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latimes.com: Florida's top lawmakers brave cusp of a comeback

latimes.com TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Los Angeles Times) -- Tom Feeney and John McKay are two very different politicians, but the convening of a special legislative session presents them the same golden opportunity: a chance for a full-fledged comeback.

Six years ago Feeney was considered a political jinx. As Jeb Bush's running mate, his ultraconservative beliefs were thought to have cost Bush his first bid for the governor's mansion. Four years ago, McKay was disgraced by an extramarital affair with a lobbyist, a resignation from a top committee and a very public divorce.

Now the two Republican lawmakers--Feeney, speaker of the Florida House, and McKay, president of the Senate--have a shot at redemption, at least in the eyes of their like-minded colleagues.

Starting today, they will lead the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature into uncharted and potentially hostile territory as lawmakers meet to consider a measure to secure Florida's votes and the presidency for Republican George W. Bush.

"If this is handled discreetly, cautiously and diplomatically, people will respect these men and their leadership," said Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer. "But this is an enormous challenge. What they're about to do is very risky, and they know it."

The pressure is tremendous, squeezing from all directions: lawmakers who have constituencies that voted for Al Gore; big-shot lawyers hurling obscure, colliding legal arguments; and Florida voters, thousands of whom have marched in the streets to protest legislative intervention.

If Gore concedes, Feeney and McKay said they will disband the special session and return to the business of the Sunshine State.

But if Gore gains traction in his election-related lawsuits, Feeney, 42, and McKay, 52, will find themselves squarely in the spotlight as they orchestrate an unprecedented power play to directly appoint electoral delegates and block the Democrat from the White House.

The two have parallel beliefs but divergent styles. Some of their contrasts reflect the differences in the chambers they lead, with the House more rambunctious and the Senate more genteel.

Tom Feeney is ambitious, dogmatic, acutely partisan and brash, a political time bomb tick, tick, ticking, ready to rip open any minute with an explosive sound bite or uncouth remark.

"We call him Ready, Fire, Aim Feeney," Tallahassee lobbyist John French said.

When asked last week about a special session, Feeney said he "had his helmet on" and was "ready to rock 'n' roll."

John McKay is a straight arrow, somber and cool to strangers. He hates cameras and loves research.

Despite Feeney's urgings, McKay held off calling a special session until he had studied numerous reports and consulted with the Democrats' lead constitutional expert to hear the arguments against appointing delegates. Democrats had argued it was unnecessary and illegal for lawmakers to take action because a set of delegates had already been certified for Bush and an elaborate court process was in motion to resolve Gore's contest.

But Republican legal experts painted a dark picture of Florida being left out of the electoral college because of all the litigation and vote-counting disputes. McKay agreed.

"With a heavy heart we go into this," McKay said Wednesday about calling a special session to directly appoint presidential delegates. "What we will do may impact the course of the country."

The two men have both overcome troubling legacies.

Feeney, the son of schoolteachers, was born, raised and educated in Pennsylvania and moved to Florida in 1983. Since then, he's been a real estate attorney in Orlando.

He jumped into politics at age 32 when he won a state House seat and quickly established his conservative credentials. He pushed school prayer and school vouchers. He fought hard against abortion rights. He backed a resolution that called for Florida to secede from the Union if the federal deficit didn't shrink. He tried to ban yoga in public schools, saying that it "hypnotized" kids.

In 1993, he was named the Christian Coalition's legislator of the year.

"He's very ideologically driven and unabashed about it," said Bob Henriquez, a Democratic state representative from Tampa. "That works fine as a representative. But no one really knows how he's going to handle being speaker."

In 1994, Jeb Bush tapped Feeney to be his running mate in his quest for the governor's mansion. Bush narrowly lost. Bush's opponent targeted Feeney and his conservative crusades.

"At that point, he was considered all that was wrong with the Republican Party," said one Tallahassee political analyst. "He was considered a joke, a liability."

But he came back. He returned to the House in 1996 through a special election, and now, thanks to term limits, is one of the most experienced members of the Legislature. He was chosen as speaker last month and has his sights trained on higher office, his colleagues say.

"Tom's evolved a lot," said Ron Sachs, a Florida political consultant.

McKay's credentials are a little different. He is pure Floridian, sixth generation. He grew up in Winter Haven, went to college in Tallahassee and has been involved in the real estate business one way or the other for 30 years. He now lives in Bradenton, outside of Sarasota, and develops strip malls.

McKay won a Senate seat in 1990 and rapidly climbed the Republican ladder. And then came 1996. During a divorce, his wife accused him of having an affair with a young telecommunications lobbyist. The newspapers ran with it. A week later, McKay admitted he was involved with the woman, resigned as chairman of the state's powerful Ways and Means Committee but denied he gave any special treatment to the lobbyist. The two later wed.

He kept a low profile until recently. He backed conservative legislation for school vouchers and other programs but also introduced social welfare ideas, such as a commission on homelessness and the mentally ill. Last month, McKay was elected president of the Senate, and some local journalists called him a phoenix.

"It took a lot of guts for this guy to run for president after what he's been through," Uhlfelder said.

This week will be the biggest test the two have faced yet. The special session starts today and is expected to stretch over four turbulent days. Feeney and McKay will control it all, from the rules of debate to committee assignments to the language of the historic measure that many in the Legislature have spent the last two weeks gearing up to pass.

"Whatever happens this week," said Sachs, the Tallahassee political consultant, "nothing these two guys ever did and nothing they'll ever do will be remembered as clearly as this week


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Friday, December 8, 2000

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