Kathleen Passidomo: Next Senate President brings fundraising firepower, passion for policy

"It was love at first sight,” she recalled of her first sight of Naples, Florida.

James Call, Capital Bureau

Like many Floridians, state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo came from somewhere else to build a life and career in Florida.  

Now, the 67-year-old Naples Republican happens to be in line to become Florida Senate President — one of the three most powerful people at the state Capitol after the 2022 election. She's currently the Rules Committee chair. 

Related:Kathleen Passidomo's fundraising prowess brings political returns

Selected after last November's election by Senate Republicans to chair their caucus, Passidomo soon will lead the chamber with the authority to appoint committee chairs, set the Senate agenda, and negotiate a state budget and resolve policy issues with the House. 

She'll be only the third woman ever to lead the chamber, after Gwen Margolis and Toni Jennings. That's assuming the GOP holds the majority — the Senate now splits 24-16 in their favor. 

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo speaks from the Senate floor on the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session at the Capitol Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

She, along with the governor and next Speaker of the House, will pretty much decide how the state spends its money, educates its children and takes care of the elderly and disabled, among other things. 

Passidomo said she has a few people-focused policy initiatives she will pursue as well as initiate a discussion of how the Legislature can engage in long-term planning. 

“We have never sat down and said where we are going to be five, 10, 20 years from now ... what are we going to look like, how are we to continue to grow economically,” she said. 

“It’s hard with term limits and leadership being in place for just two years to sit down and do this because we are always looking at immediate issues that we need to address.” 

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New Jersey native goes south

Passidomo is a Glen Ridge, New Jersey native who moved to Florida in 1976 to attend Stetson University Law School. She credits an Irish mother for instilling in her a “gift of blarney” and an Italian father for creative thinking.  

Her background also produced a love of good food. She's known for her political fundraisers in which she puts on a home-cooked Italian dinner. 

She attended an all-girl Catholic high school and college: “When it’s all girls, you learn how to be a leader very early,” she recalled about all the officers in student organizations. “You have no choice. There are no guys.”  

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo listens during a press conference where Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law SB 72, giving COVID liability protections to Florida businesses in the Cabinet meeting room of the Capitol Monday, March 29, 2021.

Upon getting her law degree in 1979, she hooked a trailer to her Mercury Capri and, along with spouse John and Kebe the cat, headed south on old U.S. 41 – this was before I-75 reached beyond Tampa – to Naples. 

“We didn’t have a honeymoon. We got a U-Haul and we couldn’t go faster than 50 ... and Kebe was crying the whole way,” she recalled.   

“But it was love at first sight,” Passidomo said about Naples, which she described as a quaint little fishing village with roads featuring landscaped medians. 

In their law school courtship, the two had visited John's relatives there. After gazing at a canal opening into the Gulf, they decided it was where they would build careers and lives. 

When Passidomo set up shop as a real estate attorney, she became only the second woman attorney to practice at the Collier County Courthouse, she said. 

High school students from Broward County, including Stoneman Douglas, where 17 people were killed and 15 more injured by shooter Nikolas Cruz, speak with Senator Kathleen Passidomo Tuesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee about measures to ban the sale of weapons like the AR-15 used by Cruz.

She remembers she was not given a warm welcome into the club: “I would be at closings and these old guys would call me 'little girl' and one guy said, ‘Shouldn’t you be home having babies?' 

“He wasn’t kidding; he was serious," she added. "I’m glad the times have changed.” 

Passidomo saw Lee, Collier grow massively

She arrived at the cusp of phenomenal growth in Lee and Collier counties, from a combined population of 290,000 in 1980 to more than 1.1 million today, records show. 

It soon seemed every nonprofit women’s group the newcomers were organizing knocked on her door to ask her to write bylaws and articles of incorporation and to serve on their boards. 

“These nonprofits didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have any money because my husband and I were dirt poor when we first started. What I could offer was my time,” she said. 

“(But) that’s how you get to know a community."

Sen. Wilton Simpson hugs Sen. Kathleen Passidomo during a meeting of the 2019 Republican Caucus where Simpson, R-Citrus, was nominated as Senate president-designate for the 2020-2022 sessions Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.

Passidomo lists more than 40 awards and honors from community-based organizations. She was a founding member of a variety of civic groups: Southwest Florida Land Preservation Trust, Volunteer Lawyers Project of Collier County, the Collier County Juvenile Justice Council. And she was founding director of the Collier County Senior Resource Center.  

“Everyone down there knows her. Everyone,” said Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, elected last November and whose support for Passidomo ended a leadership contest with Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, to be Senate President for 2022-24. 

Passidomo’s local connections factor in a string of election night results and a decade of campaign fundraising that has produced nearly $8 million in contributions, helping to elevate her to the pinnacle of power in the Florida Senate. 

In five general elections since 2010, Passidomo has never received fewer than 65% of the vote. When challenged in a Republican primary by former state Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, Passidomo won easily with 56% of the vote. 

On a November ballot, Passidomo has faced a Libertarian, a Democratic, and a write-in candidate once each and was unopposed two other times.  

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo sits at her desk during a Senate session Thursday, March 18, 2021.

Passidomo first won a House seat in 2010 when former Rep. Tom Grady stepped down unexpectedly that year. Then, when former Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, was term limited in 2016, she won a race to be his successor. Within two years, she was Senate Majority (Republican) Leader. 

How effective has Passidomo been?

“Wow. Majority leader in her first term? I’m impressed. That is a sign of an effective politician," said Charles Zelden, political science and history professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. "A majority leader is someone who can build coalitions to get things done."

Annisa Karim, the chair of the Collier County Democratic Party, countered that she "is certainly caucusing well with the Republican Party in Tallahassee." Passidomo defeated Karim 66%-34% in the 2018 Senate race. The district tilts towards the GOP. 

“She serves the interests of the Republican Party and her donors as opposed to listening to and representing her constituents of southwest Florida,” Karim said. “She’s a creature of the Republican Party.” 

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo and Majority Leader Sen. Debbie Mayfield discuss a bill during a Senate session Thursday, March 18, 2021.

Passidomo dismisses Karim’s comments as political rhetoric: “The No. 1 thing our office does is constituent service. When I get a call from a constituent, I do not look up whether they are a Democrat or a Republican."

“I’ll tell you something else. Most of the bills I’ve passed had a Democratic co-sponsor. Yes, we have issues up here. We do have different philosophies on legislation – that's how things should be, but 90% of bills pass with zero 'no' votes.” 

And Passidomo has displayed a knack for finding common goals. Since joining the Senate, 60% of the bills she has filed, or their House companion, have become law. That compares to the 6% passage rate for all bills filed during the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 sessions. 

“She’s batting .600 there," Zelden said. "If you put it in those terms, she’s doing really good.” 

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee

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Three questions for Kathleen Passidomo

(Questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity.) 

Q: What will be your agenda when you become Senate President? 

Passidomo: On policy, protecting our most vulnerable citizens, which are our elderly. We have more and more elderly people here who are prone to financial abuse, Florida is the epicenter of identity theft, for seniors. Billions of dollars are held by our older population in Florida, and they become targets of schemes and scammers or family members or caregivers take advantage of them as they age.  

Q: Most of your financial support comes from business special interests, and your opponents say you represent the interests of the Republican establishment. How do you balance that with you saying people are central to your politics?  

Passidomo: Fundraising is a whole different animal. Fundraising is necessary to get your message out. I am very clear in my policies and my politics about how I feel. I am a conservative ... It doesn’t matter who is giving you contributions if you follow your philosophy. I have never taken a contribution with a thought in mind I would vote a certain way. That’s not me. 

Q: You have said the legislative process is not about Democrats and Republicans. With that thought in mind, how will you run the Florida Senate as its President?   

Passidomo: We do have certain common goals. That is why most bills pass with 90% of support, because they are important to most Floridians. And I will tell you my colleague in the House, (Speaker Designate) Paul Renner (R-Palm Bay), who I respect and genuinely like as a person has similar philosophies and a similar moral compass.  What we should do is sit down and talk about a joint work plan, what do we want to do together for the state.