Katie Edwards: Feisty Centrist Democrat to Advocate for Medical Marijuana, 'Cost-Effective Justice'
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Birthplace: Fort Lauderdale
Education: Florida International University College of Law, Juris Doctor
Previous Public Office: City of Plantation Planning and Zoning Board, 2011-2012
Did you know? Conducted the final month of her primary campaign, including fundraising phone calls, from a hospital bed.
A-rated by the NRA and endorsed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Katie Edwards is a no-nonsense, self-styled centrist Democrat with an acquired knack for bipartisan engagement, a skill that may serve her well in getting some ambitious proposals through Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature.
“We need people who have progressive views and who can say: We have problems, let’s try to solve them, and let’s put our party labels and affiliations aside, move forward, and listen to all sides,” the 31 year-old consultant, who’s just graduated law school, tells Sunshine State News.
This may be Edwards’ first participation in elected office, but she’s no stranger to politics. Her stint as executive director of the Miami-Dade County Farm Bureau brought her to Tallahassee on numerous occasions to lobby on agricultural issues, and she hails from a politically well-connected family. (Her father served on the Plantation City Council, an uncle is an Orange County commissioner, and a great-cousin served in the Nixon and Ford administrations.)
She finally decided to run for a seat in the Florida House in 2010, losing to Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami. But she learned from the experience, and took the opportunity legislative redistricting afforded to make another run in 2012.
Victory did not come easy. She ran the last month of her primary campaign out of a hospital bedroom, “surviving a major health issue” and “nearly d[ying]” during an emergency operation. Most people don’t know, she says, that most of her July fundraising calls were made during that hospital stay, a couple while she was being rolled into the operating room.
The hard work paid off. She not only beat her primary opponent by a hefty margin, but cruised to victory in the November general election, winning 67 percent of the vote.
“I had essentially a four-year campaign, while working full-time as executive director of the Farm Bureau, campaigning, and going to law school at night,” Edwards recounts. “Looking back, I don’t know how I was able to do all of it, but somehow it came together.”
House Speaker Will Weatherford’s respect for her agribusiness experience is reflected in his appointment of her to the Agriculture and Natural Resources and Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations subcommittees, though she politely grouses that she “really wish[es]” she would have been appointed to Criminal Justice. (Edwards is sitting for the Florida Bar in July.)
She’s also been appointed to the Health and Human Services Committee and the Ethics and Elections Subcommittee, in the latter of which she has distinguished herself as something of a no-nonsenser.
“It’s so aggravating because you’ll have different groups that have done a lot of research and have done a survey of laws in different states, and they come to us with these recommendations and they say this state is doing that, and the other lawmakers say, ‘That’s a good idea,’” she relates. “But I want to know what the outcomes are. Is the public more satisfied? Are you sending fewer elected officials to jail for corruption charges? Are these measures actually working?”
She finds the answers she’s receiving – or the lack thereof – less than satisfying, and she’s not afraid to say so.
“I want to know that I’m spending my time, which is very valuable once I get up [to Tallahassee], very efficiently,” she insists. “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?”
She’s also no fan of proposals by Speaker Weatherford to eliminate committees of continuous existence (CCE), special funds from which political candidates can fund certain campaigns and other expenses.
“I’m not about to embark on an exercise that’s going to result in unlimited cash being funneled back to political parties, so that leadership can spend it as they see fit,” she says. “I’m going to be a stickler about that because I think this whole exercise needs to be called out for what it is.”
Edwards shared with the News what she says are her two major legislative proposals. The first, HB 159 (“Sentencing for Controlled Substance Violations”), would exempt first-time nonviolent drug offenders from mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, enabling them to pursue rehabilitation instead.
The measure has already attracted a number of Republican co-sponsors, including chairman Dennis Baxley of Ocala, whose Judiciary Committee will be reviewing the bill.
“Forget the terminology of ‘smart justice’; what we need is cost-effective justice,” Edwards tells the News. “We have to realize at some point that there is a tremendous amount of financial strain on our state budget because of the cost of corrections. If we’re incarcerating for things that people don’t belong in jail for, if we can rehabilitate that person, get them back to work, off of their drugs, that’s a much better alternative than putting them in jail.”
The need to alleviate that financial strain has inspired what is sure to be a much more controversial measure: the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
“Every time we have a group that comes to us and says ‘I need this much money in the state budget’ and we’re told we’re cash-strapped, I’m thinking we need to look at alternative sources of revenue and this is something I want to have an open and transparent debate about,” she says of the bill that will be filed in the coming weeks.
She says even some Republicans have expressed private support for the measure, though she doesn’t expect very many, if any, will do so publicly. But she believes cannabis legalization – at least for health purposes – is an idea whose time will eventually come.
“The bill is being drafted in such a way as to regulate every aspect: from how [marijuana] is produced on a farm, to how the dispensaries are licensed, how it is ministered by the pharmacist, and how the prescription is written up by a doctor,” she says. “This is my way to get the dialogue going, but at this point, I’ll be lucky if I have a chance to present this bill before a committee. I will be shocked if the Legislature has a chance to vote on it.”
As Sunshine State News has previously reported, a similar bill is expected to be filed in the Senate by Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth.
"I don't want this to come across as a 'crazy liberal Democrat from Broward' trying to legalize pot," she insists. "I'm doing this to tax revenue and give a boost to local agriculture; I'm trying to be pragmatic."
Edwards confirms to the News the impressions communicated by several Democrats, in the course of interviews for this series, that a bipartisan spirit is prevailing in the Legislature that has heretofore been unheard of: “In the past, the [party] leaders gave their members a cheat-sheet on how to vote, and it was up or down without their getting a chance to know the issues themselves; I think those days really have come to an end.”
Pointing to the support already garnered by HB 159, she attributes her talents for reaching across the political aisle to her work as a lobbyist.
“I’ve had the chance to develop relationships, and to work with Republican members,” she tells the News. “I think if you ask the more senior members, especially from Miami-Dade, you’ll find they see me as a hard-worker, and not much of a [Democratic] party person; even as a centrist.”
That’s not to say she doesn't anticipate her outspokenness getting under the skin of some in the Republican majority, as they respectfully go head-to-head over their differences.
“I think the leadership is going to have a lot of fun dealing with me in the Legislature,” she chuckles. “And they’re realizing that very quickly.”
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at (954) 235-9116.