As she climbed the hill leading to Florida's State Capitol last spring, Lauren Book broke from a walk into a run. The 29-year-old blond with a pink ribbon wrapped around her ponytail raised both arms in triumph and flashed a huge smile as she crossed the finish line of the Walk in My Shoes charity event. Her father, Ron Book, perhaps the most influential lobbyist in Florida, trotted beside her in running shorts.
Lauren had walked 1,500 miles, having started in Key West 42 days earlier on a mission to bring attention to childhood sexual abuse. When she trekked through South Florida, Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra called her an "angel." When she was in Orlando, abuse survivors fought back tears as they joined her. During a postwalk news conference on the Capitol steps, Fort Walton Beach Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz bragged about freshly passed legal reforms that would crack down on sex offenders -- ideas "that were on Lauren's mind, that ended up on my legal pad, that are now in the laws of Florida." When it was Gov. Rick Scott's turn to speak, he called them laws "I had the honor to sign."
A year later, Nancy Smith, executive editor of the Sunshine State News, which covers Florida politics, remembers the spectacle. "Cabinet members don't get that kind of coverage, that kind of interest... I don't understand how in four or five years, one person gets to this level with a charity."
One reason: Lauren suffered horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her nanny during her teens. She parlayed her pain into advocacy by founding a nonprofit called Lauren's Kids that has brought much attention to the issue and achieved national press, including an appearance by Lauren on Katie Couric's show.
But this past November, she founded a political committee, suggesting to many -- including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald -- that she's exploring a 2016 run for office. Speculation is that she's eyeing a state Senate seat, Florida's 33rd District -- which includes Davie, Plantation, Hollywood, Hallandale Beach, Miramar, Pembroke Pines, and Dania Beach. Incumbent Eleanor Sobel has served since 2008 and is reaching her term limit. So far, the committee has raised more than $400,000, as much as many active candidates garner in an entire election cycle.
"I have not made that decision," Lauren, now age 30, says via email. Despite requests over two weeks for an interview, she said she was too busy to sit down with New Times. The potential of her candidacy has at least three insiders contacted by this newspaper bristling. Already, the insiders allege, businesses and politicians funnel money to Lauren's Kids to gain points with her father's powerful political machine. It's no surprise that such an ambitious young woman would seek office, they say, but it's worth critiquing the forces that are propelling her.
"Any big corporation that needs good press can make a donation to curry favor with [Ron Book]," says Nancy Smith, the Sunshine State News editor. Companies donate "so that he will represent them at some point, so that he won't go against one of their projects."
"Nonsense," says Ron Book. Any allegations of quid pro quo are "outlandish -- and completely false -- claims."
"Political points?" Lauren asked incredulously. "I want to be clear about one thing. I was raped every day for six years, and they were the six most horrible and horrific years of my life. I felt guilty, ashamed, invisible, bad, dirty, hurt, and afraid every single day from the time that I was 11 until I was 16... Children in every community on the planet are also enduring the pain I suffered. I am trying to turn my personal pain into something positive and hopefully prevent this from happening to others."
Ron Book has represented some of Florida's richest companies -- the Miami Dolphins, AutoNation, and the GEO Group among them -- as well as scores of cities and towns. He also helps raise millions for candidates seeking office. His firm earned $5.6 million in fees in 2013. This, he has said, is because he's effective as hell. He works from 6:15 a.m. until 8 or 9 at night and jets between South Florida and Tallahassee more than most people go to the corner store. He has been described as both charming and dogged.
But his zeal has sometimes brought trouble: In late 1985, he came under investigation for allegedly helping to bribe an Opa-locka politician. The next year, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor in an insurance-fraud case. In the mid-1990s, he pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors after funneling more than $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions to politicians.
In her 2011 memoir, It's OK to Tell, Lauren explains that her father was frequently away on business and her mother in the throes of mental illness when she was young. So, beginning in 1997, Lauren, then a preteen, and her two younger siblings were left in the care of 30-year-old Waldina Flores. Lauren was shocked one night when Flores stuck her tongue in her mouth. Lauren, who had never even kissed a boy her own age, was confused and ashamed and accepted Flores' explanation that it was a sign of love.
The abuse escalated to sexual contact. Flores threatened that Ron Book's career would be tarnished if Lauren was outed as a "lezzy." When, at age 16, Book developed an age-appropriate relationship with a boy, Kris Lim, Flores retaliated by sodomizing her with a fork, she writes. Lim discovered the abuse and encouraged Lauren to tell. The nanny fled but was eventually caught, convicted of sexual battery and lewd and lascivious behavior, and sentenced to 15 years.
Lauren at 17 endured the additional trauma of testifying and having her name splashed in the news. The psychological toll was deep: Feeling guilty after seeing her former nanny in court, she wrote letters to Flores, who defied a judge's instructions and wrote back, earning ten more years tacked onto her sentence.