Senate President Don Gaetz calls her the Margaret Thatcher of the Florida Senate — “tough, principled, independent and absolutely fearless.” Valerie Guenther, chairman of the Charlotte County Democratic Party, notes she’s a “tough target” because she doesn’t just vote the party line. And Sen. Tom Lee says, “She looks you in the eye and tells you what she needs. What you see is what you get with Nancy Detert.”
This session, what voters and colleagues got with Detert was a legislator on fire. The hard-charging, 68-year-old grandmother championed the passage of three legacy bills — a texting-while-driving ban and two bills, one named in her honor, expected to improve the lives of foster care children.
She also helped defeat the controversial “parent-trigger” bill, and brought money back to her district for a few projects, including $5 million for a rowing center in Sarasota.
“I think this was Sen. Detert’s best session in the Legislature,” said Sen. Joe Negron, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, who has served with her in the House and Senate for more than a decade.
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While Detert was at the center of plenty of drama during the 60-day lawmaking session, the Venice Republican is now eager to spend time with her nine grandchildren, play a little golf, work at her consulting business — Primitive Creative Solutions — and see Gov. Rick Scott sign her bills.
After four years of trying, getting a basic ban that makes texting while driving a secondary offense was “like climbing up a mountain,” Detert said. She admits she had a “temporary snit” when the House added a last-minute amendment making it tougher for law enforcement to obtain violators’ cellphone records.
But Detert is too pragmatic and experienced, her peers say, to let a last-minute roadblock get in her way.
“It was clear she had the wisdom, the maturity and the experience in the process to understand this was an extraordinary victory and not get mired in the details and lose the big picture,” said Lee, R-Brandon.
Scott said he will sign the bill, SB 52, Tuesday in Miami. “As a father and a grandfather, texting while driving is something that concerns me when my loved ones are on the road,” Scott said.
Detert passed 12 of the 30 bills she sponsored this year; among those that failed were a bill that froze credit reports for minors who might be a victim of identity fraud and another on taxing Internet sales.
When Detert takes a position on an issue, “she can usually bring a group of senators with her,” Gaetz said.
Such was the case with the parent-trigger legislation, which would let parents demand major changes at failing public schools, including having the school transformed into a charter school.
A former member of the Sarasota County School Board, Detert withdrew eight amendments to the bill on the Senate floor April 30, tersely saying, “My intention is, at this point, to not even attempt to fix this bill, I consider it so hopelessly bad.”
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he changed his vote “partially because of the arguments she made.” He was one of six Republicans who with Detert joined the 14 Senate Democrats in defeating the bill.
“She is just a bulldog when she gets on an issue, whether she’s with you or against you,” Latvala said. “I’ve been on both sides.”
Observers might have expected the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, to resent Detert’s thrashing of the bill, but Stargel insists that is not the case.
“Some may think her approach is harsh. But she said what she thinks, and I respect that,” Stargel said. “We have similar personalities in a lot of ways. We’re both passionate, and we both speak our minds.”
Detert said she later teased Stargel that they were the “drama queens” of the day. “I will battle, but I’m not attacking anyone personally,” Detert said. “I’m pretty straightforward.”
One of five kids growing up in an Irish Catholic family in northwest Chicago, Detert never expected to get into politics — though she does have public service in her blood. Detert, formerly Nancy Carroll, is a descendant of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Married at 20, she and her husband moved to Indiana where they owned a pizzeria and a small resort. Detert, while raising three boys, wrote a humor column called “Constant Comment” published in a small chain of Indiana newspapers.
The family moved to Florida in 1978, but it would be 10 years, she said, before a “group of soccer moms” persuaded Detert to run for school board. She served on the board from 1988 to 1992, then lost a bid for reelection. Detert, who divorced in 2001, said she took heat as an incumbent when voters were upset about school budget cuts during an economic downturn.
“I thought I was totally done with politics,” she said, but in 1998 she was recruited to run for a seat in the House, where she served until 2006.
From the start, Detert said, “I decided to vote my conscious. I wasn’t going to carry water for anyone else.”
She lost a run for Congress in 2006 but was elected to the state Senate two years later. She was reelected without opposition in 2012, and because of redistricting, will be on the ballot again in 2014.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Democrat from Broward County, said Detert isn’t governed by partisan politics. “It’s just about the issue,” said Sobel, who calls Detert “likeable,” “fun” and “courageous.”
Gaetz, R-Niceville, thinks so highly of Detert that when he decided to run for Senate president, he asked her to give his nominating speech.
“When she rises to speak, she instantly has the attention and respect of the Senate,” he said. “She’s an experienced legislator, but she is always grounded in common sense and compassion.”
Which is why Gaetz amended SB 1036 to name the foster care measure the “Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act.” The bill helps foster children transition into adulthood.
“I was speechless,” Detert said.
A second foster care bill, SB 164, which already has been signed into law, will ease regulations for foster children and their foster parents.
Detert testified about Florida’s foster care programs before a U.S. House committee in Washington this month.
“These [foster] kids can see through people — you can’t fool them,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, which oversees the youth advocacy group Florida Youth Shine. “When they speak with Sen. Detert, they know she cares.
“She has a passion for these kids,” Spudeas said, “and she has a great understanding of what they’ve gone through.”
Department of Children & Families Secretary David Wilkins said Detert “focuses on what is right,” a “unique skill” he calls refreshing. “Some of the young whippersnappers haven’t figured it out yet.”
Some people underestimate her influence, said Joe Gruters, chairman of Sarasota County’s Republican Party, but constituents “are lucky to have her.”
Negron, a Republican from Stuart, calls Sarasota’s rowing center “a perfect example of a legislator who knows her community inside and out. She made a persuasive case on how that facility is an important economic engine in Sarasota.” The project — and $5 million in state funding — made it into the final state budget signed into law by Scott.
Also close to her heart is the Loveland Center for developmentally disabled adults in Venice, though this year, instead of asking for funding, the center will apply for money from a settlement won by Attorney General Pam Bondi.
“She watches Loveland funding like a hawk,” said Negron, who happened to be the sole dissenting vote against Detert’s texting-while-driving bill because he thinks it’s impossible to enforce. But, “on a personal level I was happy for her that it passed.
“You can disagree with Sen. Detert,” Negron said, “and still emerge from the debate as colleagues.”