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Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, speaks on the Senate floor Friday, April 28, 2017 at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (Photo by Phil Sears)


The ‘policy wonk’ in winter: Joe Negron looks back on lawmaking

Senate President Joe Negron isn’t known for his wisecracks or snappy comebacks. The Stuart Republican, whose time leading the Senate will end after the November elections, instead has a reputation as a sometimes verbose — by his own admission — policy wonk with a methodical and deliberate approach to problem-solving as well as politics.

Negron, who was elected to the Florida House in 2000 before joining the upper chamber in 2009, hasn’t decided whether to stay for the last two years of his final term in the Senate. Negron, 56, will hand over the gavel to his roommate, Bradenton Republican Bill Galvano, in November.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, a relaxed version of the typically buttoned-down Negron spoke about his personal reaction to the “unfathomable” tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, growing up with seven brothers in what sounds like an austere household, and the significance of using fewer words and saying them slowly.

The News Service has five questions for Negron:

Q: You’ve been in politics a long time. What knowledge did you gain that you didn’t have when you started your term as president two sessions ago?

JN: The first is how valuable of a commodity legislators are who are prepared, who do the basic blocking and tackling of presenting their bills, who can be counted on to make persuasive arguments. … Before, I aspired to be one of those people. Now, though, in this position where I’m not doing that, I’m not in committees, the value of that, in my estimation, is very high, even higher than it was before. The value of someone you can rely on. Secondly, it’s the end of the day (during the interview). It’s like the Seinfeld episode. He says one thing funny, and then he tries to do something at the end, so maybe I’m doing that. So I’ll give you an honest one, which is the power of narrative in this town. And narrative is established in the first nine minutes of a circumstance or occurrence and, once established, nearly impossible to rebut. So those would be two things.

(Can you elaborate on that? What narratives do you think ran away from you?)

There was first the narrative that the House was ultraconservative and the Senate was not, was moderate. I think we showed there are a lot of issues where, on the Senate side, we took a more conservative position. Whether it was on stand your ground, whether it was on freedom of expression in public schools, I think some of our consumer positions are the more classically (conservative). So that was a narrative. Then the narrative that the House was getting everything and the Senate’s not doing well. That narrative. Those are sort of meta-narratives to contest. There are little narratives and issues that I would look at and say, “I didn’t even know we were fighting about that.” It could be just a policy area or it could be an industry fight. There is a constant battle to create and sustain narratives from large issues to small issues, from funding issues to … Everything that affects a legislative session, whether it’s a policy item, whether it’s a budget item, there is a constant, unremitting battle for narratives. The person or group who wins the battle to frame an issue on favorable terms, their success rate in achieving their goal goes substantially up. I knew that people try to tell a story. But the narrative that’s out there has a wide-ranging effect on the state of mind of legislators, their view of the world. People read something and even if they were part of it actually occurring, the narrative that’s out there will affect their interpretation of events they were actually a part of and saw. If I was going to give advice to a successor, I would say you should have a chief narrative officer in the president’s office.

Q: What advice have you given to Sen. Galvano?

JN: He doesn’t need my advice. I need advice from him. I wasn’t joking when I said we have a lot in common. His leadership race took 3 ½ weeks. Mine took 3 ½ years. He doesn’t need advice from me. We talk about ideas. He’s been alongside for most of this journey. I’ve probably learned more from him than he’s learned from me. One thing I’ve learned from him that’s practical, is to talk more slowly, and fewer words. Sen. Galvano’s very measured in his words. I tend to, when I get a question about something I feel strongly about, I tend to (say), I have three points, here’s point one, here’s point two. I’m still ridiculed in a playful way. … Playful’s not the right word. Friendly. In a friendly way by my colleagues for — remember I rolled out an amendment in Appropriations … an amendment that I lost — for the four privileges. There’s the husband-wife privilege. There’s the doctor-patient. I went through like all the different privileges and I was trying to get to a point and I was just like losing everybody. See, Galvano doesn’t do that. Galvano has another move, too, where he kind of answers the question and then just sort of stops, like, how’s this question still going on? Whereas I tend to go bop, bop, bop. So I’ve learned that from him. And we both have good preparation skills. That’s one reason why we get along so well. We both get books out and we spread them out on the kitchen table and work through things, and he’s known for his attention to detail, as I think I am. But I’ve learned that from him. Fewer words and delivered more slowly.

(Have you done that?)

I have. I don’t mind you asking. In meetings, especially. People that are talking aren’t necessarily interested in your opinion. They more want to tell you what they want you to hear, what they want to communicate to you. So in meetings, of course I’ll respond to questions if asked and I’m polite and respectful, but I think I’ve learned to listen more and to talk less. There’s a verse in Proverbs that is good for all this. This is the King James, because that’s how we were brought up. It says, “In the multitude of words, there wanteth not sin.” Which is an Elizabethan way of saying, if you keep talking, eventually you’ll say something that’s regretful. It’s true. So I’m going to start talking a little less in this interview.

Q: How did the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and meeting with the students and the parents, affect you on a personal level?

JN: It’s devastating. One reason I don’t talk a lot about it is because I get too emotional just talking about it. Sen. (Lauren) Book I thought was incredibly moving and powerful and persuasive on the Senate floor. The one young man she talked about, Kyle, I was with her when we saw Kyle. That was not an exaggeration. A third of his foot was blown off. The only reason he wasn’t killed was — and he volunteered to tell us this story, some people didn’t want to talk but he did — so he told us that he saw the killer and his instinct was to jump and get out of the way, so literally, he starts diving in mid-air and going through the air horizontally, and by the time the gun was fired, it hit his foot. So about a third of his foot, from the shot, was missing, and they’re trying to put his foot back together, having to get tendons and ligaments from his upper leg to basically rebuild his foot. Then we saw another young man in the hospital who also had injuries from being shot and was recovering. And then, and I don’t even know if I can talk about it, but the Peter Wang funeral that we went to, was … She mentioned it, and her words can speak for, but that — the family and the close Chinese community in that area and just hundreds and hundreds of people who came to walk by to pay their respects and the immense sense of loss the parents felt. I asked the mom, through an interpreter, because, to me, it was a morally correct position when someone is shooting that you would try to escape. There’s nothing immoral about that. Nothing unethical about that. Somebody’s shooting, everybody has a right to leave. And instead of leaving, he’s holding the door and letting multiple people go ahead of him, which resulted in him being killed. Then she told about how he was brought up to care for others. They have a large extended family of cousins. He looks after the younger ones and will even check in on the older ones. Then West Point came down and class of, I believe 2024, and in my head I’m thinking, just the enormity of the whole situation. Then, of course, seeing the school and seeing, there was a stool in one of the classrooms, because we could look through the windows of the classrooms. And there was a stool and there’s blood behind there. And you realize somebody was sitting there. And then there were carnations all over the school and all over the desks, and on one of them, you know how we all have the little Apple earbud things, just sitting there, someone’s Apple thing just sitting on their desk. Stuff strewn all over the campus. People running for their lives. You can see where the coach, Coach Feis that we included in the bill, where he was killed and what happened. I can’t really explain it. It’s overwhelming. There are certain places in our society that are sacred places, sacred spaces. To me, I include courthouses in there. Courthouses are where important things happen and people’s lives are changed. I’ve always considered that a sacred place. And then schools. I have three children. We’ve all waited in line at the pick-up line, and when you see an invasion of that and a temporary destruction of that — and ultimately, the school will prevail and the parents and the community will prevail — but to see the loss that was visited upon people that are just sitting in a classroom, it’s still unfathomable to me. All we can do is, we talked to the parents and we talked to law enforcement, and do our best to address it in a responsible way to try to reduce the risk of it happening again, but on a personal level it’s … It’s bad. Everyone feels safe at school. There’s a whole feeling you get at school — the backpacks, and the routine, and the lunches — and we’ve all spent a lot of time on campuses, volunteering for things, and just to see that turned into a horrible scene, it’s, it’s just devastating.

Q: What are you reading?

JN: My colleagues got me, “Letters from Prison,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I read that poem at my designation, the “Who am I?” poem which he wrote when he was in prison. … In my portrait, there’s a book called “The Cost of Discipleship,” that he wrote. My dad gave that to me when I was 12 or 13 years old. That’s one reason I’m the earnest person that I am. There was not a lot of frivolity in our family growing up. I hear about kids that are running around, there’s balloons. No. We’re reading. We’re going to church. We’re serious-minded people, and you guys need to work really, really hard if you want to move up. That was the whole theme of our house growing up. I’m not joking at all. My mother said, “You’re born to work. If you have any fun along the way, that’s great, but essentially you’re here to work.” No, I’m not making this up. It’s come full circle. That’s true.

(Negron’s spokeswoman, Katie Betta, says the other book in the portrait is “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott.)

Yeah, Little Women. My mom read that to us when we were kids. She read us “Little Men” and “Little Women.” For some reason I remember “Little Women” better so I picked that one. But yeah, we were readers. It was a serious operation, the nine of us, seven boys and two parents. On Saturdays, my mom would write a list. And you had to get all your jobs done on the list and when that was done, then we would do something, go to the park or play Monopoly, or get ready for church on Sunday. But we had a list of things and those things all had to get done. But, you know, list-making works good for appropriations. How do you think I got this job?

Q: What do you listen to on the 5 ½-hour drive home?

JN: I’m not listening to Hits 1 on my Sirius so much anymore. I listen to the comedy channel. There are so many comedy channels. I’m a huge fan. Oh, I went and saw Jim Gaffigan in Jacksonville. Do you guys know Jim Gaffigan? Hot pockets. He’s a comedian. So I listen to comedy, news and then the ‘70s channel. You can’t go wrong with rolling out a Supertramp song every now and then. “Take the Long Way Home.” It’s a classic.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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