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Five Questions for Rep. Jennifer Sullivan

June 14, 2015 - 3:30pm

At age 23, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan is the youngest member of the Florida Legislature. But the Mount Dora Republican scored a major victory Wednesday, when Gov. Rick Scott signed her bill to require a 24-hour waiting period before women can have abortions.

And with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights immediately filing a legal challenge to the new abortion law (HB 633), Sullivan is sure to remain in the spotlight.

The oldest of four children, Sullivan was home-schooled. She earned her organizing chops, in part, by campaigning for her mother, North Lake Tea Party founder Patricia Sullivan, and for Congressman Daniel Webster. In 2014, she beat four other candidates in the Republican primary for a seat representing District 31, which covers parts of Orange and Lake counties.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Jennifer Sullivan:

Q: How did you decide to sponsor the abortion bill?

SULLIVAN: Well, I identified it based on some of the research that I did and what other states were doing across our nation as a whole, as I was looking for different policies as it relates to tax, because I sit on (the House Finance and Tax Committee), and other legislation that I was looking at. I saw a trend across other states that they had this reflection period.

And also, just taking the experiences that I had had in my own district, working at local Life's Choices, crisis pregnancy centers, and seeing, really, the need to empower women to make an informed decision versus a rushed and unexpected and pressured one. So those were some of the things that led to me filing the legislation.

Q: You were a freshman and the youngest member, but didn't get thrown by being at the center of a controversy.

SULLIVAN: Well, I knew from the beginning it was going to be a controversial bill. Obviously, it's a heavy subject. And it's one that I think it's important to take care with. And to respect the people that are on the other side; they're just as passionate as I am. So though we may have to agree to disagree, I believe you should all use respect.

And so I knew from the beginning that I really needed to create a plan of how I could go about doing this, and then just work that plan. And so that started just committee by committee, getting to know my other members, talking with committee chairs, talking with leadership, and just really working diligently, making sure that people knew what I was doing, knew the constitutionality of it --- because that came up a lot in questioning.

So: just really working hard. You know, a lot of people have asked, "How did you get so many bills passed this year?" or "How did you get elected at age 23?" (I said)"You want to know my secret?" They're like, "What?" (I said) "Hard work" --- I mean, there's no magic in it. It's just at the end of the day, if you're willing to get here early and stay late and build relationships and work really hard, you can get all that done.

Q: So what's your take on the constitutionality of HB 633?

SULLIVAN: I was really careful in how I structured it, looking at other states. The specific language that we used was used in six other states, and out of those six states, it was challenged in five and enjoined in none. And so I was very particular about how I worded it. I was very particular about how I worded it. I know Florida's Constitution is a little bit different than some others. Even knowing that, I did try to go above and beyond in working with staff, to make sure that it would hold up in court.

Q: This has been a very difficult session. Especially for your first, how has that affected you?

SULLIVAN: Well, it certainly has been a challenge. And, you know, almost on a daily basis, people I talk to that have been in the process longer, I asked, "Is this normal?" And they're like, "Absolutely not! I've been here 20 years and haven't seen this happen before."

So it's certainly created its own learning curve in the midst of learning the process as a whole, because it has been a unique year. But I think, in the midst of that, it's easy, perhaps, to make excuses and realize a lot's not going to happen this year. Or, you know, we have some bigger issues --- obviously, Medicaid expansion was hotly debated --- but in the midst of that, I think, again, it goes back to building relationships and realizing: You know what? This has been a challenging session. There are a lot of things going on. But I really just tried to keep my head down and work on my pieces of legislation, recognizing there's only so much I could do. There's only so much that's in my control, especially being a freshman. And so all I could do was work my own bills, and that's what I poured my time and focus into.

Q: Where did you get your work ethic?

SULLIVAN: I think it comes from my granddaddy. He actually passed away a couple of years ago, but growing up, he was an artist. And so I had the opportunity to travel the country with him, and he always taught me the value of getting up before the sun, you know, and getting to work, and what truly a work ethic is. And applying yourself with all that you have to pursue excellence, to serve others, to put others first. And if you help enough people get what they want, you'll ultimately get what you want as well.

So I think that vision of servant leadership came from him, and that premise of, you know, "I'm not entitled to anything." Part of the beauty of living in America is that anything's possible if you're willing to apply yourself and work hard. And so I think that that was something that from a very young age was really instilled in me."

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