Perry Brings Business Perspective to Lawmaking

Keith Perry standing next to a bookshelf
Keith Perry's office at Perry Roofing Contractors is full of Gator memorabilia.

Businessman Keith Perry is stretched in many directions these days. He spends 11 to 12 hours a day midweek as a freshman legislator in Tallahassee. When he gets back to the office at Perry Roofing Contractors Friday afternoons and before he heads back up on Mondays, he reviews estimates with his staff.

On weekends, he sets aside time for his wife, Amy, and two daughters, Alexis and Amanda, but there are still all the appearances he needs to make at local organizations that want to hear from their state representative.

Full plate? You bet, but the Republican is happy filling the many roles.

“I’m glad I ran,” he says. “I’m glad I’m up there. I’m working as hard as I can to learn as much as I can to be a good representative.”

Perry actually has been doing double duty for nearly two years. In 2009, State Sen. Steve Oelrich asked Perry if he would consider running for former Rep. Larry Cretul’s seat in the Florida House, once Cretul left due to term limits.

“It wasn’t on my radar until Steve approached me,” he says. “I thought that I could make a decision in a couple weeks. It took me a couple of months of weighing things out. It’s a huge commitment.”

In his new role as a legislator, Perry is passionate about helping restore the state’s economic health. It’s a personal issue for him, since he’s faced the ups and downs of the business world in the past decade. In the early 2000s, his roofing company, which he opened in 1976 right out of Buchholz High School, was highly successful.

He was operating offices in Jacksonville, Orlando and Fort Myers, spurred on by the robust housing market and the burst of rebuilding damaged homes after hurricanes. Then, the downturn hit. Perry’s business is now down to two offices—Gainesville and Jacksonville.

As a legislator, Perry has a hand in the criminal justice system, with one of his committee assignments being to the House’s Criminal Justice subcommittee.

Perry is zealous about reform of the criminal justice system. His commitment to this cause goes back to 1996, when he was the founding president of the House of Hope, which helps former convicts make the transition from prison life to life on the outside.

Why was it important to you as a businessman to run for office?

One of the things that’s lacking in Tallahassee is people with real business experience. We have a lot of young people who are very energetic, very smart. We have a lot of lawyers. But we don’t have very many who have actually owned and operated a business of any size for any length of time. I think it’s absolutely necessary that we have a portion of our representatives from the business community.

It’s unfortunate that there are a lot of people excluded from the political process because of the time commitment and financial reasons. The salary is $29,000 a year.

To be in the Legislature, you have to be independently wealthy, or you have to be content to not have very much money at all.

Isn’t it a part-time job?

It’s a huge commitment. It’s full-time. It’s more than full-time. There are four and a half months of committee meetings and being in session.

When the session ends, you’ll work on some of the bills for a year. If you look at pension reform, Medicaid reform, teacher merit pay, those are huge bills that take year-long commitments.

Then people have expectations of their representatives. They want access. They want you to be available to show up at their events.

How do you view the state’s financial picture at this time, and how do Florida’s finances affect the business climate?

We’ve got really bad news, and what I believe is really good news.

As we began this legislative session, we had a $4 billion deficit. We’re balancing the budget. Constitutionally, we have to.

That means that we’re taking hits. We’ve never had this big of a deficit. Last year, we had a big deficit, but we had a lot of stimulus money come in. Hard decisions had to be made in this session.

The good news from a business standpoint is that we have the best governor that we could possibly get. You could do a nationwide search for a CEO for a state, and I don’t think you’d find a better one than Rick Scott.

With him steering the ship, I’m optimistic that our state is going to come out of this better. We’ve been hit harder than a lot of other states, but we’re going to come out better than a lot of other states.

What specifically do you think the state can do to makes things better for businesses?

We’re in a mess because of the business climate. People aren’t paying the taxes.

The way to get out of that mess is to create the right environment so out-of-state businesses not only will come here but existing businesses will expand, which will increase our tax base.

It’s a big ship, and it’s hard to turn, but it is being turned, and we are making progress.

Criminal justice is a personal interest of yours. How do you think the state system is doing in that area?

The state does a really good job of incarcerating, but it does not do a very good job of rehabilitating.

Inmates become worse in certain ways within prison. For example, the average person makes about 400 decisions in a day. The average prisoner is going to make about 12.  Although prisoners can articulate fairly well when they get out of prison, simple tasks that we take for granted become difficult for them because they’ve been in prison for three to five years.

Any ideas on what the state should be doing to improve the system?

We have a new secretary of corrections, Edwin Buss, who’s very innovative. He’s increasing faith-based and work-release programs—it’s not realistic to think that simply locking somebody up for a period of time is going to modify who that person is.

Also, we have an overcapacity right now, with a prison population of 101,000. We’re looking at closing down some of the old, more inefficient prisons and moving people. We’re closing down prisons that are potentially dangerous in terms of monitoring.

Your views on prisons could be seen as liberal. How do they mesh with your conservatism?

Conservatives sometimes get the connotation of being narrow-minded. The things I’ve seen so far come out of the Legislature are extremely innovative and extremely forward-looking.

I have seen pressure from the other side—not necessarily from the Democratic side, but from different groups—that is very, very closed-minded. It’s almost as if when we talk about an issue, they feel that there aren’t going to be any changes, which doesn’t sound very progressive from some of our progressive friends.

The reality is, from a fiscal standpoint, we spend lots of money on prisons. From a public safety standpoint, the recidivism rate is huge. More than half of released prisoners end up going back into prison.

We need to do everything we possibly can do to keep people from re-offending. That’s from the pure public safety standpoint, even if you forget the dollars.

I also do not believe that it’s a man’s destiny to spend his life in a caged cell.

Outside of Tallahassee, there’s a perception that the two parties are at each other’s throat all of the time. What’s the political climate really like?

The sound bites are on the contentious issues. People take the sound bites and make it sound like there is real bickering.

There are some clear differences between the two parties on some issues, but I would guess that 75 or 80 percent of the bills that I hear pass close to unanimously.

Twenty five percent or fewer bills are on the big contentious issues that do draw a lot of debate, but it’s very amicable up there. We vote and then we go to the members’ lounge and sit down and have lunch and talk and get along great. There’s not a lot of animosity.

[House speaker] Dean Cannon said at the very beginning that even though we [Republicans] have big numbers and can do what we want to do doesn’t mean that we’re going to do things that aren’t right or fair. He’s been really good about making sure that the Democratic side has its turn in debate and making sure they don’t feel excluded from the process.

How has it felt to be a state legislator?

When I voted on my first bill, the reality that I really was a legislator hit home.

This job is extremely challenging because you want to do a good job. You want to go up there and be a good Representative and represent this district well.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to become educated on all these issues, which is just about impossible to do. There’s so much going on, and it happens so fast that even if you had years of experience, it’s difficult to keep track of everything.

What I’ve tried to do is to take a more realistic approach. I’m on five committees.  I really focus on what the five committees do and what bills they’re hearing.

It’s not that I’m ignoring the rest of the stuff, but you really can’t get too deep into it.

People associated with House of Hope standing next to a sign
Rep. Keith Perry, right, is pictured with Santa Fe College President Jackson Sasser and two House of Hope residents at the organization's spring 2010 luncheon. Perry was the founding president of the group, which helps former convicts transition back to civilian life.

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