Florida Senate installs its first female presiding officer in a generation

‘It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?’ Kathleen Passidomo remarks

By: - November 22, 2022 4:02 pm

Naples Republican Kathleen Passidomo answers reporters’ questions following her installment as Florida Senate president on Nov. 22, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

The Florida Senate formally installed Naples Republican Kathleen Passidomo as its first woman president in a generation Tuesday. She marked the occasion by promising to work with Democrats but stressing that the voters had placed her party firmly in charge.

“It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” Passidomo told reporters during her first media gaggle in her new office.

“I feel I have an obligation, but I think every president does. And, you know, I kind of feel like I’m one of the boys anyway. So, I don’t look at it as being a woman or whatever. I’m a senator,” Passidomo said.

“But I do feel like I have to be a role model and I plan to be, because I get all these cute letters and emails from high school kids saying ‘Oh, it’s so exciting.’ I’m like, ‘Oh man, I can’t let them down.’ I wouldn’t let them dash any hopes.”

The Senate Republican caucus comprises 28 members, a supermajority in the 40-seat chamber, allowing members to override a gubernatorial veto or change the rules to further marginalize the Democratic minority.

Passidomo told reporters that first scenario, at least, seems unlikely.

“I don’t anticipate the governor vetoing a high-priority policy,” Passidomo said. She spent considerable time with DeSantis after Ian hit, “and we agree on so many things. I don’t anticipate passing any legislation that he’d say, ‘Oh no.’”

Talk of cooperation

Passidomo, in her first speech as president, envisioned nonpartisan cooperation on matters including affordable housing, the environment, protecting the vulnerable, and supporting veterans and first responders.

In fact, she listed the housing crisis as the “single most pressing issue facing our state today.”

She added, though:

“But at the end of the day, we each have a responsibility to the voters who elected us, and those voters overwhelmingly support the conservative agenda of fiscal responsibility, protecting parents’ rights, honoring the dignity of work, and expanding education opportunities for our students. That will drive our work over the next two years.”

Passidomo, whose own home suffered Hurricane Ian damage, pledged to support the rebuilding process for that storm and Hurricane Nicole.

Unlike Paul Renner, the new House speaker, Passidomo didn’t attack drag queens, but did pledge to support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ emphasis on empowering parents on items including public school curricula.

“We are going to continue our fight to protect family values. Some folks are trying to distance parents from important decisions in their child’s life. Whether it is education, health or sports, keeping the parents in the dark is unacceptable,” she said.

She said she hopes to expand the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a 17-million-acre stretch of conservation land extending the spine of the state.

“We must remain focused. If it is not broken, we’re not going to fix it. I am not interested in food fights between special interests. We are here to serve the constituents we represent. It may require late nights and long weeks. It may include special sessions. But we will not adjourn until we get the job done.”

In fact, DeSantis and the Legislature are talking about a special session in December to pass additional fixes to Florida’s insurance system, which has been experiencing wild increases in rates; rebating property taxes for people who suffered hurricane damage; and perhaps other matters.

Marking the occasion

The Senate didn’t let the landmark of Passidomo’s ascension to the presidency pass without notice. Former Sen. Toni Jennings, who served two terms as Senate president between 1996 and 2000, was on hand to offer the opening benediction for the one-day organizational session. (Democrat Gwen Margolis was the first woman to hold the office, between 1990 and 1992).

But first Jennings made an appeal for interparty harmony.

Former Senate President Toni Jennings is pictured toasting House Speaker Dan Webster at the close of the 1998 session of the Florida Legislature. The photo hangs outside the Senate chamber. Credit: Michael Moline

Jennings recalled the days when Republicans won their first majority in the Senate, while Democrat Lawton Chiles was governor. Ander Crenshaw became the first Republican Senate president since Reconstruction in 1992.

“Most of my political career, I was in the minority party. And I look out today and most of the Republicans in here have never known us to be a minority party. And most of the Democrats have never known a time when they were the majority party,” she said.

“And I share with you just one thought and I leave you a message — that what we do best is work together, not as Republicans or Democrats, but I’ll be a little parochial; we work together best as senators for the good of our state.”

Democratic leader Lauren Book of Broward County said she looked forward to working with Passidomo to “make sure that we get all of our constituents heard, helped, and seen.”

Later, Book speaking to reporters outside the Senate chamber as anti-abortion activists yelled slogans, advised the Republicans against overplaying their hand. (Passidomo didn’t mention abortion during her speech.)

“They believe that this election has proven an edict for the way people want to do business in the state of Florida,” Book said.

“To me, this is quite gluttonous,” she continued, gesturing toward the demonstrators. “They have the numbers. If they want to start doing this, we can too.”

Policy details

Boring into policy details with reporters, Passidomo didn’t commit to changes to the parental rights in school law. That measure severely crimps instruction about sexual orientation and identification, particularly in the lower grades.

“I think we did a good, robust bill. I haven’t heard of anybody that plans to file anything. My position is more sort of global, in that parents should have a seat at the table,” she said. “How it ends out, some member may file a bill.”

About housing, the Senate is working on possible tax incentives to encourage construction of mixed-income, mixed-use housing to provide affordable shelter for first responders, teachers, nurses, and others who can’t meet escalating house prices and rents, Passidomo said.

“You could have a cop living next to a nurse living next door to a janitor living next door to a teacher living next door to a secretary or one of you guys,” she told reporters. “It creates a neighborhood.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.