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How Jeff Atwater saved rail: Yelling at FDOT

The most affable man in the Florida Senate wasn’t so smiley.

Senate President Jeff Atwater had taken too much of a gamble, calling a special session on controversial rail transit issues without enough votes to ensure passage. And with the clock running down, he needed the Florida Department of Transportation Secretary, Stephanie Kopelousos, to give a little something – some job protection language to the AFL CIO – so that the union dropped its opposition and thereby freed up Democrats to vote on the package.

Standing in the room with the Republican president, Democratic leader Al Lawson was stunned by Atwater’s passion. And his anger.

 “It was so critical and it was coming down to whether or not he would have the votes. And FDOT was not responding. And I have never seen him (Atwater) get so frustrated. He really called the secretary on the carpet, really lashed out at her,” Lawson said.

“You will do this!” Atwater said on the phone to Kopelousos, according to Lawson. “You have slowed this process down. We are at the 11th hour and you‘ve got to do something. We are this close.”

“What are you trying to do to me? I’ve given everything I had on this. Day and night. I haven’t been sleeping. And you are screwing me around.”

Kopelousos apologized. “That wasn’t my intent Mr. President,” she said.

“If it wasn’t your damn intent, then you need to move from where you are,” Atwater said, according to Lawson. “We are an hour and a half away from going into session and if you don’t do something I’m going to lose this whole deal.”

That’s what it took. The secretary budged. The union saved a few jobs and some major face. And the bill passed.