Former Florida Sen. Lee Weissenborn’s most famous “failure” turned out to be his most substantive win.
Weissenborn, who died May 7 at 88 in Palmetto Bay, represented Miami-Dade and served in Florida’s House of Representatives from 1963 to 1967 and the Florida Senate from 1967 to 1972. In 1967, while in the Senate, he presented a bill to create a commission to study the feasibility of moving the state capital from Tallahassee to Orlando.
Weissenborn, who had been a delegate to the 1960 Democratic National Convention, had become incensed with Tallahassee’s record on civil rights. Through the 1960s, Tallahassee was a provincial Southern town with segregation as the rule. During that period, Tallahassee opted to close its public swimming pools rather than integrate them.
Weissenborn’s bill gained serious traction, startling not only the idealistic legislator but also Tallahassee’s civic leaders. The city, after all, had been the state capital since 1824.
When Weissenborn proposed the idea, he didn’t know how far it would go, his son Stephen Weissenborn said. Some thought it was the young South Floridian’s attempt to yank the chains of power from Tallahassee. But that wasn’t exactly it, either, his son said. Rather, it was designed “to bounce the old guard into the new realities.”
It worked. Tallahassee, of course, remains the state capital so, in that regard, he was not successful.
But in response to Weissenborn’s movement, Tallahassee opened its swimming pools to all. The dry city also ended its era of prohibition. North Florida power brokers authorized construction of a new Capitol building so massive and so expensive that no one would propose building another elsewhere.
Tongue in cheek, a sardonic bronze tribute to Weissenborn for his inadvertent role in motivating the new building was mounted in its lobby and reads:
This plaque is dedicated to Senator Lee Weissenborn, whose valiant effort to move the Capitol to Orlando was the prime motivation for construction of this building.
Weissenborn, who studied journalism at the University of Florida and earned his law degree there, was not offended. He considered the cultural changes a victory. He had been building to that moment since his childhood.
He was born in St. Louis on March 19, 1929, and adopted at age 1. He, along with his mother, Pauline, moved to Miami when he was 9. Pauline, who struggled during the Depression, was the inspiration for her son’s concerns for the disenfranchised, his family believes.
“I think that helped form a lot of his passions,” said civil trial attorney Sheridan Weissenborn, his wife of 40 years. “He was a caring person and a giver and he wanted people to be equally treated. He wanted people to have the best life they possibly could and he became passionate about the things he fought for — and he was a fighter.”
His first legislative battle as a House member was a bill designed to extend Florida’s then limited state kindergarten program to Miami-Dade and other counties of the state, which had been excluded from the program. He prevailed. Weissenborn, a captain in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, championed legislation mandating a statewide, state-administered food stamp program throughout Florida. He led the floor fight to fully fund Florida’s free and reduced school lunch program.
Many of the important legislative bills he authored or helped pass, including the mandating of the state-wide food stamps program, state-wide kindergarten programs and core funding for Florida’s school lunch programs, are lasting initiatives, still highly relevant for Florida families to this day.
Stephen Weissenborn, on his father Lee.
Weissenborn’s political career ended in 1972 when he was defeated by car dealer William Lehman for a congressional seat for District 13, a then-new seat that covered Liberty City and the condo communities of Northeast Miami-Dade. Some campaign aides printed up fake slates that claimed Weissenborn had been endorsed in Liberty City when he had not. During a televised debate with Lehman, Weissenborn said he had known about the counterfeit slates.
“What was done in our campaign was wrong and I’m publicly admitting it,” he said. “But I don’t think any law was broken.” Then Miami-Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein opened an investigation and concluded that counterfeiting endorsement slates was not illegal, the Miami Herald reported.
Weissenborn turned his attention to his law practice and was renowned for fighting on behalf of the underdog. In one case, in the mid 1970s, he fought the county to prevent the Public Health Trust, the governing board of Jackson Health System, from razing the home of an 85-year-old widow to build a parking garage. She was permitted to live out her days at her house.
He loved human history and he loved nature, somewhat the antithesis of politics, and that gift he shared became a part of us (his children) and has really resonated throughout each of our lives.
Stephen Weissenborn, on his father Lee.
An animal lover, he was known to pick up the tab at veterinary hospitals when he’d see people upset that they couldn’t afford operations for their pets, his wife said.
“Our father's legislative legacy, which carried on through his legal career, was providing a voice to citizens who were under-represented, lost in the system of big government, or whose rights were being marginalized,” son Stephen said.
Weissenborn’s survivors also include his son Jim and daughter Carol Weissenborn, and grandchildren Clay, Zach and Marcus. Services were private. Memorial donations can be made to Paws 4 You Rescue in Miami and The Cat Network of South Florida.