Citizen lobbyists endure bureaucracy at Florida’s Capitol as they promote their causes

Gay marriage supporters celebrate a ruling in front of the Old Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, July 17, 2014.
Gay marriage supporters celebrate a ruling in front of the Old Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, July 17, 2014. Miami Herald

They don’t wear expensive suits or carry high-end handbags.

They can’t afford to make campaign contributions.

They wouldn’t know how to casually text a senator on his cellphone before a key vote, the way well-connected lobbyists do.

But they too demand and deserve a voice in state government.

They are Florida’s citizen lobbyists, patrolling the halls of the Capitol in Tallahassee and advocating for change, one issue at a time and one lawmaker at a time.

On any given day, they might include farm workers, feminists, Republican women, college students, small business owners, union members, animal rights activists, undocumented immigrants and parents of children with unique challenges — along with their kids, who often are the most likeable lobbyists of all.

Grant Valveri, 11, and his brother Cole, 9, got to skip school for two days last week for meetings with nearly a dozen individual lawmakers.

The two boys, who face severe vision challenges, were the lovable lobbyists of the Florida Association of Agencies Serving the Blind, which is lobbying for $3 million in new grants for underfunded programs for blind and visually impaired children ages 6 to 13.

“This is a lot cooler than school,” Grant said as he swiveled around in a giant leather chair in Sen. Alan Hays’ office.

Reading from his own script, Grant cheerfully told Hays: “I am a kidney disease fighter and I have recently been diagnosed with severe steroid-induced cataracts because I have had to take steroids since I was 2 years old.”

In a tone of determination expressed by many a well-paid lobbyist, the curly-haired boy told the 69-year-old senator: “Make this bill happen.”

“Son, I believe in what you’re doing,” said Hays, R-Umatilla, a retired dentist. The $3 million is already in the Senate budget, so the brothers’ visit along with their mother, Heidi, was a thank you — another tenet of good lobbying.

In a nearby third-floor Capitol hallway stood Jose Almanza, 67, of Deland. He had left the fields to join hands with fellow farm workers at a Capitol rally Wednesday to honor the memory of Cesar Chavez, who organized citrus workers in Florida in the 1970s, and to support their legislative agenda.

Almanza wore an Auburn University ball cap and a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a clenched fist and the words “dignidad, justicia, igualdad” and “¡sí se puede!” meaning “dignity, justice, equality,” and “yes we can!”

Almanza, who does not speak English, said through a translator that he was there to add his support to a bill allowing undocumented immigrants — working Floridians who are not U.S. citizens — to get Florida driver’s licenses.

The bill (SB 300), by Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, was filed in January but has not been heard in a single committee and in all likelihood it won’t, because it’s too controversial. But Almanza insists it’s necessary.

Es muy importante,” he said in Spanish (It’s very important).

Sarah Figgers from nearby Quincy brought a handmade sign that said, “Halt human trafficking, House Bill 369, Senate Bill 534.”

A member of a Democratic women’s club, Figgers attended a news conference with legislators to push for bills that would outlaw hydraulic fracking in Florida, raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and increase the starting salary for a teacher to $50,000 a year.

Those ideas don’t stand any chance of becoming laws in Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature, but she is not discouraged.

“Sometimes, it takes them four or five years to act on an issue,” Figgers said. “We have to fight. Year after year after year.”

Real people often make a difference in Tallahassee. Senators paid tribute to them when they recalled the moving stories of parents seeking expanded scholarship opportunities for children with special needs, a Senate priority this year.

“There are no lobbyists on this bill,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “This is a bill that came from the grass roots, from the people of Florida.”

The problem with Tallahassee is that there are too few real people around, and for those who are there, it can be frustrating to navigate a confusing world of amendments and appropriations.

The citizen lobbyists who walked the halls in recent days were participating in a democracy that for many others is literally beyond reach.

“This process kicks people out because it’s so hard to get here,” said Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader.

Pafford said he drives more than 400 miles each way from his home to the capital most weeks. He’s reimbursed for all of his travel, and he noted the hardships working people face in having to leave their jobs and drive there at their own expense.

Former Republican Sen. Steve Wise of Jacksonville, who spent 23 years in the Legislature and is now a lobbyist, said lawmakers should spend less time doing the bidding of paid lobbyists and their moneyed interests, and more time helping those who have no voice.

“What about the little people? The disabled? The people in prison?” Wise asked.

Barbara Gill of Live Oak spent three days in the capital with a delegation from the Columbia Federated Republican Women, a club of grass-roots activists who had questions about the biggest environmental issue of this session: how to divvy up the first installment of about $750 million in money mandated by voters who approved Amendment 1, the water and land amendment.

Gill and her friends also made the rounds of local legislators to praise them for a job well done.

“I would say we’re behind them 100 percent,” Gill said. “They’re conservative without being extreme.”

Asked to describe what she doesn’t like about the Florida Legislature, Gill said: “They’re so slow. Good grief. I just don’t understand why those people can’t get stuff done.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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