Stephanie Toothaker melds politics, development and law

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Photography by Eduardo Schneider

Stephanie Toothaker, a Martindale Hubbel AV-rated attorney, is known as a go-to lawyer in the field of public policy and real estate. She served as special counsel to U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, where she was the first female and youngest in history to serve in that capacity.

She leads her eponymous firm as chairwoman and chief strategist. She is recognized as a South Florida Legal Guide top lawyer, a SuperLawyer and by Florida Trend’s Legal Elite.

Toothaker offers a sophisticated approach to governmental relations, notably in complex land development entitlement, and she has clients in the entertainment field. They include David Beckham’s Inter Miami Lockhart Soccer stadium facility, Tavistock’s Pier 66 redevelopment, Red Bull Global Rallycross, Swatch Volleyball World Championships and the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

Toothaker was interviewed by SFBW Market Director Lori Castle at Pier 66’s Superyacht Village. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

This is a great venue. How did this come about?

I have to give a shout out to Amaury Piedra, who’s the general manager of Pier 66, and Jessi Blakely, of Tavistock, who is also here tonight. This is a project that we worked on together known as Superyacht Village, which is a joint venture between Informa, who produces the boat show, which is a client of mine, and Tavistock. I think it just turned out amazing.

Tell me about a little bit your personal interests in boating and becoming commodore of the Lauderdale Yacht Club. Is that another glass ceiling for you?

I think it is. I am very, very honored to be in 2021 the next commodore of the Lauderdale Yacht Club. I am the first and only woman that serves as an elected member of the board of governors of the club. I will tell you being a member of the Lauderdale Yacht Club is an honor in and of itself, but to be elected as the first woman is an incredible honor.

Tell us about your early life and what it was like growing up in Fort Lauderdale.

Well, I was born in Broward General and my mother [Nancy Gregoire], who’s here, actually is on the board now of Broward Health. So, we are long, longtime Fort Lauderdale residents. I love Fort Lauderdale. I love working here. I love what our city has become. We’ve had so much growth and you know, people have sometimes mixed views about that. But if you don’t have growth, you don’t get things like this. And this is really incredible in what’s happening with some of the fantastic restaurants that we have. I think there’s just so many good things happening here and so many other good things to happen. And there’s a reason that people are moving here—we’ve got sunshine, we’ve got the port, we’ve got the airport. I was with a client yesterday who said to me that the only other place in the United States that he felt that rivaled Fort Lauderdale was San Diego, because it’s the only other place that has everything in such a small area, that you can do so much within just a small area of space. The people that are coming here now, that are investing in Fort Lauderdale, the developers that are coming here are world-renowned in the quality of what they’re bringing. I think you’re going to see that in the long term that what’s coming now is something that we can all be very proud of.

So what led you into the field of law?

My mother’s a lawyer, my father was a lawyer, my brother in law is a lawyer. I think I always sort of figured that I would be a lawyer, but I was extremely lucky and extremely honored. My very, very first job out of college was, was working for Sen. Bob Graham in his Tallahassee office. It was the year that [Bill] Clinton was elected. So, I got swept up to Washington with President Clinton. In that administration, there was just so much opportunity for a young person who really didn’t know enough to be there, but I learned every day. I was given such incredible opportunities being a part of Sen. Graham’s office. I did that multiple times throughout my career where I left, went back to law school, went back as a lawyer, worked on Capitol Hill, again, worked on multiple campaigns. Politics, which is really my true background, and law has such a natural fit. Then you bring politics and law together and you end up being a land-use lawyer, government lawyer, it’s a natural fit. It’s been very, very good to me.

What did you do with the Kerry-Edwards team?

After the 2000 election, when it was Bush vs. Gore, Democrats decided that there needed to be fairness in the election process. The Kerry-Edwards team decided to create a field of lawyers that they trained to basically stand outside polling places and make sure that people were not disenfranchised that if they wanted to vote. I was really proud to take a leadership role in that because, what we did is, we trained lawyers that came that volunteered their time that came from New York and California and other places and said, “I’m going to be here for two weeks during the election, I’m going to learn about election law.” We set up a war room. We led the effort, a friend of mine, who’s an elections lawyer. We taught, just scores and scores of lawyers about Florida election law. And then we worked the election room and we literally just sat and answered phone calls from people that called and said, “You know, there’s somebody here at the poll that wants to vote and they’re being turned away.” And we would check with the supervisor of elections and we were fielding all of that. It was so successful that we disbanded and it’s not really necessary anymore.

You worked with some very prominent law firms and lobbyists—Ruden McClosky, Blosser & Sayfie, Tripp Scott. What were some of your most valuable and memorable experiences?

I’ve been very blessed. My first job was actually with Greenberg Traurig in Miami and then I left. I had the opportunity to practice in the field of land use. So I moved back home, which is Fort Lauderdale. I went to Ruden and I was very honored to work with a gentleman named Don McClosky, who is sort of considered the father of land use in Fort Lauderdale. It was also a firm that my mother had worked at and so we had very warm feelings for that firm. I left when Sen. Graham decided that he was going to run for president. I went back and I helped run his presidential campaign. More recently, his daughter, Gwen, who’s one of my best friends, decided to run for governor. She also didn’t win, but it’s OK. You don’t have to win every election for it to be a valuable experience and a life-changing turn in a positive way. I actually chaired her campaign for governor as well.

What led you to start your own firm?

I just really had hit a crossroads where I was. I was presented with such incredible opportunities with some of my clients to work with them in different ways that is not always a traditional law firm model. It just felt like it was the right time to go out and be on my own. It’s been incredible. All my clients followed me and most of them have been really supportive. Everyone has been there, you know, pushing me along and, and holding my hand and backing me up, you know, the Kushner Cos. are here, Tavistock, Kolter, Roberts Equities. I love taking law and politics and making that work. And I think, having been on the other side, having worked for elected officials and understanding what’s important to them, I think that gives me a unique ability to understand when you bring something forward, how can you package that so it’s something that’s positive for them too. It doesn’t always have to be negative. A lot of times, you have to take a negative and you have to turn that into a positive and find what’s really good about it. Literally, there’s not ever a project that everybody says, “I cannot wait for that to open next to me.” It just doesn’t happen. It takes a lot of collaboration.

The city has an issue with traffic cap on State Road A1A in the central beach area, which limits to 3,220 vehicles an hour during rush hour. News accounts indicate there are about a dozen projects in the pipeline that will move along and there’s concern that future projects could be thwarted.

What do we do on the beach to continue to transform?

It’s an important discussion. I’m impressed with the question, I have to tell you, because it’s really getting into the weeds of what I do for a living. There’s an agreement between the city and the county that was passed in the early ‘80s that basically says the barrier island can only have so many trips and a trip is a car trip. There’s a limit on that number and we’re at it. There was a project approved by the city commission in December, a Residence Inn by Marriott. It’s a beautiful project that is probably going to be one of the last projects. There’s a few more in the pipeline that will get approved. I don’t think it’s a dozen—I think it’s more like four—and then there is a cap. To increase that cap, the city commission would have to be willing to ask the county to increase that cap and they’d have to do a land-use plan amendment. I will tell you that I don’t think it will happen right now. I think, ultimately, we’re going to have to increase that cap, because there are still really good properties on the beach that if somebody came along with a great project that you would love to see, I think it would be very strange for us to just say, “Sorry, no more. Nothing else can be done,” even if it’s a really valid redevelopment project. But I think right now, we have a lot as a city on our plate until we deal with some of our infrastructure.

What would you say to young ladies today that are looking at the legal environment as a career?

My first job out of college. I read an ad in the [Independent Florida Alligator, UF’s student-run newspaper], and it said Sen. Bob Graham is looking for interns and I applied. I worked for him in Tallahassee for a short period of time. Standing out was not an easy thing to do. All I did was open mail and it didn’t pay anything. The then-state director was a gentleman named Jay Hakes, who had been the Undersecretary for Energy under Jimmy Carter. He came in and said, “I just want to make an announcement to the interns. We have adopted a stretch of highway and anybody that would like to join the staff, we’re going to meet at 6:30 in the morning. This location is in Tallahassee, near the Capitol, and I would really appreciate any of the interns that that would be willing to come.” There were 32 interns that session and I was the only one that showed up. I always used to joke that I was walking along the highway picking up things that you don’t want to touch, and Jay said to me, “You know, we’re getting ready to start Sen. Graham’s reelection campaign.” It was 1991 and the election was ’92. He said, “We’re getting ready to start the campaign. I’m wondering if you’d like to have a part-time job. You can work for free over here in the Senate office part time and we’ll give you a part-time job working for the campaign.” So, the best advice I can give to young women is: Just show up. It’s sometimes that simple. It’s very easy to get lazy and say, “You know what, I don’t want to do that.” But it’s just as easy to set your alarm and say, “You know what, I’m just going to go.” You never know what comes of it. And, really, that moment shaped the rest of my career. ♦


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