Sen. Kathleen Passidomo started off the 2019 Legislative Session by giving each of her Senate colleagues a copy of “A Land Remembered,” Patrick Smith’s intergenerational novel that’s also a cautionary tale about the Sunshine State’s history.
And the Naples Republican will finish out the Session with another treat for her legislative pals: an Italian feast that’s become a much-loved annual tradition when tensions are at their highest and fuses at their shortest.
Passidomo, 65, the Senate majority leader, was born in New Jersey and spent her honeymoon driving to Florida the day after she married her husband, John. An attorney, she has risen through the ranks since she was first elected to the state House in 2010 and joined the Senate six years later.
And Passidomo’s power may not have peaked yet: She’s locked in a race with Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican, to become Senate president in 2022.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Passidomo.
Q: Do you believe you would lead differently, as a woman? Maybe a better way to ask that is, do you see differences, in general, in how men and women in the legislative process operate?
Passidomo: It’s hard to say, because I’ve never seen a woman president. Whatever I do, it will be who I am. I think my colleagues know who I am. They have seen me now for eight years. I’ve chaired committees. I’m serving as majority leader. I’m not going to change. My whole feeling is, we are working together as a group, and I think President (Bill) Galvano has that same philosophy. I don’t know. Maybe we’ll have different colors in the office. But it’s tough to tell what it would be like.
Q: Do you have any advice for young women who are coming into the process?
Passidomo: I have a whole philosophy, and it’s not just women, it’s men, it’s people who are coming into this process. I didn’t run for office until I was in my late 50s. I had never been in office before. I had always wanted to serve in an elected capacity, but I didn’t do it for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I have three children and I did not want to leave them. So I waited until my youngest daughter had graduated from high school and was going to go off to college before I ran. So my advice to all young people, or anyone that’s got a family or is considering having a family, is the number one priority is to get buy-in from your family. People call me and ask, should I run for office. And I say, what does your family think? Oh, they don’t mind the sacrifice that I have to make. I say, no, no, no. It’s not your sacrifice. You’re not making a sacrifice. They’re making the sacrifice. Then you see the wheels turn. I would say things like, here’s how it works. You go to Tallahassee and you’re up there during the week and everybody thinks you’re the smartest person in the world, the tallest. It’s the joke we all say — tallest, brightest, funniest, most knowledgeable, most favored person in Tallahassee. To quote former Sen. (Garrett) Richter, there’s a Kool-Aid stand on every corner. So you spend the week doing that, and yes, you do a lot of work and you stay up late. You’re reading your bills. You’re preparing your remarks. You’re presenting your bills and you’re talking to hundreds of people all day long and you are exhausted. Then you go home, and it’s Friday morning, Friday night, and your spouse says, OK, I’ve had the kids all week. I need to go. And you’re tired, too. And your kids are saying, I want you to come to this game, and I want you to do that. So that’s the sacrifice. So my advice is think about how it impacts your family and, even if you don’t have kids, how it impacts your spouse. I was smart. I made sure my husband got a dog. So now he’s got a companion during the week and it’s all good.
Q: One of the most controversial pieces of legislation you’ve sponsored is the beach access bill last year. It’s created a firestorm in the Panhandle. Do you regret the bill?
Passidomo: Here’s the thing, and it’s sort of very simple. Most of the beaches in the state of Florida are owned by the public. They will always be owned by the public. They will never be privately owned, the majority. And all of the beaches in the state, from the mean high tide line to the water, are owned by the public. In some cases, there are portions of the beach — the dry sand area, between the wet sand and the house or the condo or the restaurant or whatever it is, the structure — in some areas is privately owned. Oftentimes, for many, many years. Condo associations, clubs, individual homes that have been owned for many years privately. The issue is, there is a doctrine called customary use that provides that if a local government wants to make that private area, that may have been private for a long time, open to the public, there has to be a process to do that. You can’t just say to a landowner or an association or a club, by the way we’re going to have the public using what you have had privately for years. So this customary use doctrine has always contemplated that you go to court and ask the judge to authorize you to do that. And that’s all the bill does. It sets up the process. The reason that it had to be done was a couple of counties decided that they were going to create that process themselves without going to court. That doesn’t make sense, to me or anyone, when you think about it. If your county wanted to expand the road in front of your house because it was too narrow, they couldn’t just one day come down with a backhoe and expand it. They’d have to ask a judge to prove that it was necessary. And it’s the same thing. The difference, too, in this customary use, is that, if the local government wants to take some of this private property and expand public access — which they have every right to do — they never have to pay for it. There’s no eminent domain order where they pay for it. It’s just because it’s customary, the public has walked on that beach for years, they should continue to be able to use it. All the bill does is say, look, we need to create a process so that we don’t have chaos. The other thing is, if, under current law that has nothing to do with this bill, if any local government gets state dollars to do beach renourishment, a condition of that is that that beach is open to the public. A lot of people don’t realize that. So for most of the beaches in the state, this is not an issue because they get state dollars to renourish or the local governments are working it out. It’s just in one county (Walton County), there’s an issue. The last thing I want to say about that is, I keep getting emails from people saying, look at those horrible signs. Look at these no trespassing signs. This is terrible for tourism. My question, I ask this every time — in most places around the state, if anyone wants to put up a sign on their property, it’s governed by ordinances, how big or whatever. And permits are required on the beach for a lot of reasons, like turtle nesting. You can’t just stick a sign in the ground on the beach. Most places have ordinances. So my question is, with all this consternation, why has their local government allowed them to keep those signs there? I’m not involved in it. But if people ask me, how can those be kept there, my answer is, please speak to your county commissioners about whether or not there is an ordinance that would require a permit and are they getting permits.
Q: Since this is just an issue in one county, should the state be involved? There’s always a lot of talk, especially this session, about local control and pre-emption. Is this a situation where it would have been better let the locals deal with it on their own?
Passidomo: But they can’t, because the local government made a determination that they didn’t need to use the normal customary use process of going to court. They passed an ordinance. The pre-emption discussion is a real problem. I live in a community that does not pass ordinances that make no sense, or that damage the community. But around the state, every once in a while, you have a local ordinance that is passed that is overreaching, and it is harmful in many ways. So there are really two remedies. You can file suit, someone who’s aggrieved by a local ordinance that … I don’t know the term, but I always use the term “stupid.” Unconstitutional or whatever. There’s all kinds of things. But they pass an ordinance that, for lack of a better term, is stupid and then the people aggrieved by it have no choice but to go to court. Now that costs a lot of money, takes a long time. You know how long it takes to get through the court — seven, eight, 10 years. And during that period, the local government can enforce the ordinance, which could put people out of business. It creates all kinds of issues locally, lots of lawsuits, lots of money. So, while they’re doing that, they come to the Legislature to have it pre-empt so that we can get back to normal. The problem with pre-emption is you can’t just pre-empt piece by piece. You have to pre-empt everybody. So the good local governments that don’t pass stupid ordinances get wrapped up in the whole process with the local governments that passed the stupid ordinance. I don’t know if there’s an answer for that. I have tried for years. Interestingly, Sen. Hutson and I talk about this a lot. We feel the same way. How do we curtail the practice of passing stupid ordinances without infringing on the rights of everyone else, every other local government. There is no easy answer. I talked to the League of Cities and the Association of Counties and I’ve had some ideas and Sen. Hutson has had some ideas. I think we’ll continue to talk about it. At some point, we have to come to an agreement that, if a local government is going to pass something so egregious that you just shake your head, how do we stop that without hurting everybody else? That’s going to be a topic of conversation over time.
Q: You’re having a dinner party. Who are the three people, living or dead, that you’d invite?
Passidomo: Oh, my goodness. You know, I’ve heard that before. I always come up with George Washington. I don’t know why. But I’d love to invite George Washington. Wow. Let’s see. Who are the other two? I’m a history buff. I probably should say Jesus, because that guy must have been so compelling. Just to have a conversation. A person that has created a movement that has lasted for centuries. I just want to see what kind of eye contact he has, you know? I’ve always been interested in people like Cleopatra. Modern-day people you can read about. You can actually read their writings and get to know them. But, even George Washington, his letters to Martha were kind of different but I’d like to be in the room with him. If you think about how compelling they were.