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In Tallahassee, Lawmakers’ Power-Tripped Rudeness Toward the Public Is a Daily Cringe

| April 22, 2015

10-year-old Nathan Gill addressing the Senate Rules Committee about his two dads on Monday just before he was cut off by Committee Vice Chair Darren Soto, the Kissimmee Democrat. (Florida Channel)

10-year-old Nathan Gill addressing the Senate Rules Committee about his two dads on Monday just before he was cut off by Committee Vice Chair Darren Soto, the Kissimmee Democrat. (Florida Channel)

By Nancy Smith

Over the years Florida legislators have presented God-knows-how-many bills claiming “there ought to be a law” against some form of rudeness or another — against “me-first” drivers, against people who play loud music, against pet owners who don’t clean up after their animals — the list is long.

I agree. Rudeness, or a lack of consideration of others, badly needs addressing, and never more than right now.

So, forgive me if we start with my pet peeve — the bad manners of Florida lawmakers, unchecked and on display in both chambers of the Legislature every day committees meet.

This isn’t something new. I’ve noticed it for years — committee chairmen having to assert their authority ad nauseum, delivering long, tedious speeches — not once, not even twice, but sometimes several times during a meeting — forbidding members of the public from overstaying their welcome at the podium. In the end, when you count up the minutes a chairman usurps the floor telling people who drove hundreds of miles not to do what he just did, what was supposed to be a three-minute allowance to speak turns into less than two.

For example, here’s the opener from the chairman of a recent Senate committee meeting:

“We have a lot of speakers to get in today, so people, we ask you to hold your comments to under two minutes. You can always waive in support if somebody made the same point ahead of you. We want to hear everything you have to say but try to edit it down so you’re not preventing someone else from speaking. …”

No, sadly, it didn’t end there. He was in charge, and like a kid with a cherry pop in the August heat, was determined to enjoy every lick.

“All of these senators have a number of issues to get through today …” the chairman continued. “Of course, we want to hear all the testimony … I mean, in its full context … but we have limited time and call on your help to be brief. Be succinct. And as I said, waive in support or in opposition if you can …”

nancy-smith-beg-to-differA lobbyist sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “Jeez-Louise! If arrogance was a drinking game, this guy would need a liver transplant.”

There were two or three more sentences before the chairman ran out of gas. None of them included telling speakers they could save time by dispensing with the obligatory thanks to committee members, staff, whoever else in Tallahassee encouraged their presence. I’m told backpats/gratitude/grovelling play well on The Florida Channel.

This is nothing but rudeness masquerading as necessity. It’s officious nonsense, frankly, a complete disrespect of the people who pay lawmakers’ salaries, many of them frightened and awestruck by the occasion and responsibility they feel. Try to imagine it from their point of view. On this particular day, as I said earlier is the norm, the chairman repeated some version of his opening statement not one, not two, but four times, stealing precious minutes that didn’t belong to him.

I thought it was time to write a rudeness story then, but got distracted with another issue. Then I witnessed Monday’s Senate Rules Committee, with David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, presiding and Vice Chair Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, riding shotgun.

All of a sudden things get in the way of real public service: self-importance, control freakiness, show-offiness, and that’s for a start.

The mysterious, embarrassing, outrageous manner in which this near four-hour meeting ended tipped me over the edge.

If you were there, or watched the meeting on The Florida Channel — it involved discussion on the “conscience protection” bill that religious groups in Florida say is necessary for them to deny gays’ applications to adopt — I’m betting you were as appalled as I was.

Ten-year-old Nathan Gill had traveled more than eight hours from Miami to Tallahassee to oppose the bill and give testimony. He wanted to talk about his “two dads,” saying he was “representing all foster children.” As he began to tell how nobody else would take him and his brother together — just as he began to talk about his autistic younger brother — Soto interrupted him.

In mid sentence. Never even excused himself. Never once looked at the boy.

Just delivered a little speech to Chairman Simmons about calling it a day and suddenly Simmons told Nathaniel, “We ran out of time … if we can get another time period, we want you to come back.” But the chairman was already preparing to leave his seat and his words sounded insincere.

Nathaniel was clearly confused — as if he had done something wrong. He had been in mid sentence, remember.

Sen. David Simmons.

Sen. David Simmons.

Before adjournment, committee member Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, suggested the boy probably didn’t understand what just happened and somebody should explain it to him. A member of staff went to him and certainly tried. He was still at the podium as members walked out of the room.

Can somebody tell me why, after nearly four hours, there wasn’t another minute to let the child finish? He wasn’t messing up or rambling on. But in an instant, Soto and Simmons shut him up and if they didn’t shatter his confidence, I would be very surprised. The meeting is recorded here.

Now, I do realize time poverty is a huge issue for lawmakers given the most to do. And I don’t think lawmakers intend to be anything but courteous to members of the public. Certainly, “welcome” is part of their vocabulary. But I wonder if they realize how feral they become as they rise to leadership positions — not all of them, but certainly many of them. All of a sudden things get in the way of real public service: self-importance, control freakiness, show-offiness, and that’s for a start.

The result is the same for the many dozens of folks every session who want to make a difference, who often drive for hours, sacrifice their time to make a single, emphatic point. It’s rudeness, and it has become a part of the culture in the Legislature. I wish lawmakers would take a good look at themselves and make an important attitude adjustment.

nancy smith sunshine state news columnistNancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.

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8 Responses for “In Tallahassee, Lawmakers’ Power-Tripped Rudeness Toward the Public Is a Daily Cringe”

  1. a tiny manatee says:

    The lesson here: elected officials do not care about you. They do not care what you think. They don’t care how their actions affect you. Elected officials only care about one thing, and one thing only – getting elected again. Getting elected again doesn’t require that the average person likes them, just that their attack ads disenfranchise enough of the people voting for the other candidate. As long as the gravy keeps coming in via lobbyists and campaign donors, who cares what the average person thinks or cares about? The average voter isn’t educated about the issues or their candidate; instead, they only really care about the one or two hot button topics that matter to them, so ethics really don’t matter unless you get caught, and then you just apologize and it’s all good, right?

    Think about that next time you vote.

  2. Freddy says:

    Would they have been as rude if the speaker was a young white female?

  3. Bethechange says:

    I, like Nathan am speechless. Thank you for your article. Seems pop culture is confusing rudeness with hip efficiency. It’ s ruthless out there; the haughtiness. And more often than not from inferior humans. Sad irony.

  4. Retired FF says:

    It is unfortunate that the young man had to be subjected to such arrogant behavior. To see a child of his age being not only brave enough but articulate enough to stand in front of a political committee is admirable. I can’t say much for the elected officials that so rudely cut him off. I wonder if they would have done the same to one of their children or grand kids.

  5. Nancy N says:

    Only a completely heartless ass would interrupt a two minute presentation from a 10 year old child that had driven 8 hours for their chance to have their brief moment speaking to you.

    It makes me wonder what kind of parents these men are. How do they speak to their own children?

    Or better yet – how would they react to someone who treated their children this way? I’m thinking it wouldn’t make them very happy.

    I’m wondering if the child had been white if it would have gone differently.

  6. confidential says:

    That is the way these GOP’s bite the very hand that feeds them.

  7. A.S.F. says:

    Let’s remember this and “cut their, um, time off” at the polls next election time. I hope enough newspapers and news outlets realize that this is enough of a story to give this young man all the audience he could ever desire to air his concerns.

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