Though he has left state government for now, Brumberg clearly continues to play by the rules.
He comes off younger than his years, despite short, grayish hair and a slight middle-age paunch. His smile is cherubic and his voice soothing, and it's not hard to imagine them gently twisting someone's arm. He's obsessively fair-minded and consistently serves up his thoughts with an on-the-other-hand hook.
He grew up in Northeast Georgia, attended college in Connecticut, and earned an optometry degree at the New England College of Optometry in 1972. He moved to Broward County and worked as an eye doctor for the next 28 years. His interest in the outdoors led to a stint on the board of directors in the late 1980s of Save the Florida Panther, his first formal experience with trying to rescue a species from the brink.
Brumberg first met Bush after the latter had narrowly lost the 1994 gubernatorial race to Lawton Chiles. "I'd heard one of his talks and was very impressed. Between the first loss and the next election, I was out as a volunteer, introducing him to folks so they could get to know him better," Brumberg says. "He can be one of the guys in one minute and a profound intellectual in the next minute without missing a step. This is on many, many different subjects. I've seen him in good moments and bad moments. He's probably the most brilliant man I've ever known."
Bush, of course, won the 1998 race. Brumberg, already thinking about winding down his practice, the Dania Eye Center, broached the possibility of joining the administration in some environmental capacity. Bush tapped him for the then-moribund office of ombudsman in the DEP.
"I can tell you, no one had a preconceived notion for what I was doing," Brumberg said of his new role. "The profession really does not exist in state government." Both the concept and term of ombudsman originated in Scandinavia, where it was created to protect citizens from abuses by the king. It's come to mean simply a representative of the people.
The position was a good fit, though. "Structurally, it's a very similar job to being a doctor," he explains. "I think doctors often have the makings of a good ombudsman. What we do is listen for symptoms, make a diagnosis, and provide therapeutic alternatives." An ombudsman looks for symptoms of "social pathology," he says. "The only difference is that after hearing the symptoms, I often had to go back and learn the anatomy, because you have to learn that if you want to understand pathology."
For example, he once received a call from a gentleman claiming too many sand dollars were being harvested on Florida's west coast. Some individuals were gathering tens of thousands of them, the caller said. Brumberg knew little about the saucer-like creatures, what kind of population records were kept, the effect of red tide on them, the economics. "I was satisfied that populations were stable and growing, based upon the science," Brumberg says he concluded. "In this case, quite frankly, the public's concern was unworthy of me getting out the thunderbolts and hammer."
He and his staff of six would review every piece of mail sent to Struhs as a sort of triage, he says. They'd also get the first look at any environment-related mail sent to Bush.
Brumberg says he received only one bit of instruction from Struhs, who had formerly been head of Massachusetts' environmental protection agency and before that an official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the elder President Bush. "Benji, your job is to be objective," Brumberg recalls his boss saying. Neither Struhs nor the governor ever asked him to begin or discontinue any projects.
But "autonomy" in state government has its limits. "Unless you are independently wealthy and can pay your own paycheck, there really is no true independence," he says. "Because if you start throwing fire bombs at your administration, publicly, to the newspapers, you'd be gone right away. But that doesn't mean you roll over and play dead. What you try to do is build consensus, and you quickly realize that the way you change things in government, almost always, is on an incremental basis.