of Florida’s last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles and he's exiting in an unprecedented health crisis and the most severe economic downturn in decades.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and one thing led to another. I really have not enjoyed my role there,” Lee told WFSU News.
A maverick Republican, the 58-year-old Lee represented parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties. He’s a policy wonk who left a mark in areas as broad as education, property insurance, growth management and ethics. Lee emphasized issues that others ignored, like long-range, three-year budgeting. He’s credited — and blamed—for the gift ban, a 2006 law that prevents legislators from taking anything, even a bottle of water, from lobbyists.
The gift ban grew out of a dramatic showdown with the House in 2005. Lee wanted to force lobbyists to disclose their fees. The House retaliated with a ban on all lobbyist expenditures.
“Rumor has it, they thought we would choke on it and were shocked when we passed it. That wasn’t where we were headed initially,” Lee said. “The lobbyists at the time created social opportunities for people to get together. Now there’s a lot less of that because the members really don’t want to hang out with lobbyists if they’ve got to pay the tab.”
Lee was around for the 2000 presidential recount and the 9/11 terror attacks. He served with six governors: Chiles, MacKay, Bush, Crist, Scott and DeSantis. He once got involved in a shoving match with a lobbyist over pay telephone legislation.
He was a vocal critic of the effect of special interest campaign money on public policy in Tallahassee, even as he solicited large donations for a campaign for statewide office.
On reflection, Lee sees a Legislature greatly weakened by term limits. And he is frustrated by a highly compressed 60-day time frame that results in too much time being wasted, often to the detriment of the people of Florida.
“Things get bottled up too late,” Lee said. “The first thing I would do is I would try to make the legislative session itself 60 days of actual playing time that would give us a lot more time on the floor to debate and work through and amend bills and have a true public conversation with all 40 members of the Senate.”
Lee was Senate president from 2004 to 2006, then left and returned in 2012 to a very different place than the one he had left, and he had to make the awkward adjustment from being in charge to just another rank-and-file senator.
Lee said something 15 years ago that is no doubt still true today. “I didn’t come here with a lot of friends,” he said, “and I don’t expect to leave with any.”
He is one of only two Florida Republicans in the past two decades who lost a Cabinet race to a Democrat. He lost a bid for chief financial officer to Alex Sink in 2006. He’s leaving Tallahassee at a time when his wife, Laurel Lee, is secretary of state, and his oldest son is preparing to enter Florida State in the fall.