Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Business's Moment

For all the talk of how "pro-business" interests dominate the halls of the state Legislature and governor's office in Tallahassee, it's no great secret that the state's major business organizations never really got their collective act together during Gov. Jeb Bush's first term.

Four organizations -- the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise Florida, the Council of 100 and TaxWatch -- individually have enjoyed strong leadership and strong relationships with Bush for some time. Now, however, they may be close to working effectively in concert for the first time. (Interestingly, longtime business power Associated Industries is becoming almost an afterthought in terms of influence, but that's a story for another time.)

The four organizations' leaders and staffs are "interactive" and understand their respective roles. They share goals, and they're increasingly confident that they can get the Legislature to act on those goals, says Fred Leonhardt, the Orlando attorney who just finished a stint as chairman of the Florida Chamber's board. "I think this is our moment," he says.

The chamber will have the in-the-trenches role of lobbying the Legislature and identifying and funding pro-business candidates. And the man to watch this year is Leonhardt's successor as chamber chairman, Vern Buchanan, who may be better known nationally than he is around the state. Buchanan, a Michigan native, started American Speedy Printing, a two-store franchise business that he built up to around 700 outlets before selling it in 1989. Four years after moving to Florida in 1990, he got into the auto dealership business. Today, he owns 20 dealerships throughout the Southeast that sell some 25,000 cars a year across 21 franchises. He's smart, he's wealthy and he's a gifted manager who knows how to get the most out of an organization.

Buchanan's Midas touch also extends outside business -- he super-achieved as head of a fund-raising campaign for the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, where he lives. And after nearly running for Senate himself, he pulled in big dollars for Mel Martinez as Martinez's campaign finance chairman. A member of the board of directors of the U.S. Chamber, Buchanan got the national chamber's endorsement for Martinez and raised $1 million from board members in one day.

Buchanan sees the U.S. Chamber as the model for what the statewide chamber and the other business groups can become. Ten years ago, he says, the U.S. Chamber was a "non-entity" in Washington. "Today, they're the 800-pound gorilla. We want to become the 800-pound gorilla in Tallahassee,'' says Buchanan.

Buchanan certainly has the wherewithal to operate in the jungle. During the Republican convention in New York City, he kept his yacht moored at a Manhattan marina. There, he hosted a reception for the chiefs of staff of every Republican senator in Congress -- several senators attended as well -- at which the U.S. Chamber's lobbying staff were featured guests.

Buchanan also has attracted an all-star board of directors for the Florida Chamber that Chamber President Frank Ryll says is the strongest the group has ever had. The roster includes WCI's Al Hoffman; Publix's Barney Barnett; Wachovia's Bob Helms; Landstar's Jeff Crowe, who's the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Chamber's board; and Gulf Power's Susan Story, who for my money is the most impressive CEO in the state. Buchanan, says Leonhardt, "wants the Florida Chamber to ratchet up to the highest level of interaction with the Legislature." And it's clear that the "highest level of interaction" will include more rigorous scorekeeping on legislators' votes on business-related issues -- and linkage with campaign contributions.

The major pieces of the chamber's legislative agenda: One, tort reform across a broad spectrum of law, from changes in premise liability to restrictions on class-action suits -- in other words, a full-scale assault on plaintiffs attorneys, which will unfold as a multiyear effort. Two, restrictions on the ability to amend the state's constitution. Three, growth management reforms, which will likely include some kind of effort to link the availability of water to development-related decisions. The growth management changes are "not all about pro-development," Buchanan says. "We need balance. We think this is the best place in the country to live, and we want to strike a better balance in terms of pro-growth, pro-environmental issues."

The chamber's agenda also includes planks relating to education, healthcare availability and economic development.

Eight-hundred-pound gorillas are a daunting proposition in a political landscape, particularly for less well-muscled interests that may see themselves as the bananas in the picture. I'm concerned, for example, that business's preoccupation with trial lawyers seems to have reached the level of obsession. Our society is over-lawyered in general, not just over-trial lawyered. And the chamber would probably do itself a favor image-wise if there were some leavening in its mix -- an item or two that bolstered the non-profit sector or philanthropic community, which are going to become increasingly important as the state does less and expects more from local communities. I'd also like to see some emphasis politically on getting business people, or people who understand business, elected to local school boards, which are usually a county's biggest business but are typically run by people whose financial sophistication tends to hover at the bake-sale level.

Tallahassee politics being what they are, the chamber's agenda won't be a slam-dunk. But Buchanan, the chamber and the other business groups are very serious about what they're trying to accomplish. And as it enters 2005, the state may be as close as it ever has been to finding out whether what the chamber thinks is good for business is good for Florida.