September 4, 2019 7:00 am

Lobbyist Karen Woodall speaks at a Capitol press conference. Photo via Twitter

Usually when you hear about lobbyists, it’s about how they provide prodigious quantities of campaign cash.

Or because they’ve slipped “a little noticed provision into a bill during the frenetic last days of the legislative session.”

The lobbyists you don’t hear much about are the ones who work on behalf of people who have little to no voice in the political process. They advocate for children, for the disabled, for people who don’t earn enough to afford rent or go to the doctor, and for people who have been stigmatized, victimized, or wrongly incarcerated. They represent farm workers who are sick from pesticides and people seeking refuge in the U.S. after fleeing violence in their home countries.

Every day, they advocate for people who depend on Florida’s spindly safety net.

It’s rough going, this kind of lobbying. In public, politicians may say they care for the less fortunate.  Even in this bullying, mercenary political culture we inhabit, it’s still not entirely cool to show you don’t give a damn. But trust me, I have seen many over the decades who don’t give a damn. They believe that because they were afforded a safety net due to their own societal privilege, everyone else should be able to do it, too.

And those who can’t get a leg up or pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or whatever, well, them’s the breaks, folks. If their less-than-minimum wage job cleaning tourist toilets means they have to sleep in a car, tough luck. They just aren’t working hard enough. They just want “handouts.” They should stop having so many children.

It doesn’t seem to matter that there are vast quantities of evidence documenting how the elite have methodically subjugated the American poor over hundreds of years, actively promoting creatively cruel policies to keep them in fear and at the preferred economic and social disadvantage.

These politicians will enthusiastically contort and distort to avoid the obvious question: Why doesn’t the richest country on Earth feed all its people and give them adequate medical care?

If this is not our society’s goal, then what is?

Instead, these politicians work tirelessly to surgically undo public benefits and re-name their atrocities. “Welfare mothers.” “Entitlements.” “Tax reform.”

In Florida, one Tallahassee woman has spent decades listening to heartless politicians on both sides of the political aisle offer excuses, and still she persists.

She is Karen Woodall, and she’s been lobbying for the poor at Florida’s Capitol for nearly four decades. She spends her days unraveling the arcane ways that these politicians devise to punish the poor. Unfailingly polite, whip-smart, and creative, Woodall is currently executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, which works on budgeting issues.

“The budget is a blueprint for our priorities,” Woodall told the Phoenix’s Michael Moline when he was a reporter for the website Florida Politics.

In an interview with our former Phoenix reporter C.D. Davidson-Hiers earlier this year, Woodall asked a question no one should have to ask: “Feeding hungry children should be a no-brainer, right?”

At the Legislature last year, Woodall had to explain to state lawmakers that their bright idea of making people work to get Medicaid benefits was especially policy-challenged. Medicaid recipients are the sickest and poorest, which means they are unlikely to be well enough to work, even if they want to. The point of the program, basically, is so they can survive.

This is how bad the safety net is – you have to live below the federal poverty level to get Medicaid in Florida, which means a person who makes about $12,000 a year – $230 a week.

Ideologues in the governor’s mansion and statehouse are so stingy towards the needy that Florida is one of just 14 states that has refused to take advantage of the federal offer to expand Medicaid to cover more people, including those who make about $17,000 per year. They keep opposing it even though the federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost.

By refusing to do it, Florida’s politicians are denying health care coverage to some 837,000 Floridians, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. More than eight out of every 10 of those residents are poor, childless adults who are not eligible for Medicaid unless they are disabled. Some 32 percent are Hispanic residents and 22 percent are African-Americans. And about one in five are near-elderly (between age 55 to 64).

Woodall is their voice in the Capitol.

Last year, she established something new in Tallahassee – a residential center where people who come to Tallahassee to, for example, fight for immigrant rights or safety-net programs, can stay overnight. There’s a kitchen and showers and dorm rooms and meeting rooms. Other advocacy groups have moved their offices there as well. By having this building – the Florida People’s Advocacy Center – Woodall and other activists can bring people to testify at the Capitol who otherwise couldn’t afford a place to stay. She’s doing what she can to empower the powerless. You can donate to the People’s Advocacy Center here. You can also sign up for email updates.

“We need folks around the state who are impacted by these policy decisions to – if they can’t come up here – make phone calls, send emails, go to their (legislator’s) district offices,” Woodall told the Phoenix. “That’s what’s going to turn the tide.”

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.