It’s almost time to say goodbye to several lawmakers, all moving on due to term limits. We thought now would be a good time for a curtain call, a chance to reminisce on serving their districts in Tallahassee.
In this series, which initially appeared in INFLUENCE Magazine, you’ll hear about highlights and challenges, how they pursued politics and where they’re headed now. You’ll also get a glimpse of the state as the coronavirus was kicking into a higher gear. The pandemic tests safety standards and hurts the economy, and ideas about how to handle it differ sharply.
The COVID-19 pandemic might have something to say about when lawmakers meet again, possibly sooner than anticipated.
As a lawyer and as a legislator, David Simmons has always been a fighter. He works late into the night to prepare for big battles, fighting for the environment and gun rights with equal zeal, standing up for sexual assault survivors and against bullies; for campaign finance reform and against Medicaid expansion; giving first-time DUI motorists an off-ramp or throwing the book at repeat offenders. From the campaign to his causes, he gives no quarter.
In 2005, while in the House of Representatives, the Altamonte Springs Republican had authored the nation’s first “stand your ground” law. Dozens of states have since crafted their own versions. In 2013 and after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Simmons joined Democrat Chris Smith in a bill revamping neighborhood watch programs, a move widely seen as a bipartisan fix to “stand your ground.”
“I’ve been pleased that we’ve been able to have conservative solutions for the issues that are facing Florida,” said Simmons, whose victories this year include a $50 million springs restoration program and raising the vaping age to 21.
He can wage war in a nuanced manner. Both as head of the Senate’s Pre-K to 12th-grade education budget and now as its President Pro Tempore, he pushed underperforming schools to boost their scores while also increasing support to help them improve.
“These young students need extra attention; we’re talking about kids who come here and can’t speak English,” said Simmons, who is fluent in Spanish. “I don’t want to go too far, too fast with the scores and shut them down. We have to give enough time for the wraparound services to work.”
He has pushed to require E-Verify, which screens out undocumented immigrants in hiring, while elsewhere creating a path to help their children become lawyers. His Catholic faith requires him to observe the distinction.
“Ezekiel 18:21 says that you shall not blame the child for the sins of the father, or the father for the sins of the child, that each should be responsible for their own life,” Simmons said. “The children are brought here by someone. They didn’t have any choice in it.”
Simmons’ influences include former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, and he served as Mack’s campaign finance chairman for Central Florida and on his judicial advisory committee. While fiery rhetoric makes news, Mack preferred to make friends.
“He said, you treat your colleagues with respect and dignity,” Simmons recalled. “We can passionately disagree on the issues. But what will happen is, it’s very difficult to pass any kind of legislation with the person sitting across from you if you’ve been calling them all kinds of vicious names publicly. If you treat people with civility and respect, you’re able to compromise a little to get a lot.”
A state Representative from 2000 to 2008 and a Senator since 2010, he never stopped practicing law. Three years after he graduated from Vanderbilt University Law School, he co-founded the Orlando firm of de Beaubien, Simmons, Knight, Mantzaris and Neal. The firm is now one of Central Florida’s largest.
Adept in a courtroom, Simmons was recently recognized as one of the area’s “litigation giants,” with board certifications in business and civil trial litigation, as well as the National Board of Trial Advocacy, which requires “an enhanced level of expertise and substantial involvement in the specialty area of certification.”
The 58 lawyers in his firm enjoy prestige and pay a price.
“Unfortunately, they assist me by putting up with my phone calls at 11 o’clock at night, my emails,” Simmons acknowledged.
A devout Catholic, he is likely to attribute his good fortune to being “blessed.” If he is speaking more narrowly, say, about what success requires, or how his own came about, it all begins on his grandfather’s farm in Tennessee. A son of teachers, he waxes poetic, even rhapsodic, about that work.
“I know what it’s like to haul hay, to drive a tractor from 7 in the morning until 8 or 9 o’clock at night with the lights on. To hoe tobacco and sucker it, and to have my own tobacco crop at age 11. And to be at the top of the tobacco barn in August, hanging it, when it’s 95 degrees outside and 110 degrees below a hot tin roof. I didn’t appreciate it at the time as much as I do now.”
He was the top-performing physics student at Tennessee Technological University, outpacing his more affluent classmates, which was most of them. Then he read a biography of Abraham Lincoln and changed his major to mathematics.
“I decided I didn’t want to be a physicist,” Simmons said. “I wanted to be like Abraham Lincoln. Everybody should have a hero. When you read what is written and what he did, it’s incredible.”
Simmons graduated at the top of his class. After moving to Florida, he was active in the Orange County Young Republicans club. There he got to know Jeannie Austin, the President of the Florida chapter who would go on to chair the national Republican Party.
“She said, ‘David you’re a bright young man. I’d vote for you.’”
He’ll finish a distinguished legislative career in November. He’ll play tennis, travel more and spend time with his family.
Lately, one issue has Simmons in fighting form like no other. He opposes the shelter-in-place orders governments have issued to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“The simple fact is that we are innovative enough and smart enough to figure out that we don’t have to destroy the jobs of all these people here in Florida, and in America as well, in order to deal with a very serious pandemic,” Simmons said, a few days before Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order.
Simmons said he takes COVID-19 seriously, but such mandates violate citizens’ rights by attempting to force them to take precautions they should have been taking already and may not follow now.
“We don’t have to shoot ourselves in the head because we have a severe headache,” he said. “You don’t have to destroy our citizens’ lives by shutting down all of the places they work in order to solve this problem.”
He talked about 23,000 Americans dying of seasonal flu in the last six months. (“Are those lives not worth anything?”) He spoke of expanding testing and other practical steps governments could take.
“I’m just telling you that to shut down everything is to admit defeat,” he said.