Republican Sarasota Rep. Fiona McFarland has a background many politicians would envy.
McFarland graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2008 and spent eight years on active duty, serving on warships in the Western Pacific and at the Pentagon. McFarland also has the benefit of a politically connected mom, former Donald Trump Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland.
“I’ve seen through my own perspective and then my mom’s stories as well,” McFarland said in a post-Session interview with Florida Politics.
What McFarland saw gave her a pessimistic view of politics. But she said her views changed after working in the Florida Legislature.
“You know my view of politics was, frankly, not very great when I entered,” McFarland said. “But I was completely proven wrong. We had a great Session.”
At the start of the Session, the freshman representative was given a bill (HB 969) that would create new laws for online data privacy. The Florida Privacy Protection Act, which required companies to disclose collection of consumers’ data, went through a few iterations before it ultimately failed on the last day of Session.
“I was really honored that I got to carry the football,” McFarland said.
The legislation was a priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls. Gov. Ron DeSantis also mentioned the legislation in his state of the state address. It was the only stated priority from that DeSantis speech that did not pass during the 2021 Session.
But the bill’s failure was not because of McFarland. As many as 343 lobbyists were worked on the bill, many against it. When California tried to pass similar legislation, it took that state four years before something finally got through.
“It’s a really big nuanced issue, and we started the conversation for the first time this Session,” McFarland said. “I actually think it’s the right move that we take a little bit more time to get it right.”
And while the data privacy conversation took up a lot of McFarland’s time, the lawmaker, who hails from New York, was still able to leave her mark on Florida in other forward-thinking ways.
In her mid-30s, McFarland is on the younger side of Florida’s legislative body. So, when she was working on the Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee it made perfect sense to her — with or without a pandemic — to shift government services, such as building inspection requests and certain construction permits, online.
“I believe that government should serve the people, and one of the ways they do that is through a really fantastic customer experience,” McFarland said. “It’s human nature to become very comfortable, and (think) ‘this is the way we’ve always done something.’ But there was some benefit to COVID in that it really forces us to think differently.”
McFarland also sponsored a bill (HB 1289) she called “super forward-thinking” that paves the way for autonomous vehicles in the state of Florida. The bill passed both chambers and is awaiting the Governor’s signature.
“Anything that we can do to help Floridians with either mobility as they age or last-mile delivery services in rural areas or even just the convenience of things like delivery or mass transportation,” McFarland continued, “I think in the wake of COVID, we’ve all seen what the value that autonomous vehicles can bring Florida.”
McFarland is also part of a group of Florida Republicans who say they are going to make the environment a priority. Environmental issues haven’t traditionally been at the forefront of Republican policy, but a renewed focus on the environment is another change McFarland sees as inevitable.
“I don’t think the environment is a partisan issue, and if it’s become that way, I regret that. It’s front and center here in Florida, particularly in Sarasota. We’re a costal community,” McFarland continued. “It’s a human issue. It’s not a partisan issue.”
McFarland said she was able to secure $7.1 million for special projects in her region, most of which went toward environmental projects. McFarland also applauded a Senate bill the Governor signed Wednesday to deal with coastal erosion. Those new laws will impact coastal communities like Sarasota.
“Although my name doesn’t need to be on all these bills that’ll bring so much back to my district, I still count them as a win,” McFarland said. “As the quote goes, ‘it’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who gets credit for it,’ and that’s one thing you learn in the Navy. You work as a team.”