Florida Senate. Portraits of previous Senate Presidents in the Senate gallery. Credit: Danielle J. Brown. Oct. 19, 2021.
The portraits of previous Florida Senate presidents hang on the wall in the Senate gallery, showcasing the overwhelming number of males who have held those leadership roles. Going back decades, only two women have been Senate presidents in the Florida Legislature.
But Tuesday, the Florida Senate designated its next president as Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a 68-year-old Republican who is an attorney and represents Collier and Hendry counties and part of Lee County in the Southwest Florida area.
She will be only the third woman to fill the powerful position in Florida’s Senate history. She’ll serve as president for the 2022-2024 legislative term.
Passidomo said she was humbled. “There’s no better word to describe how I feel today.”
It was a big event on Tuesday, with Central Florida’s Sen. Dennis Baxley kicking off the ceremony by reverently singing the Lord’s Prayer in the Florida Senate chamber.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, along with Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, all Republicans, were at the ceremony. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, was not with the group.
In Passidomo’s acceptance speech, she recognized the two women who served before her.
“I’m also inspired to take on this new role. I’m inspired by the women who have led the Senate before me, President Gwen Margolis and President Toni Jennings,” Passidomo said.
It’s been more than 20 years since Florida has had a female Senate president.
Margolis was a Democrat elected to the position in the early 1990s. She passed away in 2020 at the age of 85.
Jennings was the first Republican female president in the Florida Senate, serving two terms, through 2000.
Passidomo was joined by her husband, John Passidomo, who will be the “First Gentleman” in the history of the Florida Senate.
Sen. Gayle Harrell, who officially nominated Passidomo, cited the barriers women have faced in their careers and lives, but said Passidomo has persevered.
“She learned to face and overcome many obstacles from the very beginning of her career. When she began practicing law, more than 40 years ago, she was only the second woman to practice law in Collier County. She learned first hand the barriers women faced in the 1970’s,” Harrell read in a speech about Passidomo.
Harrell said that men would call Passidomo “little girl,” and one man asked her: “Shouldn’t you be home having babies?”
“Women, especially those of us who might be a little older, have a lot of experience facing barriers in our professional careers,” Harrell said. “We often face barriers that our male colleagues do not.”
“I try not to think of it as ‘the third woman’ or whatever. I feel like I am a legislator,” Passidomo said during press questions following the ceremony. “I have different perspectives being a woman.”
She continued: “I hope to be a role model for younger women coming in behind me.”
Still, the Florida Legislature remains a male bastion.
The Florida Senate’s current membership is comprised of 15 women and 25 men.
The Phoenix previously reported in 2020 on how gender impacts the legislative branch, finding that many of the committees that create state laws have as few as one, or even zero, women on those committees.
Even so, Passidomo has served as a Senate Majority Leader, and she currently is chair of the powerful Senate Rules committee.
Meanwhile, some anti-abortion advocates do not want Passidomo as the future Senate president.
Though Passidomo has noted that she is in favor of restricting abortion access, she is skeptical about a new Texas law that severely limits abortion access. The legislation would allow citizens to sue people who provide or enable abortions.
Florida has already filed its own Texas-style bill, to be considered during the 2022 legislative session. The bill is HB 167.
“I do not support citizen enforcement of any kind of law, because I think it’s a slippery slope,” she said when answering press questions Tuesday.
Passidomo said that part of the restrictive abortion law reminded her of reading The Diary of a Young Girl, referencing Anne Frank, as a kid.
“I remember when it was over I was devastated because she died. And why did she die? Because she was turned in by a neighbor. That stays with me,” Passidomo said, answering press questions. “So, I think when we talk about these vigilante type of provisions, I, I’m uncomfortable with them. I don’t think that’s the American way.”
Passidomo has previously compared the Texas-style abortion law to Nazi Germany.
Andrew Shrivell, executive director of the nonprofit anti-abortion group called Florida Voice for the Unborn, sent a letter to the Florida Republican Senate Caucus, notifying lawmakers to reconsider confirming Passidomo.
He said that it was “beyond the pale” to equate the Texas-style abortion law to “those enacted by one of the most murderous regimes in human history. ”
“While Senator Passidomo thankfully will not be in charge of the Senate during the upcoming 60-day 2022 legislative session … she will wield undue influence as the Senate President in-waiting. That is exactly why I sent an urgent letter this morning to all of Senator Passidomo’s Republican colleagues, encouraging them to rethink elevating her to such an auspicious position.”
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