Kathleen Passidomo is weathering the storms

The Naples Republican made it through Hurricane Ian. Now, as Senate President, she faces the tempest of Florida politics.

Kathleen Passidomo, in Naples, Nov. 1, 2022.

Kathleen Passidomo, in Naples, Nov. 1, 2022. Photo by Erik Kellar

When state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo first walked into her Naples home after Hurricane Ian, she was in a state of shock. That turned quickly into looking for what she could do: If she could just push the mud out, she thought. But then she saw the moisture in the walls, the furniture soaked by four feet of water. She opened her clothes drawers: more water. Drywall and furniture can be replaced – the real heartbreak was finding half of the collection of books she’d been gathering on floor-to-ceiling shelves over the past 50 years completely waterlogged. 

“You go through stages of grief,” Passidomo explains. “Unless you’ve gone through something like this, you might be empathetic to others, but it makes a difference to experience it yourself.” 

It took five days and four dumpsters to clear out the interior of the home where she and husband have lived for 34 years and raised their three daughters. But she’s quick to add that her experience “is nothing” compared to many of her constituents, especially in neighboring Lee County, whose homes were destroyed and who don’t have the means to rebuild as easily. 

“I know what they’re going through because I went through it a little bit,” says Passidomo, a real estate attorney. “There’s that feeling of hopelessness, then you get determined. Determined to get it done, get it over with, get back to normal. I see that resilience coming up and coming out from constituents. They’re bound and determined to come back.”

The grit and determination Passidomo identifies in her constituents are traits Floridians can expect to see from the senator herself as she takes on the role of Senate President for the next two years. She’s only the third woman in the role, after the late Democrat Gwen Margolis (1990-92) and Republican Toni Jennings (1996-2000), the only senator to hold the chamber’s presidency for two terms. 

GOP Sen. Debbie Mayfield, who has taken over from Passidomo as the Senate’s Rules Committee chair, says that over her 12 years as a lawmaker in both the House and Senate, Passidomo has put in “the hours, the elbow grease, and the brain power.” And as others note, she will read the full text of a bill and then pull out the statutes book to understand how it would work with other laws. 

Leadership comes naturally to Passidomo “because of that work ethic,” says Leslie Dughi, a lobbyist with Metz, Husband & Daughton. The two met right before Passidomo was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010, and Dughi has worked both with and against her on legislation over the years. “I find her the same on either side,” Dughi says. “She’s very transparent about how she feels. Even if she’s not with you, she will continue working to find compromise. And working with her on an issue, I’d go into battle with her.”

As leader of the Senate, where Republicans hold a more than two-thirds supermajority after the midterm elections, Passidomo now has the power to shape priorities of the upper house. As one third of the Capitol’s power triumvirate that includes Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Paul Renner, she’ll be instrumental in determining what policy becomes law in Florida – although, as recent experience shows, the governor will dictate a good part of the agenda. She’ll also be a pivotal part of deciding the state’s multibillion-dollar annual budget. 

Her ascension to the presidency is the culmination of a steady upward climb through the ranks of the Republican Party over the past decade. The New Jersey native first moved to Florida in the 1970s to attend law school at Stetson University, where she met her husband, John Passidomo. The couple’s honeymoon was a U-Haul drive to Naples, where they both embarked on legal careers. 

In 2010, the House seat became open “rather unexpectedly,” John recalls, and he encouraged his wife to run. Their youngest daughter had just graduated from Naples High School, and the time felt right. “She jumped in with both feet, no hesitancy whatsoever,” he says. Passidomo secured the seat when her opponent dropped out of the race the summer before the elections were held.  

She spent six years in the House of Representatives before winning a Senate seat in 2016. Her colleagues tapped her as majority leader in 2018, then as rules chair for the past two years. Among colleagues, she’s known as a listener, the type of politician that gives people who disagree with her a chance to explain why. 

She names collaboration as her No. 1 leadership philosophy. “I don’t file a controversial bill until I’ve met with everyone,” she says. “I always make a point to let everybody stick their nose in the tent and give opinions.” Although she’s willing to listen, her votes are almost always in line with the Republican Party, which has continued to consolidate power in Florida. With the GOP now holding 28 of the chamber’s 40 seats, most of her share of that power will likely go into keeping her own party united.  

“She absolutely understands how to work with people and their varying personalities,” says Sen. Gayle Harrell of Stuart, who was elected to the House in the same class as Passidomo in 2010 and who first nominated her for the Senate presidency. “As women, we’ve learned you have to solve the problem and work things through. There may be differences of opinion, but she knows how to work it through.”

Jennings, the only other Republican woman to serve as Senate president, lent Passidomo a liberty eagle pin to wear at her selection ceremony earlier this year and delivered the prayer at the November organization session in which Passidomo officially took the reins. 

“Most of my political career, I was in the minority party,” Jennings told the chamber before that prayer. “I look out today and most of the Republicans in here have never known us to be the minority party. And most of the Democrats in here have never known the time when they were the majority party. (But) what we do best is work together. … Every Senate president has challenges, and President Kathleen will be no different. But with the strong support of the senators in this body, you all will accomplish great things.”

A large photo of Jennings laughing and toasting her House counterpart, Republican Dan Webster of Orlando, hangs at the entrance to the Senate side of the legislature. Passidomo expects a similarly warm relationship with Renner, whom she calls a “consummate gentleman.” They will “have a good two years,” she predicts. “We’re committed to not playing games of holding hostage each other’s priorities to get what we want. Whatever his initiatives are will be mine. Whatever my initiatives are will be his.”

At the top of Passidomo’s own list is workforce housing that would be attainable for people earning more than the affordable housing cutoff for their area’s median income, but still unable to pay rising market rates. She says she has already met with developers, local government officials, state departments, nonprofits – in line with her style of giving everyone a chance to weigh in. She emphasizes that legislation she has in mind will support incentives for developers to provide housing at reduced rental rates, but with no rent control or mandating private companies to offer lower rates. 

Part of her vision includes converting dead or dying shopping centers into multifamily rentals. “You can have a strip center that has a bank or hospital or office building, and the people working there are living an hour away,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be great if they could walk to work?” She has decades of experience in real estate law and was the first senator to introduce a bill in 2018 that would stop the state from raiding the state’s Sadowski trust funds, money meant to keep affordable housing projects moving but that often got reappropriated, or “swept” into the budget for other purposes. 

With Passidomo in charge, affordable housing advocates are hopeful this is the year the state prioritizes their issue. “We’ve seen her take good positions on housing,” says Francesca Menes, deputy organizing director of southern states for Local Progress, a national network of local elected officials working on racial and economic justice issues. She’s watching who will be prioritized in the legislation: corporate landlords or the tenants. “My biggest concern is, will (she) hear the cries of people when they come to the Capitol and share the conditions they’re living in? I’m hoping she’s going to be a champion for her people and not solely for her party.”

On big issues over the past years, Passidomo has voted in line with the bloc of GOP senators, including on last session’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks. Although she advocated for rape and incest exceptions, she voted in favor of the final bill that the governor signed into law last summer, which didn’t have those exceptions. “I was vocal in conversation with colleagues that I would have liked to see the bill amended,” she recalls. “That didn’t happen, but I firmly support the 15-week ban.”

Barbara DeVane, a lobbyist for the Florida National Organization for Women and a longtime progressive presence at the Capitol who has been involved in feminist politics for decades, was disappointed but not surprised by Passidomo’s vote. “It’s really hard these days to go to the Capitol and know that even the women in the Republican Party and in leadership are not going to support our issues that affect women,” she says. 

DeVane and Passidomo first met after a long committee hearing in one of the Capitol’s restrooms. They never talked about the bills they’d be following or the politics surrounding them, DeVane says, but they did spend plenty of time talking about their grandchildren. They spent years building a relationship over a restroom sink.

Now, Passidomo will have her own restroom inside the president’s office, meaning fewer opportunities for casual run-ins. “I won’t ever see her unless I have an appointment,” DeVane says. “So that’ll be sad, in a personal way.”

Politically, abortion is one of the issues expected in the next session following DeSantis’ commanding reelection victory and the House also securing a Republican supermajority. DeSantis has suggested but has not flat out said he wants to further restrict access to abortion. Passidomo told reporters after the election that she would support a 12-week ban if it had the exclusions for rape and incest. “She has a temperate personality and isn’t there to grab attention and be extreme,” DeVane says of Passidomo. “But her votes are extreme.”

Harrell calls the Senate president a “classic conservative,” which might be a more accurate description of her methodical approach to governance than her positions themselves.

Last session, Passidomo voted in favor of bills that used government powers to ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity (the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed by critics as Don’t Say Gay) and restrict workplace discussions about racism and bias (the Stop WOKE Act). 

With Republican supermajorities, the leadership trio has heavily hinted they plan to revisit and expand these bills. Passidomo says she finds it “astounding” that minors are able to access gender-affirming medical procedures, despite the fact that such health care treatments have the backing of many mainstream medical associations. “I expect to see a move against transgender care and to see more laws going after the LGBT community,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “It’s not if they will, but what it will be.” 

When Annisa Karim ran against Passidomo for her Senate seat in 2018, she knew it would be “almost impossible to win” given the district’s strong Republican voter base. Karim, the current chair of the Collier County Democratic Party and a conservation scientist, says she was frustrated by Passidomo’s votes on environmental issues. And as a member of the first graduating class of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where a former student shot and killed 17 students and staff in 2018, she took issue with Passidomo’s support of arming teachers. 

“I just don't agree with the way that she governs,” Karim says. “I don't think it's for the best of her entire district. I know that a lot of people – like developers, like Big Sugar – they're making a lot of money because of the votes that she’s made. But the common person is not faring well.” In the 2018 Senate race, Passidomo won reelection to District 28 in a 66%-34% vote. The district stretches from the ultra-wealthy beachside communities to inland areas like Immokalee, the largest farmworker community in the state, and votes overwhelmingly Republican. 

Passidomo is a known figure in the region, especially in the Naples area of the district. In her decades working as a real estate attorney, she was also serving on various boards, helping nonprofits write their bylaws and collecting community awards. She’s won all of her general elections since 2010 by similar margins to her win over Karim in 2018.

When Passidomo started spending session months in Tallahassee, she carried some at-home traditions with her, most notably cooking and sharing large Italian family-style dinners. The kitchen at her first place in Tallahassee was so small that lobbyist Leslie Dughi invited her over to cook her famous meat sauce in a bigger space. “She’s great at bringing people together with food and at bringing people together on issues,” Dughi says. 

There’s a bit of a family dinner table approach to how she and others describe her leadership, of looking at issues with a sense of humor without taking disagreements personally or taking herself too seriously. “I feel more optimistic about this leadership team than I have in years,” Dughi says, “and a lot of that has to do with her. She doesn’t fly off the handle. She’s careful and deliberative about what she’s doing.”

When the next regular legislative session convenes March 7 next year, the state will be able to assess Passidomo’s leadership in action. “I’ve learned from observing my predecessors that everybody had a different style, a different way of doing business,” she says. “I’m just going to be myself.” 

Ashira Morris is a freelance journalist based between her hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, and Sofia, Bulgaria. She’s interested in local environments and the forces that shape them. Her journalism career started writing for her high school newspaper and Tallahassee Democrat’s Teen Democrat program, and she graduated from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. Since then, her work has been published in National Geographic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and A24’s “Florida!” book.

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