Here's how State Senate president Kathleen Passidomo punished an environmental advocate who 'disrespected' her

Gov. DeSantis reappointed Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch; Passidomo squashed that

Blue-green algae chokes Lake Okeechobee. Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch worked against water pollution on the South Florida Water Management Board, until Kathleen Passidomo decided she didn't like something she said.
Blue-green algae chokes Lake Okeechobee. Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch worked against water pollution on the South Florida Water Management Board, until Kathleen Passidomo decided she didn't like something she said. photo by Thomas Barrat

Maybe you've seen or at least heard of the 1941 Humphrey Bogart detective movie The Maltese Falcon. But did you know it was based on a 1930 novel by a real detective?

Dashiell Hammett had been a Pinkerton Agency private eye before he created the fictional private eye Sam Spade and sent him chasing after that valuable bird statue.

There's a scene in the novel that didn't appear in the movie version. Spade is talking about solving a missing-persons case involving a guy named Flitcraft. When Spade finds him, he learns that Flitcraft decided to disappear from his settled, orderly life after a beam fell from a building under construction and barely missed him.

"He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works," Spade says.

That line about Flitcraft and the beam occurred to me last week when I heard what happened to Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, an award-winning environmental advocate who since 2019 has been a member of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District.

The role of the beam is played here by the Florida Senate — a blunt instrument with all the destructive power and intellectual capacity of a falling steel girder. Its impact pulls the lid off and shows you how Florida politics really works these days.

In 2019, when Gov. Ron "Eat a Lamb Testicle and Vote for Me for President!" DeSantis first became governor, he was still pretending to care about the environment. One of his first actions was to demand every single member of the South Florida Water Management District governing board resign so he could appoint replacements who were not in the pocket of Big Sugar.

Thurlow-Lippisch was one of those replacements.

"Jacqui will be a champion for our environment and for Floridians everywhere," he said then.

She did a lot more than just fill a chair in a West Palm Beach conference room, too.

"Few people in South Florida care more about our troubled waters than Thurlow-Lippisch, and her presence on the board — her constant questioning and requests for district officials to put complex topics into language the layman can understand — has been hugely beneficial," an environmental group called VoteWater said in a recent alert to its supporters.

When her term expired last year, DeSantis reappointed her, signaling that he, too, was satisfied with her job performance.

But a funny thing happened this spring. The Florida Senate refused to confirm her reappointment. As a result, her last day in office was Monday, June 19.

Some people who know Thurlow-Lippisch wondered if the Senate had just missed her application or had forgotten about her. Nope.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said the rejection was intentional. It was a deliberate payback for something Thurlow-Lippisch said about the Legislature last year.

Passidomo and other lawmakers thought her comments "disparaged the Legislature and disrespected the constitutional role of duly elected legislators in a public setting," her spokeswoman said.

Bear in mind, though, that Thurlow-Lippisch said those things while she and a lot of other people were objecting to a sugar-backed bill that powerful lawmakers tried to sneak through, threatening to ruin efforts to revive Lake Okeechobee.

Thurlow-Lippisch told me she's aware that she becomes extremely passionate about Florida's waterways. One of those is Lake Okeechobee.

"I'm a nice person, a polite person," she said, "but I'm like a mama bear when I'm protecting my babies."

You know how DeSantis keeps talking about how free Florida is? Here's a sign that when it comes to expressing an opinion, Florida ain't free at all.

Watching the world turning

Thurlow-Lippisch has seen adversity before.

Once she was a high-school teacher, engaged to be married. Then, in 2001, she fell from the balcony of a house under construction and broke her neck.

"It happened in one second," she wrote years later. "And in that second, when what I thought was solid ground under my feet collapsed, and I was falling, watching the world turning, the shining St. Lucie River and blue sky before me, I clearly remember saying to myself: 'I can't believe it; this is how I am going to die.'"

She didn't die, but her life blew up.

"I was unable to take care of myself, my engagement fell apart, so my mother and father took care of me," she told me. "Also, I could no longer afford my house payments as I was now on disability but with a 60 percent salary reduction."

As she slowly pieced her life back together, she earned her real estate license. She chose that field "because it allowed for flexible hours, phone work, and the ability to regain my independence and make a living," she said. "I was in therapy every week learning to walk and hold my head up (literally)."

Selling real estate was hard for her, especially under the circumstances, "but it taught me ... respect for people who live on commission and intimate insight into people's financial and personal struggles," she said.

It also tied in with her interest in the environment, "because I realized I was never just selling a house," she told me. "I was selling the beauty and wildlife of the St. Lucie River of my childhood — something precious to me. Something that could make people's lives better."

She plunged into politics, eventually becoming the mayor of Sewall's Point, and meanwhile married an oral surgeon, Dr. Ed Lippisch.

She also began blogging about the area's waterways and their woes, often posting aerial photos shot from the doctor's plane. The most recent series documents the spread of blue-green algae across Lake Okeechobee.

Thus, when she took her seat on the South Florida water board, she already knew a lot about issues like water pollution and toxic algae. And when that Senate bill popped up last year, she didn't hold back in expressing her opinion.

And she wasn't the only one.

Who to punish

If you grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday morning TV, the way I did, then you might remember "I'm Just a Bill" and have an idea of how legislation is supposed to be filed and commented on and voted up or down.

I have to tell you, though, that sometimes sneaky people do their legislating in a sneaky way, especially if they don't want the public to know what they're up to.

That's what happened last year with Senate Bill 2508, which didn't get filed until late on a Friday evening, a month into the legislative session.

The bill, which suddenly appeared like that villain Voldemort popping up at Harry Potter's school, was sponsored by Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula citrus grower. But everyone knew that the real wizard behind this malevolent bit of lawmaking was then-Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Agribusiness Über Alles.

Although it was supposedly just a "budget conforming bill," SB 2508 contained some major policy changes. It was packed with so much bad stuff that it should have carried one of those Poison Control stickers on the side.

The bill was designed to help Big Sugar control the South Florida water supply, handcuff the South Florida water agency, and hurt both the environment and the residents there.

And it was scheduled to be heard at a single committee meeting the following week.

Some leaders of the South Florida water board scrambled to get to Tallahassee to testify against the bill. So did a lot of environmental activists, including people from a group called Captains for Clean Water.

They did more than merely testify. They "parked their trailered boats in front of our outlandishly phallic Capitol building to protest how we were all getting screwed," I wrote about it last year.

When all those folks showed up at the committee meeting, did our fine legislators greet these civic-minded citizens with open arms and open minds? They did not. The senators looked at all those common folks who opposed the bill and proceeded to dump on them.

They "were belittled, insulted, told they didn't know what they were talking about, that they'd been misled," the water agency's vice chairman, Scott Wagner, reported at the next governing board meeting.

To make matters worse, he said, a lot of the clean-water advocates were told they could have no more than 45 seconds to speak. Imagine taking time off work, driving six or seven hours to Tallahassee, and then being told you have less than a minute to make your point.

All of the governing board members were upset about how the legislators had acted — dissing the citizenry, then passing the bill. Several said things that expressed their level of outrage. One of them was Thurlow-Lippisch, who said the lawmakers' attitude was, "Oh well, we're God. You're not. We're in Tallahassee."

One of Thurlow-Lippisch's fellow governing board members, Ronald "Alligator Ron" Bergeron — a gator-wrestling, python-hunting, rodeo-winning, airboat-piloting son of the Everglades — told me last year that the legislators pushing SB 2508 had rocks in their heads. I didn't disagree with him.

Even DeSantis, hardly the greenest chief executive in Florida history, blasted the bill and its sponsors. He said SB 2508 was being "rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark."

He ended up vetoing the bill, despite its backing by Simpson.

But who did the legislators decide to punish? The environmental activist.

Jammed up like an interstate

Thurlow-Lippisch and Bergeron were both up for reappointment in 2022. DeSantis handed them both a second four-year term on the water board. Both needed confirmation from the Senate this year.

Back in 2019, all of DeSantis' South Florida water appointees went to see the senators all at once. This time, in mid-March, those two went separately, accompanied by a pair of water agency staffers.

Thurlow-Lippisch said she met with various legislators, shook hands, even posed for a photo. But when her party got to the office of Senate President Passidomo, who was Simpson's top lieutenant last year, she wasn't invited inside.

You might think that, Thurlow-Lippisch being a real estate agent and Passidomo being a lawyer who specializes in real estate, they would have a lot in common. Apparently, that's not so.

Instead, when the water agency staffers emerged from Passidomo's office, "I could see on their faces that something was wrong," she told me.

"Jacqui," one of them said, "we have a problem."

They explained that she had said something a year ago that Passidomo had found insulting. As a result, the Senate president had decided to block her confirmation from even coming to a vote. It was jammed up like a Florida interstate on a holiday weekend — nothing moving.

They didn't know exactly what she'd said that was so offensive, just that they'd been told she should go home. No need to stay in Tallahassee.

The next day, Thurlow-Lippisch wrote a note to Passidomo. It said in part: "I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you and apologize in person for any comments I have made that were disrespectful to you and to the Senate."

She has never received any response to that note, she told me.

I contacted Passidomo's spokeswoman, Katie Betta, to ask what happened. Here's what she told me:

"Many senators, including President Passidomo, were dismayed by Commissioner Thurlow-Lippisch's public comments disparaging the Legislature and disrespecting the constitutional role of duly elected legislators. Specifically, to state at a public meeting that legislators — who were elected to represent their constituents — think they are God, was inappropriate and disrespectful in the view of President Passidomo."

When I pointed out that Bergeron, who did get confirmed, had said they all had rocks in their heads, Betta said that was different. Thurlow-Lippisch's comments had occurred "in a public setting," as opposed to being published in a column.

I have examined this every which way possible, and I still don't see the difference.

Suck it up, Buttercup

Over the years, I have heard people say a lot of bad things about our legislators.

I have heard people say they are a gaggle of grinning idiots, a bunch of boneheaded political hacks, a platoon of wannabe fascists, and so forth. Heck, Carl Hiaasen once called the legislative session our "annual festival of whores."

Sometimes I have said a few of those things myself. That's called "exercising your First Amendment right to free speech," which seems to have fallen out of favor in Florida government these days. Only those who march in lockstep with those in charge are looked upon with favor.

I have to admit that I have never before heard our legislators compared to God. His satanic opposition? Sure.

Thurlow-Lippisch didn't exactly compare them to God Almighty, or even to Morgan Freeman. She was saying that the way they acted, they apparently thought of themselves as the King of Kings.

That's still not the worst thing anyone's ever said about Florida legislators — in or out of a public setting. So why punish her?

Gil Smart, executive director of VoteWater, pointed out that Passidomo has received beaucoup campaign contributions from the sugar industry. He suggested that's who's behind this delayed retribution. I contacted a sugar industry representative for comment but couldn't get a straight answer.

The other person I sought comment from was DeSantis. After all, this is a slap at him, with the Senate refusing to even consider one of his choices for an appointed office. Theoretically, he could slap back by reappointing Thurlow-Lippisch and telling Passidomo, "Suck it up, Buttercup."

Thurlow-Lippisch says she hasn't heard a peep from the governor's office. And I couldn't pry a response out of his media folks. Perhaps that's because their boss is off campaigning in California and couldn't care less about Florida.

So, here's my suggestion. Politicians like winning things, right? Elections, Iowa caucuses, prizes. I say we notify Passidomo that her revenge on Thurlow-Lippisch for speaking out has won her a big prize: the Big Baby Award. If you see her, be sure to congratulate her on being such a Big Baby and ask if she needs a diaper change.

By the way, do you know where I can buy her a really big pacifier to represent the prize? One about the size of a steel beam?

This story ran originally in the Florida Phoenix. Craig Pittman was a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times for 31 years before becoming a columnist for the Florida Phoenix. His books (mostly about Florida) include Paving Paradise, The State You're In and Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther.

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