April 23, 2024
When leaders become lobbyists in Florida
Former House Speaker Dean Cannon says any claim that he allowed future employment concerns to influence his public policymaking is baseless.


When leaders become lobbyists in Florida

Jason Garcia | 2/26/2015

For two years, from December 2010 until November 2012, Dean Cannon and Mike Haridopolos ruled the Florida Legislature. Cannon, then a Republican representative from Winter Park, was Speaker of the House of Representatives, while Haridopolos, a Republican senator from Merritt Island, was president of the Senate. No bills could pass without their blessing.

Term limits forced both from office after the 2012 elections — and both soon began lobbying the state government they had once helped lead. Cannon launched his own firm, Tallahassee-based Capitol Insight, which collected an estimated $2.25 million in fees in its first year of operation, according to state records, from more than two dozen clients, including AT&T, HCA and Walt Disney World. Haridopolos earned approximately $60,000 from one client: Railex, a freight shipping company.

In entering the lobbying business, the two former legislators took a path that is well trod from both sides of the aisle. More than half of Florida House Speakers since 1980 have gone into lobbying at least temporarily, including three consecutive Democratic Speakers: Ralph Haben, James Harold Thompson and H. Lee Moffitt.

Since 2006, more than two dozen ex-lawmakers have made the jump — about one of every eight who have left the Legislature over the last five election cycles. The list includes two former House Speakers (Cannon and Larry Cretul, Cannon’s partner at Capitol Insight), two former Senate presidents (Haridopolos and Ken Pruitt) and two former Senate Democratic leaders (Steve Geller and Al Lawson).

In some respects, the transition into lobbying is a logical extension of the skills that legislators need to advance into leadership positions in the first place. The internal campaigns to become House Speaker or Senate president, for example, require both ambition and the ability to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to travel the state and support fellow lawmakers whose backing they need.

Once in a top spot, legislative leaders must be able to understand and work on a broad range of public policy issues and cultivate, maintain and balance relationships with all manner of businesses and advocacy groups.

“It’s sort of like a professional football player that quits playing and somebody says to them, ‘You’ve been doing this a long time. Have you thought about being an offensive coordinator or a head coach?’ ” says former state Rep. Ralph Haben (D-Palmetto), who was Speaker of the House from 1980-82 and became a lobbyist after leaving the Legislature.

“Nobody knows the system better,” Haben says. “The fact is, unless you have served in the Legislature, there is a bandwidth of knowledge you just do not have. You never experienced it.” 

One key skill set common to both leadership and lobbying is the ability to maintain the confidence of other legislators and credibility on issues. “Because you know the districts, you know what’s important back home to each of the 120 seats,” in the House, says Haben. “You may have a client that really needs a vote on an issue, but you know if you go in and talk that freshman or sophomore member into voting for you, for your client, he’s going to struggle with that vote back home.”

A recent example shows the significance of the relationships that aspiring leaders develop: Former Rep. Chris Dorworth (R-Lake Mary) had lined up enough support to become Speaker but then unexpectedly lost re-election in 2012. Ballard Partners, one of the top lobbying firms in Tallahassee, hired Dorworth anyway, just two weeks after he conceded defeat.

“The folks serving now are his dear, dear friends,” says Brian Ballard. “He’s a guy that adds a different flavor for our firm.”

But all those leadership dynamics and the power inherent in the leadership positions — raise questions in every transition from legislator to lobbyist. Is thelobbying contract a thank you from a grateful business? Did the legislator take certain positions with an eye toward potential clients? The power wielded by Speakers and presidents means that those thinking about cashing in on their influence later “can pretty much build their book” of lobbying business while in office, says Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who served nearly 20 years in the state House and Senate between 1994 and 2012.

Various legislative and lobbying records from recent years illustrate how those kind of questions arise.

> Former Rep. Mike Horner (R-Kissimmee), who left office in 2012, sponsored legislation in 2010 that created the Osceola County Expressway Authority in central Florida. Last year, the fledgling toll road agency gave Horner a $60,000-a-year lobbying contract that will run through 2018.

> Former state Sen. Al Lawson (D-Tallahassee) was one of the few Democratic lawmakers who supported school-choice initiatives such as private school vouchers. He’s now a lobbyist whose clients have included Charter Schools USA, the Florida Charter School Alliance and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future.

> Former Rep. Don Brown (RDeFuniak Springs) was among the biggest champions of the insurance industry while serving in the House from 2000-08; former House Speaker Marco Rubio once stripped him of a committee chairmanship because Brown refused to support an insurance-reform package that the industry opposed. Today, Brown is a lobbyist for the industry, with clients including the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers, the Florida Insurance Council and Associated Industries of Florida.

> As a legislator, Cannon worked with Disney World lobbyists on a law giving timeshare developers the option to sell products similar to mortgage insurance. Disney later became one of the first companies to hire Cannon’s lobbying firm, paying Capitol Insight an estimated $60,000 in 2013.

As Speaker, Cannon helped to block legislation opposed by Orlando’s main toll road-building agency that would have merged it and other local toll agencies into Florida’s Turnpike Authority. He later signed the agency as a client, and records show it paid his firm an estimated $25,000 for legislative lobbying in 2013.

Cannon also was a leading advocate of a bill in 2011 to move Florida Medicaid patients into private, managed-care coverage. One of his largest clients now is Medicaid contractor Centene, which operates Sunshine State Health Plan and which paid Capitol Insight approximately $120,000 in 2013.

Cannon did some lobbying for law firm GrayRobinson before he entered the Legislature, though he had stopped lobbying by the time he was elected and left GrayRobinson while in office. He says any claim that he allowed future employment concerns to influence his public policymaking is baseless. “It would be both unlawful and foolish if someone did that,” Cannon says.

“When I began the speakership, we had just been through the resignation of (former House Speaker) Ray Sansom two years before, the global economic meltdown of ’08 and the disappearance of several billion dollars in tax revenues, and the last thing on my mind was what I was going to do for a living when I was done with being Speaker,” Cannon adds. “We were completely focused on trying to get the state through the crisis and advance the best public policy we could under difficult circumstances.” 

Over the years, the Legislature itself has acknowledged the appearance issues. The Florida Constitution prohibits state lawmakers from lobbying the Legislature until two years after they have left office. Two years ago, prompted in large part by Cannon’s jump, lawmakers expanded that “cooling off” period to include lobbying the executive branch, as well.

Even supporters of that restriction acknowledge it isn’t entirely effective, however, since a lawmaker who wants to become a lobbyist can still spend the intervening two years doing “strategic consulting” or “business development” or something else similar to lobbying.

Some question the need to impose extra hurdles on legislators who want to become lobbyists. Mike Hightower, a longtime lobbyist for Florida Blue who recently joined Holland & Knight, says that, in his experience, most former legislators are “among the most careful people in the industry about following rules. Most of these folks, they’re very honorable people. I think they understand they’re held to a higher standard.” 

Others say the system is selflimiting — parlaying legislative leadership experience into a lobbying contract is one thing, but success at lobbying is another.

Being a former legislator “may give them an open door initially because somebody recognizes their name,” says Dave Mica, an oil industry lobbyist who is chairman of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists. “But I’ve seen very, very low-profile people come into the field — folks you’ve never even heard of — and be very successful as advocates. And I’ve seen people that are former Speakers wash out.”

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