The freshman 15: South Florida’s newest lawmakers

03/02/2013 4:08 PM

09/08/2014 6:22 PM

The youngest is 28, the oldest 66. They are teachers, real estate agents, attorneys, entrepreneurs and farmers. And in their spare time, they fly planes, play guitar, raise sheep, write screenplays and go to their kids’ ball games.

These are the faces of the 59 new members of the Florida Legislature (15 from South Florida), which begins its regular session on Tuesday.

The freshman House class of 44 members is tied for the second-largest ever since term limits took effect in 2000. (There were also 44 new members in 2010 and 2008, and the record is 63 in 2000.)

The freshman Senate class of 15 members, meanwhile, ranks in size behind only the freshmen classes of 2002 and 2010.

In total, the new group of legislators includes nearly the same number of Democrats and Republicans, though 10 of the 15 new senators are Republican.

“We’re a broad range of ages and backgrounds,” said Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, who like the majority of new representatives is serving in elected office for the first time.

Pasco County businessman and egg farmer Wilton Simpson holds a special distinction: He was unchallenged in his first bid for Senate and was elected without a vote.

Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa, said his desire to serve derives from his role as a middle-school science teacher. “I want to extend that and make a difference. There’s a lengthy priority list,” he said, citing issues from creating a homeowner’s bill of rights to addressing local transportation issues.

Another new legislator, Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, notes that he, and likely other officials whose homes are hundreds of miles from Tallahassee, “feels a little like college freshmen on their first semester away from home.”

José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, who is serving in his first elected office, said chief issues for South Florida involve Citizens Property Insurance, healthcare and education.

“Property insurance, if not at the top, comes close to the top of the list that brings most of us together.”

He also said that he’s been surprised by the expectation of “conformity” in the Legislature. “Asking tough questions definitely rattles people,” said Rodríguez. “Often people expect you to play along, which I find shocking, especially for those of us who ran to shake things up a little bit.”

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