A time when politics seemed much friendlier

The late Florida Senate President Jim King, with the 1838 Florida Constitution in the Senate chamber., 2004. Credit: Caroline Ferguson. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

It’s hard to believe, but the late Senate President Jim King has been gone for more than 10 years.

Few legislators would be remembered 10 years after leaving the Capitol scene in Tallahassee.

But there is still an annual gathering of lobbyists, lawmakers, old friends and an occasional reporter on the first Wednesday night of every legislative session to toast and roast King.

The night is reminiscent of “wonderful Wednesdays,’’ the night King loved to go to dinner with legislators and lobbyists somewhere in Tallahassee.

King never hid the gathering, always welcomed any reporter who showed up and always believed that relationships around the Capitol worked best when those kind of evenings were held after a long tense day of attempting to reach an agreement on important issues that confronted lawmakers.

Florida Capitol
The 22-story Florida Capitol towers over the old Historic Capitol. Credit: Diane Rado

He was one of the most quotable lawmakers to ever pass through the Capitol.  Reporters relied on his wit to describe the events of the day.

Early one morning many years ago when the legislature often started a session early one day and didn’t end it until the next day, the House had been on and off the floor passing bills from time to time, but frequently breaking up to negotiate some last deal.

During those recesses it was obvious that some lawmakers were drinking a lot.  When they returned to the floor with red solo cups it was obvious that water was not the drink of the night.

Sometime after midnight King and another legislator paraded onto the House floor carrying a boom box that was playing loud music.  Everyone was laughing, but tired of the repeated delays that kept us all up through the night.

When the House finally adjourned and put a temporary end to the chaos, I went down to the floor as usual to get King’s take on the day. I asked him to describe the day.

Without taking a breath, King leaned back and said, “If we were in somebody’s home, they would have already spanked us and put us to bed without dinner.”

It was classic King.

He worked hard and he partied hard.

He liked the relationship that after hours drinks and dinner created between legislators, lobbyists and others, including reporters.  He thought it helped understand each other.  He didn’t like the laws that came later, which banned legislators from accepting anything, including a cup of coffee, from lobbyists.

He noted that the laws were being passed just as he was gaining a foothold in legislative leadership.

He didn’t always like what reporters, wrote.  But it was never personal.  He, more than most, understood the need to have reporters writing about what legislators were doing.  Even when it wasn’t pretty.

Life in the legislature was often rough. King was a white Episcopalian but he filed a bill to help Jewish and black members and quickly became the target of threatening phone calls and mail from people who wanted to “keep minorities in their place.’’

The threats didn’t stop him, but did make him angry and determined to fight.

King never refused to answer a question posed by cheeky reporters.  Some lawmakers would hem and haw and say “no comment,’’ when surrounded by reporters wanting to talk about a sensitive issue. Not King. He would wade into any subject.

We could use a few like him today.

King was elected to the House in 1986 to represent parts of Flagler, Duval, St. Johns, Volusia and Nassau Counties.

He stayed there for 12 years, becoming House Majority Leader and Chairman of Appropriations.

He viewed one of his most important accomplishments as the passage of a Death with Dignity Law, recognizing the right of competent adults to make their own decisions regarding medical treatment when confronted with serious illnesses.

He took a lot of heat over it, but pushed ahead and fended off the venom of pro-lifers who opposed it.

After leaving the House, he won election to the Florida Senate and was named Senate President in 2002. He remained in the Senate until his death from pancreatic cancer on July 26, 2009. He was 69.

King lived life surrounded by laughter, good food and lots of Bacardi 8 Ball Rum and coke with lime. And a lasting love for Florida State University where he helped gain approval for a new medical school.

It was no accident that most of those who gathered on the third floor of the Governor’s Club Wednesday night wore 8 Ball pins and joined Senate President Bill Galvano in a toast that recalled his earliest meeting with King when Galvano was elected to the House.

Galvano said he was pretty much overcome with being there as he made his first tour of the House, and King urged him to never let that feeling go.

The annual gathering is put together each year by Gus Corbella, now a lobbyist for Greenberg Traurig, and Sarah Bascom.  Corbella was a longtime chief of staff for King in the House and Senate. Bascom, his longtime communications director, now runs Bascom Communications & Consulting.

Before he died, they promised King they would keep “wonderful Wednesdays’’ alive long after he was gone.

For many of us, it was a time to tell a few stories and remember a time when politics seemed much friendlier.