State Politics

Senate president walks political tightrope

TALLAHASSEE -- Mike Haridopolos was nervous, almost anguished.

After years of anti-tax votes and rhetoric, the state senator knew he had to vote to raise $2.2 billion in taxes. If he didn’t, he would buck legislative leadership and damage his shot at becoming president of the Florida Senate this year.

“I’m in a corner,” he wearily confided to a class of University of Florida students, whom he taught for a political science class that meets in the state Capitol.

In the end, Haridopolos sided with leadership in 2009 and raised tobacco taxes as well as motor-vehicle tag and title fees to close a yawning budget gap.

That vote was a defining moment for Republicans in general, and in particular for Haridopolos, who’s now the most powerful state senator in Tallahassee and running for the U.S. Senate in 2012. These days, he’s teetering on a political tightrope, with his political ambitions inextricably linked to a Senate presidency dogged by controversies -- from a lucrative college book deal to his failure to disclose his finances.

As Senate president for two years, Haridopolos could undo one of those votes – his Senate is already buzzing with plans to cut the very tag fees he was pressured to raise.

“I finally am working with a Florida Senate that is as conservative as I am,” Haridopolos says, “and I think a lot of the solutions of the past, whether it’s a fee increase or a tax increase, will not be as successful this year. We’re just going to spend less.”

But Haridopolos’ message of fiscal discipline has rankled critics who note that he parlayed political office into profitable college gigs at taxpayer expense. Before he won a $75,000 lecturing job at UF in 2008, he was a longtime history teacher at Brevard Community College, which gave him an unusual arrangement to write a book for $152,000 from 2003-2007.

Haridopolos inked the deal to write Florida Legislative History and Processes the year he entered the Senate, and he wasn’t required to spend much time in the classroom so he could focus on producing his “scholarly work,” in the words of the college’s past president. Colleges usually require teachers to teach and don’t pay for them to write books -- especially before publication.

After four years, the college finally published Haridopolos’ book. It became available online Wednesday through for $9.99.

During the time he produced the 176-page manuscript, Haridopolos began his rapid ascent through the Florida Senate. He was a mainstay on the campaign trail, helping to raise $5.3 million for at least five different political committees that helped him influence elections around the state over the past four years.

Despite the title and intent, the book contains no footnoted historical facts and reads more like an autobiographical how-to manual for candidates running for office and for legislative leadership posts.

The book doesn’t delve deeply into the complicated world of how the $70 billion budget is built, nor how members slip hometown spending projects, nicknamed “earmarks” by some, into the budget. Like any seasoned senator, Haridopolos has had his share of earmarks in the past decade: about $42.7 million – considerably low compared to past presidents – according to state budget documents. Haridopolos helped steer about $3.1 million in government spending to Brevard Community college for two projects: renovations in 2009, and a 2006 project that sought to help build a facility, connected to the college, to help turtle-nesting, manatee and whale and dolphin research.

Haridopolos writes that members need to start running for leadership almost as soon as they win office for the first time, spend about 40 percent of their time fundraising for their own races and collect pledges of support from sitting members.

“In some sense, it resembles the old system of feudalism,” Haridopolos writes, indirectly comparing himself to a “lord” who presides over his “vassal” senators, whom he has pledged to take care of. Senators from both parties have praised Haridopolos for his hands-off leadership style that’s geared toward helping them promote their individual agendas.

Today, partly thanks to Haridopolos, the Florida Senate has a veto-proof majority of 28 Republican senators, making him one of the most powerful Senate presidents ever. At 40, Haridopolos is one of the youngest members to lead the chamber. Blessed with a Midas-touch for fundraising, a friendly demeanor and a Norman Rockwell family of three children and a doctor for a wife, the Merritt Island Republican won his Senate seat after the death of his predecessor.

His campaign for higher office won’t be so easy. Former Senate President Tom Lee, R-Bradenton, unsuccessfully ran for state chief financial officer in 2007 and said running for higher office complicates an already difficult task.

“You don’t raise friends or money by making unpopular decisions. And you have to make a lot of them as Senate president,” Lee said. “Being Senate president sure helps with fundraising. But that can cut both ways.”

Lee said running for a federal office probably “introduces a different dynamic and set of players” that you don’t have to deal with in running for state seat. Tax cuts are crucial in a Republican race -- one reason the Senate is likely to try to undo the damage of the motor-vehicle tag fees, despite a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Two proposed constitutional amendments could appear on the 2012 ballot with Haridopolos: A “Smart Cap” limitation on state spending and a “Healthcare Freedom Act” designed to stop initiatives similar to President Obama’s signature healthcare law.

Both amendments are sponsored by Haridopolos. The Florida Senate plans to pass them soon after the 60-day lawmaking session gets underway Tuesdaymarch 8. Haridopolos also wants to reform Medicaid and is sponsoring legislation to ensure that innocent people are freed from prison. Haridopolos says an advanced version of his “Transparency Florida” plan to “put the state’s checkbook online” should be out soon as well.

“We are getting to work in the Florida Senate,” says Haridopolos, “and not being, say, distracted by other ideas.”

But distractions abound for Haridopolos as he prepares to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and fend off fellow Republicans who may also want the job.

His own Senate Rules Committee voted to admonish him two weeks ago for accidentally omitting financial information from constitutionally mandated ethics forms. Among the items Haridopolos failed to disclose: A consulting job with a local company, Appliance Direct, that has lobbied the Legislature for years.

Haridopolos has said he was “embarrassed” by his errors, which he called inadvertent. He said he won the consulting job in part because of his successful campaigning, which began when he first won a House seat in 2000 with the slogan “What’s a Haridopolos?”

The publication of Haridopolos’ book Wednesday ushered in a new round of criticisms – especially from Democrats who mocked the work as a glorified “5th grade book report.” And UF political science professor Dan Smith, who joined other colleagues in 2008 in criticizing the university for paying Haridopolos so highly, described the senator’s arrangements with UF and Brevard as “degrading” to the profession.

Smith and others think Haridopolos is good for the school, but object to paying such an outsized wage to lecturer who had only a master’s degree. Also, professors discovered, Haridopolos had at first mistakenly misrepresented to UF that he was close to giving a history dissertation at the University of Arkansas, even though he wasn’t enrolled.

Haridopolos said that was an error. He defended the idea of writing the Brevard book and getting well paid by UF because of his unique experience as an up-and-coming state senator.

“Where else are you going to find the skill set I have?” Haridopolos says, noting his involvement with major statewide campaigns for candidates and constitutional amendments.

One of the people who recommended Haridopolos, former Democratic U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham, has called Haridopolos an “excellent asset.”

Haridopolos’ current and former students agree. They say Haridopolos provides one of the most unique classes, where they get an insider’s view of the Florida Legislature.

Former student Matt Goldberger enjoyed Haridopolos’ class and was particularly struck with how the senator confided in the class when Senate leaders were pushing him into “a corner” over taxes. Haridopolos pointed out he had approved tax-and-spending cuts – such as a major property-tax reform ballot measure in 2008 – that were bigger than the 2009 tax increases. But to ensure he’d become Senate president, Haridopolos had to follow Senate President Jeff Atwater’s plan to plug the budget hole.

Haridopolos said he’s not sure if the tax increase will haunt him. But the sum total of all the missteps and errors are starting to take their toll. The normally easygoing Haridopolos is more defensive and prone to blame political opponents.

When asked if the $152,000 book deal was worth the public-relations hassle, he snapped at a reporter: “I don’t know. How much are you worth?”

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