Born in 1953, I became a part of the Baby Boomer generation as WWII ended and the United States was enjoying tremendous growth and prosperity. Everyone knew that with hard work anything was possible, and my parents were no exception. My dad, a veteran of WWII and the Korean War, was an eye doctor, and my mother was a nurse.
Their parents came to the United States from Italy and Ireland through Ellis Island in the 1920’s. My dad’s father worked on the Erie Lakawanna Railroad, and my mom’s dad was a fireman in Brooklyn. They worked hard to give their children the American Dream, and from those humble beginnings my parents were able to make sure their children received a good education and knew the meaning of hard work and community.
My parents were goal-oriented and determined to make a better life for their children. From a very young age, I was taught that the keys to success are working hard and giving back to my community, and my parents instilled upon me that the most important assets I would ever have are my reputation and integrity. Those simple principles have led me well and guided all of my decisions over the years.
I graduated in 1975 from Trinity College (now University) in Washington, D.C. My college years (the Nixon White House years) in our nation’s capital were characterized by long hours in the library followed by marathon discussions about politics, the Vietnam War and an emerging awareness of conservative values focused on limited government, strong national defense and family values. These values form the core of my political philosophy today.
FAMILY AND CAREER
After graduating from college, I spent eight months backpacking in Southeast Asia, trekking in Nepal, hiking in Thailand and was almost swept away by a Tsunami in Malaysia!
In December 1978, I received my law degree from Stetson University’s College of Law, and I married my husband, John, the following September. We moved to Naples the day after our wedding, and our honeymoon consisted of driving from New Jersey to Florida in my old Mercury Capri with all our worldly possessions crammed into a U-Haul.
Those early years were not easy. We were new in town and it was difficult to make ends meet, but we worked long hours and saved our money. There were weeks where sleep was rare as we struggled to build successful law practices from the ground up. John specialized in Zoning and Land Use Law, and I built my practice around Real Estate and Business Law.
My profession is important to me, and I worked hard at it. I was in the first group of attorneys in the state to obtain Board Certification in Real Estate Law. I was also honored to be elected by my peers to serve as President of both the Collier County Bar Association and the Collier County Women’s Bar Association.
As my career progressed, I was mindful of my parents’ teaching to give back to the community, and I did just that over the past 40 years by using my background and legal skills to help almost 100 civic, charitable, and business organizations with their corporate documents and governance structure.
From creating the Collier County Juvenile Justice Council to serving as Co-Chair of the Community Engagement Initiative of the Education Foundation of Collier County-Champions for Learning (“Connect Now”), and as President of the Southwest Florida Land Preservation Trust to chairing the Board of The United Way of Collier County, I had the opportunity to work with citizens from all over Southwest Florida with a common goal of making our community a better place to live, work, raise a family and retire.
To further immerse myself in my community I participated in Leadership Florida Class XII, Leadership Collier Class of 1991 and Leadership Marco Island Class of 2014. I also served on the Leadership Collier Foundation Board for many years. Through these leadership positions and volunteer opportunities, I have worked with a diverse and wide-ranging group of citizens who have helped me appreciate and understand the community of Southwest Florida and its rich and vibrant history and path into the future.
Along the way, John and I had three daughters: Catarina, Francesca and Gabriella. All three of them were into soccer and track and played on some pretty good teams at Naples High. Needless to say, almost every weekend was spent driving all over the state to soccer games and track meets.
Catarina and her husband now live in Oxford, Mississippi, where she teaches at the University of Mississippi and runs ragged after my grandsons William and Emilio. Francesca graduated from UF Law and also obtained a Master of Science in Real Estate. She and her husband Claudio live in Naples, and she is practicing law with one of the best firms in town. Gabriella graduated from UF and then from Washington & Lee University's School of Law and is now a Commissioner with Florida's Public Service Commission. I am so very proud of my children and their accomplishments, and I am looking forward to seeing them make their own way in the world.
I have always had the desire to run for public office to allow me to serve my community by taking what I’ve learned at the local level to the state level. In 2010, when my youngest daughter headed off to college, I became an “empty nester.” My law practice—which had been hectic, fast-paced and non-stop for 30 years—began to slow down during the economic downturn, and nearing age 60 I thought maybe it was time to start thinking about retirement. Instead, I seized the opportunity to continue to serve my community and ran for public office. I was elected to the Florida House in 2010 and haven’t looked back.
As a member of the Florida House of Representatives, I focused on issues important to the Southwest Florida community and legislation brought to me by friends, neighbors and colleagues. One such piece of signature legislation was the foreclosure reform bill that grew out of a partnership I helped form of community, civic and governmental organizations to provide pro bono advice and assistance to people facing foreclosure in Collier County. Another community partnership in which I became involved, the Identity Theft Task Force, came about as a result of the burgeoning incidents of identity theft in our community.
In 2016, I was elected to the Florida State Senate, where I’ve continued my commitment to important issues like lower taxes, fraud protection, community safety and public health. During the 2016 Legislative Session, I led the fight to eliminate the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, and I sponsored the “Cameron Mayhew Act”—named after a student in our community who was hit and killed by a school bus—that increases penalties for driving violations resulting in serious injury and death.
The tragic 2018 shooting in Parkland prompted the Florida Legislature to act swiftly to ensure the safety of the students in our schools. I fought to make sure over $100 million in mental health funding was allocated to our schools and sponsored legislation to establish partnerships with local mental health providers.
I’m proud to have championed several other critical issues during my time in the Senate, including legislation to provide care to infants affected by opioid addiction and a measure to ensure seniors living under the care of a professional guardian are respected and protected.
During the 2018-2020 legislative session, I was appointed by Senate President Bill Galvano to serve as the Senate Majority Leader. In 2020, Senate President Wilton Simpson appointed me to serve as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules.
In 2021, I was elected by my colleagues to preside over the upper chamber of the Florida Legislature during the 2022-2024 legislative term. I am only the third woman in the 185-year history of the Florida Senate to serve as President.
As President of the Florida Senate, I am committed to working with our Governor, Speaker of the House and my colleagues in the Senate to advance legislation that protects our freedoms and ensures every Floridian has the opportunity to prosper.
As a resident and leader of Southwest Florida, I know firsthand the damage inflicted by Hurricane Ian on residents, communities and businesses of our state. I have made it a priority to not only help Florida rebuild from the hurricane, but also to strengthen our infrastructure to withstand future storms. During the 2023 legislative session, we invested more than $4 billion to support hurricane recovery and increase resiliency.
Another challenge plaguing our state is the high cost of living. In the aftermath of COVID-19, Americans fled from high-tax, lockdown states to find freedom in Florida. The exponential population growth of our population put a strain on accessible and affordable housing for our workers, our families and our retirees. Working with stakeholders, the Florida Legislature passed a comprehensive housing bill that incentivizes development, keeps costs affordable and enables Floridians to “live local.”
In 2023, we also passed landmark legislation to increase access to one of our state’s greatest landmarks: Florida’s Wildlife Corridor. The corridor is a collection of state and private-owned lands that are protected from development, preserve our state’s natural beauty, replenish our water resources and provide critical habitat for our wildlife. Increasing access will allow Florida families and visitors to enjoy the natural beauty of our state’s “Central Park.”
I couldn’t be more proud to represent Southwest Florida in the State Senate, and I will continue to work to strengthen the Sunshine State.