Larry Lee: Former NFL Linebacker Hoping to Score Wins for Education, Criminal Rehab, Deepwater Ports
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Birthplace: Statesboro, Ga.
Residence: Port St. Lucie
Education: Livingstone College, Bachelor of Science, Health and Physical Education
Occupation: Insurance agent
Previous Public Office: None.
Family: Wife, daughter
Did you know? Played linebacker for the Denver Broncos in 1976.
Rep. Larry Lee of Port St. Lucie holds many distinctions. At present he is St. Lucie County’s only Democratic legislator, and is the first African-American to represent the Treasure Coast. He also played linebacker for the Denver Broncos in 1976 before being released during that year's preseason.
“It was a difficult thing for me to deal with for several years, but that experience helped me to realize the other meaning of NFL: Not For Long,” Lee tells Sunshine State News. “I use my experience to speak to young athletes about the importance of education, because when the final whistle blows you’d better have a new game plan for life.”
The value of education is no mere abstraction for the Georgia native whose family moved to Florida from the Peach State while he was very young. Education was instilled in him at an early age by his father and mother, who each got only as far as the third and ninth grades, respectively. (Lee’s father and uncle were pulled out of school so they could work their parents’ farm and help make ends meet in the aftermath of the Great Depression.) Lee is the first in his family to attend and graduate from college, and not without childhood struggle.
“I had to repeat the first grade,” he explains. “I had no schooling before I was 6, just went straight to first grade but was behind everyone else. I know I don’t look it now, but I was a little guy back then, used to get bullied and had my lunch money taken away from me.”
Lee’s parents sent him back to Georgia to stay for a year with his grandmother. There he repeated the first grade and eventually resolved to avail himself of the opportunities denied his parents: “I never missed a day of school, from first through ninth grade.”
Lee finally gathered the courage to try out for his high school football team his senior year, making the cut, getting accepted to Livingstone College (noted for playing the first black college football game in 1892) on a football scholarship, and, after getting his degree, going on to his brief stint with the Broncos.
The former NFL linebacker taught health science and physical education to elementary, middle, and high schoolers for several years before taking on the role of jobs placement counselor, first at Indian River State College and then for the Martin County School District.
Eventually he became an insurance agent, got involved in several local charities in leadership capacities, and founded his own, the Lighthouse Foundation, to assist underprivileged young persons and senior citizens – “Those two sets of people tend to fall through the cracks the most.”
He finally decided to run for elected office at the urging of several friends and associates, many of whom he had met volunteering on the campaigns of many Democratic heavyweights, including Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Barack Obama.
And he found ready support in the community when he decided to throw his hat in the political ring.
“I never thought I would run for office, not knowing what would come of all that stuff I was doing over those years, helping those kids find jobs,” he recounts. “My legislative aide in Fort Pierce was one of my students when I was a job placement counselor, and she has served four other legislators before me. I planted a seed there, and now she’s helping me. It’s amazing.”
Lee’s only filed one bill so far, HB 223 (“Insurance”), which cuts down on the paperwork automobile, property, and casualty insurance providers have to mail to their policyholders, allowing them to opt for electronic delivery instead.
“When you get an insurance policy on a car, you are mailed a bunch of papers; when you get them, normally what do you do with them?” he asks. “For most people, it ends up in a drawer somewhere, or outside in the trash. Look how many trees we're killing with that. My bill is both environmentally friendly and will save costs for businesses.”
Lee’s got several other measures coming down the pipeline, the most ambitious of which is a plan, whose details are still being worked out, to expand Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program (VPK).
“While we already have a VPK program, the one I’m crafting is aimed at kids younger than four years of age,” he explains. “One of my main goals is to create a program that really targets at-risk kids to help them start on the same level as their peers when they enter pre-school.”
Criminal justice reform is emerging as a major issue for the upcoming session, and Lee tells the News he’s preparing his own legislative contribution to the discussion, but is still reviewing proposals that have already been offered by his colleagues. He would like to file a bill that establishes vocational training in state prisons, and he wants the state to take a second look at laws that keep convicted felons who have already served their sentences from being licensed to perform certain trades.
“Rather than just warehousing prisoners, why don’t we train them for a vocation: auto mechanics, air-conditioning, refrigeration, welding, barbering, some trade?” he suggests. “Then, when that person is released from prison, they have something that, if they can’t get a job, maybe they can start their own practice.”
Finally, he says he will make it a priority to make sure his district’s deepwater ports receive adequate funding for “dredging”; certain areas need to be made 28-feet deep to accommodate ships.
Asked how optimistic he is, as a member of the minority party, about getting his measures heard and passed in a Republican-dominated House and Senate, Lee says he’s optimistic that the new bipartisan spirit permeating the Legislature so far will prevail once session kicks up in less than a month.
“My intention is: until someone proves me wrong I’m just going to give the other side the benefit of the doubt, reach across the aisle, and get things done; the general public is tired of all this pointless bickering,” he says. “It’s no different than what’s happening in Washington, but we have a chance to make Florida different, and that’s what I’m hoping will happen.”
Reach Eric Giunta at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (954) 235-9116.