I’ve never been a mayor, let alone governor or president. But I attended my share of funerals in my time in public office. While my part, as a councilmember, always was modest, I was able to observe two mayors at such difficult times. I saw the load they carried, and I felt it, at least a little, on my shoulders as well.
While it is true that there is some positive press to be gained by attendance at these funerals (and some more personal appreciation) , one of the least pleasant and most necessary duties of a chief executive is attending the funeral of someone who died “in the line of duty.” It doesn’t really matter whether it was a police officer, a firefighter, a soldier, a sailor, an aviator or an inspector. When the people who work for us die because they are doing their job, we have to be there to honor them. We have to be strong for the grieving family members, colleagues and friends. And, somehow, we have to find the right words.
While there may be a sound bite that “works” with an observing public with no particular emotional attachment to the deceased, I’m not sure that there are “right words” for those who loved him or her the most. “I’m so very sorry for your loss” is about the best we can do. It’s not an empty phrase (at least not when we mean it), but it seems profoundly inadequate nonetheless.
Presence, not pronouncement, is what really matters . . . most of the time.
And then . . . there are the very rare moments when there is a convergence of grieving and governance, a time when an issue on the table resonates with the sound of taps at the graveside.
Perhaps that is what has happened to Governor Rick Scott and to SB 392, which passed both houses of the Florida Legislature last month.
SB 392 would have allowed highway engineers at the Florida Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit to 75 mph on certain stretches of the Interstate, and raise lower limits on other stretches an additional five miles
per hour as well.
While the bill did not mandate the increases, there was widespread expectation that, if the bill became law, we’d see new speed limits on many miles of interstate highway.
But at the funeral of state trooper Chelsea Renee Richard on May 8, Governor Rick Scott was confronted by another trooper, Tod Cloud, who took the opportunity to urge the governor to veto the bill.
You see, Trooper Richard was killed by a pickup truck on I-75. She was killed while investigating a previous accident. So was a tow truck driver and a third victim.
Whether the pickup was going too fast or not, I don’t know.
But the incident, driven home by Trooper Cloud, illustrates how profoundly dangerous the work of state troopers, who patrol our interstates, is. The gravest danger isn’t from a “bad guy” with a gun. It’s from a distracted, drunk or otherwise dangerous driver.
The way the governor has portrayed this decision, this isn’t about “jobs” or about “reducing government.” “I don’t want anyone to be injured, so I’m going to veto that bill,” the governor said this week.
One could look at this through cynical eyes as a play for the support of law enforcement in the midst of a tough campaign for re-election. At a minimum, I assume that someone in Governor Scott’s organization thought about that potential implication.
But all of us in public service, from time to time, take a gut punch courtesy of reality.
Perhaps it’s the death of a child in foster care, or the murder of an employee in an ugly love triangle. Perhaps it’s the gravely ill individual whose illness, had it been caught and treated earlier, could easily have been cured.
Perhaps it’s the death of a state trooper.
Whatever delivers that punch, the only truly human response is action . . . some action . . . any action . . . to try to stop the tragedy from ever happening again.
I don’t know how much safer state troopers will be because the speed limits will not rise on our interstates. But I get the gesture . . . and on this one, I’m inclined to think the governor has gone with his gut.