A Leader of Leaders
When winning means, ‘I have to get everything I want,’ you accomplish little, whereas, I am about accomplishing great things.”
She was not only one of the most powerful women in Florida she was also one of the most respected. Her name is synonymous with a long list of “firsts” – at 26, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Florida House of Representatives; she then moved into the Florida Senate, where she made her home and her mark for 20 years, being the only person to ever serve as the president of the Senate for two terms from 1996-2000. Then, Antoinette “Toni” Jennings became the 16th Lieutenant Governor of Florida in 2003, she was the first woman in the state’s history to hold the position.
Her father, Jack Jennings, a law school graduate who realized being a lawyer was not his cup of tea, moved to Orlando from Tennessee in the late 1940s. He founded Jack Jennings & Sons Inc., a still highly successful commercial construction company whose offices remain where they were “when he moved out of our family’s garage in 1949,” Jennings said.
In 1973, Jennings left her position as an elementary school teacher to help her father run the company. Still serving today as chairwoman of the board for the firm she operates with her younger twin brothers, it was a role that gave her a deep understanding of the business world and the challenges that face companies of all sizes.
On to the Big Stage
The jump from the construction industry to the political arena was not one she saw coming. Jennings became involved in local political campaigns and in the presidential primary in 1975, then was approached by Congressman Lou Frey and others to run for the State House. Her initial response was, “No.” So they went to her father to try and persuade her. Jennings simply didn’t see herself as having the polished political personality people might associate with the role, which would later prove a factor in her success.
“I stayed current and was pretty articulate; at least I thought I was until faced with actually running for office.” She then added, “Looking back on that 26-year-old, I realize I knew practically nothing, but what I thought I knew was something about business, the free enterprise system and education. Though I hadn’t been at it long, I knew more about what the business world was like than many of the other candidates … I grew up in it.”
Her father often reminded her of the famous Harry Truman quote, “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” It became a life maxim for Jennings, whose goal was to get things accomplished versus garnering accolades. Of course, in the process she became one of the most celebrated women in the state.
Describing her first campaign she said, “I had four other people in my primary; that was half the Republican Party for my district!” In spite of the odds, she won.
The Right Stuff
Jennings went against the perceived norm of what was assumed a woman legislator would be interested in at the time, like education or health and human services, and instead sought positions and appointments to legislative committees that dealt with issues like worker’s compensation, insurance or transportation.
“My first impression of the House was that there were weeks in which nothing substantial was done, and then right before the session ended it was shear pandemonium. I think that is why, after four years, I gravitated toward the Senate. It was a smaller body, a little less partisan and I felt like I could make a difference. It was a stage in my life where I wanted to accomplish something or focus my energies in a different arena where I could.”
She continued, “It was in the Senate that I really found my niche. The leadership recognized that I could articulate positions and build consensus that brought people together. Even when we didn’t get everything, generally we were able to get all parties to feel like they accomplished something and walked away with at least a part of what they were hoping to gain.”
Building a collaborative environment and negotiating win-win scenarios were the primary lessons and the legacy Toni Jennings demonstrated throughout her career, which she has left to the next generation of legislators and leaders. As she concluded, “When your perspective is, ‘If I don’t win, I lose,’ and when winning means, ‘I have to get everything I want,’ you accomplish little, whereas, I am about accomplishing great things.”