What it takes to represent the law-enforcement CEOs of Florida’s 67 counties at the Capitol.
Some people will do anything to impress the Florida sheriffs.
Like working after hours as a “John” in prostitution stings and going into dark alleys to make undercover drug buys. Or as a legislator leading the charge to build prisons, resulting in a record reduction in crime, and helping to restore $1.4 billion in retirement benefits to law-enforcement officers.
Award-winning journalist, gun-carrying community relations officer, five-term Florida Representative and one-time computer whiz; husband and father.
Lobbyist Frank Messersmith has won the loyalty of the Florida sheriffs because he earned it.
This son of a former milkman-turned-truck driver has been representing the interests of the Florida Sheriffs Association at the Capitol for a dozen years. And some may wonder which is tougher – trying to please the law-enforcement CEOs of Florida’s 67 counties, or enduring 60 days of what resembles hand-to-hand combat in the Florida Legislature each year.
For a guy who rode all night patrol with sheriff’s deputies after an eight hour shift of do-or-die newspaper deadlines, neither one seems daunting.
Hard worker from beginning
Born and raised in Springfield, Illinois, Messersmith started working in his early teens on hay-baling crews, busing tables at a restaurant and pumping gas. He later hired himself out to a neighbor to install TV towers and antenna.
Frank Messersmith circa 1984
“Dad was an avid sportsman who loved to hunt and fish and he made sure to take his three boys hunting and fishing, too,” Messersmith says. “I had two sisters also, but they moved to California with my mother when I was about five years old.” He recalls fond memories of a stepmother who passed on her love of music, which led to impromptu “pickin’ and grinnin’” sessions while he served in the Florida Legislature.
Messersmith graduated from Southern Illinois University with a communications degree and dual major in communications and advertising. He supported his college years by making General Store deliveries around campus and caring for an elderly gentleman for room and board. While a student, he served on the editorial board for the university newspaper, where he won two Hearst news-writing awards and was also awarded a Reader’s Digest scholarship in International Journalism. The latter sent him home from Ireland early in a full body cast, after a car crash that crushed his lower spine.
While recovering from his injuries, Messersmith returned to SIU, graduated, and moved to West Palm Beach where he wrote for the Palm Beach Post & Times.
Messersmith’s active law-enforcement career was with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBSO), where he was employed from 1968-1977. His entry was accidental, he says. He had relocated to Florida after graduation to get away from the cold weather and was a newspaper reporter covering the police beat. Working the late shift, he voluntarily left at midnight to deliver fresh copies of the newspaper to the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, which won him the honor of patrolling the rest of the night with Sheriffs’ detectives.
In 1968, Palm Beach County Sheriff Martin Kellenberger had a stroke and newly-elected first Republican Governor of Florida, Claude Kirk, replaced him with an insurance executive named Bill Heidtman.
From lawman to lawmaker: Frank Messersmith was still in charge of keeping the peace on the House Floor in the 1980s. Pictured here, he quiets former Rep. Bruce Hoffman, who had numerous amendments to the appropriations bill they were debating at 2 a.m.Photo by Donn Dughi, FloridaMemory.com
Sheriff Heidtman held a news conference and asked reporters for suggestions for operation of the Sheriff’s Office. Fresh off a news series detailing how law-enforcement agencies were dealing with civil unrest by building community relations, Messersmith spoke up. Within a year, he occupied the newly-created position of Community Relations Officer at the PBSO.
“That was before there was such a thing as certification,” he says. “So, I was sworn in as a Deputy, taken to the arsenal (all the confiscated guns) and told to take whatever weapons I wanted for the job. I left with a carload of them.”
His expectation of being a front office administrator quickly changed, as he was pressed into service on drug raids, made undercover drug buys and was used as a “John” in prostitution cases.
“We all had to qualify monthly on the firing range and were all issued riot equipment,” he says. “I was actually involved in three full-scale riots – two in the ‘Glades and one in Riviera Beach.”
Those experiences added some drama to Messersmith’s drug education programs in the schools. They also provided material to use in the numerous speeches he gave to churches and civic groups on behalf of the sheriff.
“From the first time I rode all night with a sheriff’s detective, and then would go socializing with those guys, I knew I had found a home,” Messersmith says. “To this day, I consider the PBSO home, and all those great people I worked and played with were my family.”
From that experience came his “green blood.” He says he has always honored and respected the Office of Sheriff and appreciates the historical nature of the constitutional Office of Sheriff.
Capture of the Cuban Cop
A highlight of Messersmith’s law-enforcement career was the “arrest” of former Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro, who passed away just last year. At the time, Navarro – who later won notoriety as “The Cuban Cop” – was working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Messersmith’s posse had run Navarro down on Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach.
“Nick had several firearms resting against his head while he tried to explain in his broken English that he was with us,” Messersmith says, amused at the recollection.
He carefully motioned to his shirt pocket, where deputies discovered his credentials. To preserve Navarro’s undercover identity, they continued to book him and took him to the county jail.
While working at the Sheriff’s Office, Messersmith was one of the people involved with bringing on board the first computer-aided dispatch systems from Motorola. So after 10 years with the PBSO, he decided to jump on the technology bandwagon and sell large systems to the state of Florida. The experience wasn’t what he expected. He was so frustrated to discover large computer manufacturers controlled things, so he says at age 39, “I decided to seek election to the Legislature to bring the state into the new century with computerization.”
Messersmith’s public speaking engagements and community relations work at the PBSO made campaigning easy and he ended up being re-elected, serving five consecutive terms as a Representative from 1980 to 1990.
The deal maker
Perhaps it was Messersmith’s ability to morph into whatever the situation called for that earned him the title of “the GOP’s point man.” He was called “an undisputed rising star within the Republican ranks.” A fiscal conservative, Messersmith still managed to cut deals and regularly was called on to find the middle ground of compromise with the Democratic leadership. His abilities won him the honor of serving two years as Republican Floor Whip and four as Republican Leader Pro Tempore.
For about six months in 1989, he campaigned as a candidate for agricultural commissioner, but bowed out and ultimately endorsed former Lt. Gov. Bobby Brantley.
In 1991, Messersmith resigned the House to fill a Governor-appointed position on the Public Service Commission. The temporary post, to fill an incomplete term, brought him to Tallahassee for good. It also served as a nice segue into governmental consulting, as attorneys had started hiring non lawyers to lobby lawmakers and Messersmith’s background in computerization and telecommunications made him an ideal candidate.
When the Florida Sheriffs Association decided to outsource its governmental consulting in the year 2000, it was Messersmith’s law-enforcement background that tipped the scales.
“When I was selected to represent the sheriffs in the Legislature, I was so overwhelmed with the honor that I could hardly talk,” Messersmith recalls. “It meant so much to me then, and, if possible, means even more today.”
Recognizing that some of the Sheriffs’ issues conflicted with the law firm, he decided to go out on his own, launching FSM Associates, LLC. His wife, Quincee Wood Messersmith is one of those “associates.”
Long term investments in community
While other politicians fluff up their bios with a variety of volunteer titles, Messersmith’s approach reflects long term commitment to a cause. He held a 24-year membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a non-profit, non-partisan association committed to the advancement of free-market principles, limited government, federalism and individual liberty. He also served 30 years on the Board of Communities in Schools’ national dropout prevention and mentoring program and currently holds the title of being one of the longest serving Community College Trustees in Florida – he is in his 13th year as a member of the Tallahassee Community College Board, twice serving as chairman.
Out of all the victories Frank Messersmith has enjoyed during his career, he says his biggest thrill was his first and second year working with the sheriffs. The issue involved returning to certified law-enforcement officers a percentage of retirement that had been given to them and then taken away in order to finance integrating the teachers’ failing retirement system into the Florida Retirement System.
The Legislature had promised the sheriffs over and over that they would return the retirement benefit if the fund ever reached a point of financial stability, but they kept stalling.
“With Gov. Jeb Bush’s support, we were able to get the legislation passed the first year to restore the retirement funding for those deputies still working full time. And, unbelievably, we returned the next year and secured the funding for deputies who were already retired.” The value of the restoration was over $1.4 billion.
“The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office’s ‘over the hill gang’ asked me to come home for a luncheon to celebrate this victory,” Messersmith says. “Many of my retired former colleagues were in tears because the increase we got for them covered the most recent increase in their health insurance.” The two-year battle was worth it.
“It still feels so good to have been a part of that,” he says.