Politicians in Tallahassee spend so much time talking, you’d think they’d be pretty good at it.
Sadly, a lot of them have trouble commanding the attention of other lawmakers, even while they’re trapped in the same room.
But what made the 2014 session memorable is that it featured some of the best debate in years. Oratory made a big comeback — a sign that legislators are rediscovering the power of words spoken with care and meaning.
Senators in particular distinguished themselves on the treacherous issues of helping undocumented immigrants qualify for in-state tuition and to practice law.
Republican Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs is easily the Capitol’s most long-winded lawmaker. This Vanderbilt-trained lawyer doesn’t give speeches, he makes closing arguments. He talks slowly and evenly, but mostly he talks.
On giving a law license to Jose Godinez-Samperio of Largo, who came to the United States with his Mexican parents as a boy and built a glittering résumé but lacks U.S. citizenship, Simmons was at his best in a 20-minute speech against penalizing a child for his parents’ decisions.
It rarely hurts to quote from the Bible in Tallahassee, and Simmons cited Ezekiel 18:20: “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father.” He also quoted Jorge Labarga, the Cuban-American Florida Supreme Court justice who along with his colleagues urged help for Godinez-Samperio.
No one paid closer attention to Simmons’ soliloquy than Republican Sen. Charlie Dean, a plain-spoken former Citrus County sheriff who said he was proud to change his mind and help the law student realize his dream.
“If I’m going to be held guilty, I would hope I’d be held guilty of what I think is right,” Dean said.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was another powerful voice in support of the immigrant’s Bar petition.
“At my age, I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Latvala told the Senate, “and I would hate for my kids to be held responsible for the mistakes that I made.”
The other immigration bill will help “Dreamers” qualify for the same tuition discount as Florida residents. It was a powerful moment for Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, who reminded senators that undocumented immigrants must register for the draft and can be called to fight in a war, and that two decades ago, the Legislature voted to let foreign doctors practice medicine in Florida even though they’re not citizens.
But the moment clearly belonged to Latvala, who worked tenaciously to secure the needed votes in the face of steady opposition from Senate President Don Gaetz.
Latvala choked back tears citing the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, “the daughter of Cuban immigrants, people who came to this country for a better life . . . It’s just wonderful that, forever, this bill is going to have your name on it.”
He also complimented the Dreamer kids in the upstairs visitors’ gallery for their respect and dignity, and referred to “these hopeful eyes cast down on us today.”
As he captured the historical significance of the vote, Latvala predicted that fellow senators would never forget the day. “This will be one of those debates you'll remember,” he said.
Steve Bousquet is the Tallahassee bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times.