His finest hour fathoms camps' lowest
Rep. Gus Barreiro's passion for juvenile justice grew with each abuse. In his last term, he led the
elimination of boot camps.
By ALEX LEARY
Published May 1, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - Woven through the political life of state Rep. Gus Barreiro is the subject of death, and how the
state's role in the deaths of teenage boys has propelled his relentless quest for change.
Twenty years ago, when Barreiro ran a home for troubled boys in Wisconsin, a teenager named Bobby Rachels
commited suicide after being taken away due to a lack of state funding. Barreiro decided then he wanted to run for
"I wanted Bobby's memory to stand for something."
He returned to Florida and in 1998 won a House seat from Miami Beach. Five years later, another young man's
death rocked him. Seventeen-year-old Omar Paisley died of a ruptured appendix at a juvenile lockup in Miami, after
spending three days begging for medical attention. A guard told him, "Suck it up."
Then in January, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died after collapsing at a Panama City boot camp. No one in
government paid much attention until Barreiro watched a video of guards thrashing the teen. Outraged, he went
public, comparing what he saw to the Rodney King beating, "only worse" because Anderson died.
Now, as Barreiro enters the final week of his last legislative session, the term-limited Republican is no longer a lone
voice. Boot camps have been eliminated, replaced by a less militaristic program, and the subject of juvenile justice,
once a legislative backwater, is a high-profile issue.
"This is a guy who came to Tallahassee to fight for his passion," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "He asked
the tough questions over and over and over again. He's shaken the culture of the Department of Juvenile Justice."
Barreiro, 46, was given a standing ovation during a farewell on the House floor Thursday and was thanked for
tireless advocacy of youths.
A week earlier, as 2,000 people descended on the Capitol courtyard to call for justice in the Anderson case, a
lawyer for the boy's family broke from his introduction of Jesse Jackson and singled out Barreiro's "courage."
All the attention has made Barreiro uncomfortable. "Unfortunately," he said, "I'm being congratulated on the backs
of some serious tragedies."
In many ways, the humble posture fits. The blue-eyed, normally soft-spoken Barreiro stays clear of the partisan
flame-throwing on issues of the day: education, health care, insurance.
But he is transformed by juvenile justice issues. In committee meetings, Barreiro is bullish toward agency
bureaucrats, prone to dramatic statements.
* * *
The Cuban-born Barreiro moved to Florida as a boy and was raised by his mother. He went to Mount Scenario
College in Wisconsin on a football scholarship, playing middle linebacker. He studied criminal justice but dropped
out after his girlfriend became pregnant. They married and raised a daughter, Nicole, as Barreiro ran the group
home for boys.
He held the position for nine years before returning to Florida in 1989. Barreiro became co-director of the Dade
Marine Institute for youths, then tried his hand at business. He started a rose growing operation, and after seeing
Tiger Woods one day on TV, opened a golf shop.
"I never played golf in my life, but I could tell he was a magnet," he said. "Golf was going to be big." To learn the
game, Barreiro rented an instructional video from Blockbuster.
In 1998, Barreiro's brother Bruno vacated his House seat for the Miami-Dade County Commission. Aided by his last
name, Gus Barreiro won a four-way primary, then narrowly defeated the Democratic challenger.
In that race, questions arose about his record of paying child support for his daughter Nicole, who was still in
Wisconsin. His daughter later spoke up for him.
Barreiro remarried and has a second daughter, 12-year-old Natalie, who joined her father in Tallahassee last week
as a legislative page.
As a freshman lawmaker, Barreiro would not be in line for key committee spots, but he surprised party leaders by
pressing for juvenile justice at a time when no one wanted it. "It's where they put you if you were being punished,"
Barreiro quickly found himself at odds with the Republican leadership. Gov. Jeb Bush and others were pushing
10-20-Life gun legislation, and Barreir o thought it was harsh to young offenders. He stepped on some toes, but
won an exemption for juveniles.
Eventually he became chairman of the juvenile justice panel. In times when he was most critical, people told
Barreiro he was disloyal to the governor. "That probably was the most hurtful thing I heard in the eight years I've
been here," he said.
His ties to Scientology causes have also netted criticism, including sponsorship of a failed bill to discourage public
school students from seeking mental health services. Barreiro, who is Catholic, defended his role, saying he
believed in the cause.
* * *
June 2003 brought the death of Omar Paisley, who was jailed for slashing a neighbor with a soda can. Incensed at
the way the teen's pleas for medical attention were ignored, Barreiro pressed House Speaker Johnnie Byrd to
appoint a select committee.
The controversy resulted in significant changes at the Department of Juvenile Justice. Nearly two dozen employees
quit or were suspended. More cameras and phones were added to juvenile centers and training was intensified.
As chairman of the select committee, Barreiro was sharply critical of department Secretary Bill Bankhead and called
for his dismissal. When Bankhead stepped down, for health reasons, Barreiro put in for the job. Gov. Bush picked
Anthony Schembri, a New Yorker who was the model for the TV show The Commish .
With Martin Lee Anderson, Schembri faced his own firestorm. In meeting after meeting, Barreiro hammered away at
Schembri (who was often not present) and his staff, demanding answers about the case. Some officials, including
Gov. Bush, defended boot camps as useful for certain youths.
But Barreiro used the power of his role as chairman of the House Justice Appropriations Committee to eliminate
funding for boot camps. The legislation is known as the Martin Lee Anderson Act, which the governor supports.
"This was Gus Barreiro's finest session," said Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the House budget chief. "He had the
credibility to tackle the boot camp issue and handled it with great political skill and expertise. He wasn't a newcomer
to the issue. It was the culmination of eight years of perseverance."
* * *
What's next for Barreiro is an open question. Friends are encouraging him to challenge state Sen. Alex Diaz de la
Portilla. Barreiro acknowledges he is contemplating that move but would prefer becoming boss at the Department of
Juvenile Justice. "I wish it was an elected position," Barreiro said Friday, as he planned a weekend ride on his
Harley. "I would run for it. I would love to stay involved in some aspect."
--Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.