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Personal tragedies drive average folks to fight for all

 Stephanie Garry
DATE: Tue, May. 08, 2007

They were average people who watched the news occasionally, too busy with family and work to pay attention to their representatives in Tallahassee.

Then tragedy intervened: A son hanged himself with his backpack strap; a daughter was abducted, raped and buried alive; an undetected eye disease sent a toddler to his grave.

Soon they became advocates, the suitless oddities of the state Capitol, working harder than the well-heeled lobbyists to try to get their legislation passed. After years of driving, telling their stories and begging, they bridged the disconnection between Tallahassee and the real people of Florida, learning more about the Legislature than they ever wanted to know.

''I was always raised to believe in the legal system and in justice,'' said Debbie Johnston, a Cape Coral woman whose son, Jeff, hanged himself in a closet two years ago at age 15 after relentless bullying in school and on the Internet. "I guess I had a very idealized view of government.''

For two years, she has sought legislation to create a statewide ban on bullying. As the session ended nearly eight hours before deadline Friday and her bill died, she wept in the public gallery above while senators congratulated themselves and their staff for the session's hard work.

Last year, the legislation died as representatives debated whether Key lime pie should be the state's official dessert. She still won't eat it.


Johnston, who once thought the lawmaking session lasted all year rather than 60 days, quickly became a regular at committee hearings and in the labyrinthine halls of the Capitol. Last year, her first session, she packed Jeff's friends into a bus, rented two hotel rooms and put it on her credit card. They stared up at the 22-story Capitol building, she said, like ``the Clampetts go to Beverly Hills.''

''I used to ride horses, and they can't see the jump before they come to it,'' she added. "They say throw your heart over the fence and go for it. I just closed my eyes, gritted my teeth and put $4,000 on my credit card.''

Now she rattles off the names of legislative leadership. Speaker Rubio. President Pruitt. She calls her bill sponsor, Rep. Nick Thompson, a Fort Myers Republican, by his first name. She says she will be back in the special session on property taxes in June, and if that fails, next year.

''We're not quitting,'' she said.

Her tenacity is common for this special class of lobbyists, but not all have had to return year after year.

When Jessica Lunsford was killed in 2005 by her neighbor, sex offender John Couey, it sent her father, Mark, of Homosassa on a crusade to toughen state laws to include electronic monitoring and minimum sentences for child molesters. That was accomplished in one legislative session -- the girl's body was discovered in March 2005, and the bill was signed two months later.

Mark Lunsford wore a tie with 9-year-old Jessica's picture on it as Gov. Jeb Bush signed the legislation into law. Lunsford called the tie his ''hug'' from Jessica.

''Every time I asked for something, from the beginning to now, people did it and they did it quickly,'' he told The St. Petersburg Times after the signing.

Not so for Pam Bergsma, a Lake Worth woman whose grandson didn't have a basic eye test that she says would have saved his life. He died in 2000 at age 3 from a rare cancer that wouldn't have been life-threatening if it had been caught earlier. She has been fighting to pass legislation requiring the eye test for retinoblastoma since the 2002 legislative session -- five years ago.

Bergsma, who can't count the number of times she has been to Tallahassee, used to sleep in her car but now stays in a Motel 6, the cheapest place she can find.

''What I have experienced and what I have seen up there, I never would have believed,'' Bergsma said. ``I always had an open mind.''

She has seen senators fight for her bill and against lobbyists for pediatricians, who don't want the requirement. But she says the lawmakers should feel ''shame'' for lengthening her quest, which she swears she will see to the end.

Every year, she truly believes the bill will pass. After no one sponsored it last year because it had failed so many times before, she believed the support she got this session meant it was time. But the bill died again.

''I was so sure'' it would pass this time, she said, then couldn't speak for sobbing.


Jodi Walsh, a newcomer to the process who was ''appalled'' at how lawmakers dealt with her when she first visited them in January, said she took action after her ex-boyfriend encouraged her then-6-year-old son to steal a knife from the kitchen and stab her.

She recorded the conversation, and the boy's father was convicted of child abuse, but the decision was overturned because the judge said the legal definition of child abuse didn't include verbal manipulation. So, this session, she tried to convince lawmakers to include mental abuse in the law.

Her bill failed, too, but Walsh says she has learned a lot about the Legislature, which she used to follow only in the newspapers. She believes citizens should hound their representatives throughout the session to remind them of who really holds the power.

''It's personality that comes into play and not principle or priority or issues,'' Walsh said. "It's their own personalities at each other's throats. That's what it boils down to. That really sickens me.''

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