Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole — widely admired around the state, a lawmaker Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz told me Monday “is among the top five most effective legislators in either party I’ve ever worked with” — has announced she won’t run for reelection in November.
Just four hours after the Broward County Democrat posted the news on her Facebook page, she had some 69 comments from grateful folks, most of them constituents in Plantation, Sunrise and Davie who just wanted to say thank you.
She said she isn’t running for her final term because she’s a newlywed with a ready-made family and wants time to phase into her new life.
Just before the start of the legislative session, Katie married her best friend, agribusiness man Brad Walpole.
“I was so blessed to marry the love of my life in December, and my commitment and priority is spending more time with my family,” she said Monday. “Public service requires extensive time away from family and work, and I know I will truly enjoy being a fully present wife, stepmother and aunt while continuing to be active in my community.”
Centrist Democrat Katie Edwards-Walpole is considered one of the hardest working elected officials at the Capitol.
Chalk up her effectiveness to two things: 1) she isn’t afraid of confounding ultra-progressive Cynthia Busch, chairwoman of the Broward Democratic Party, by working with Republicans when necessary to make good things happen; and 2) she lives in a B.S.-free zone — you ask Katie, you’d better be ready for the truth — she’s incapable of posturing her way through a day of insincerity in Tallahassee.
In January 2013, just as Katie was taking her seat, Sunshine State News interviewed her for a series on all new legislators that year. She told us this — and for more than five years has lived it: “I want to know that I’m spending my time, which is very valuable once I get up [to Tallahassee], very efficiently. I don’t want to sit there and have committee meetings and presentations just for the sake of having committee meetings and presentations. What are we going to do to supposedly fix things?”
Carly Fleish, one of her Plantation constituents told me in a telephone interview Monday, “(Katie) is an open book. You know how her mind is working on all her issues because she puts it out there, in Facebook and press releases.”
Katie was first elected in 2012, campaigning on a platform of “reforming Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, providing tax credits to businesses so they could grow, cutting down on the costs of prisons by ‘looking at cheaper alternatives for first-time non-violent offenders,’ and de-emphasizing the importance of standardized tests.”
During the last month of the primary, she campaigned from her bedside, hospitalized for “a major health issue.” She made fundraising calls “while she was being rolled into the operating room.” Ultimately, at age 31, Katie defeated Republican Cara Pavalock in a landslide, 67 percent to 33 percent.
Teaming with (then-Rep. Matt) Gaetz, Katie led the way in the medical marijuana fight in 2014, authoring legislation and winning the support of influential Republican leaders to hammer home a bill the Legislature passed and the governor signed. See the video clip on this page. The sale of medical marijuana was strengthened later when United for Care’s statewide referendum passed.
Katie scored a number of other victories over the years, many of them longshots: criminal justice reform, backing measures that would give judges more sentencing discretion and supporting rehabilitation programs and prison reforms; a syringe-exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade County that sought to reduce rates of infection among intravenous drug users; and ending Florida’s sales tax on menstrual products like Tampax.
For the most part, those were triumphs. But what about the disappointments? I asked her about those.
“Not being able to go far enough and taking baby steps when I felt we could have been bolder and reached more people,” Katie told me, “like the pilot syringe exchange program should have included more than one county and the medical marijuana program should have included far more patients for many more illnesses.
“I also believe that private property rights are constantly being eroded,” she said, “and although I was part of the recent updates to the Burt Harris Act, I still think we should be doing more to lift the onerous local restrictions, fees and delays that keep businesses from growing and innovating.”
Who knows if Florida Democratic Party leaders could have changed Katie’s mind about her future had they been smart enough to push her candidacy for commissioner of agriculture. Maybe not. But ask around. Katie was executive director of the Miami-Dade Farm Bureau before she was 30 and the ag community across the state adores her.
As BrowardBeat’s Buddy Nevins observed, “Her embrace of agriculture has deep roots which gave Democrats hopes the party could field a winning Cabinet candidate for the first time in more than a decade. Despite representing one of the most urban counties in Florida, (Katie’s) resume is stocked with solid agriculture credentials.”
She uses her education and background in agribusiness, land use and local government practicing law at Arnstein & Lehr LLP in Fort Lauderdale. She also has a law office in Okeechobee, where she represents cattle ranchers and sod farms in permitting, debt collection and local government matters.
Her friend Melanie Peterson, a member of the South Florida Water Management District’s Board of Governors, admitted she was one of the few who knew ahead of the Facebook announcement that Katie would not run for her last term.
“It’s unfortunate for the state and for her constituents, yes, but she wants to put time into Brad and her family and she deserves that opportunity,” Peterson said. “But I don’t think you’ll see her far from the issues. She has been effective in so many ways people don’t hear about — giving advice to local governments, helping with agricultural codes … That won’t end.
“Personally, I don’t think she’ll be gone for too long. I think we’ll see her again back in elected office in her own time.”
Reach Nancy Smith at [email protected] or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith.