Lauren Book Forges Her Path

State Senator Lauren Book (D-Plantation) was horrified when she learned that Michael Mizrachy, a pediatrician in her home district, had been arrested on child pornography charges this past spring. But when Mizrachy sought to treat children via telemedicine, Book decided that his plans could not— and should not—come to pass.

After all, her constituents brought their children to this man. And she brought her twins to him too. For Book, this was a matter of abused public trust, and she was going to hold Mizrachy—and other doctors like him—accountable for their misdeeds. Immediately, she filed Senate Bill 1934, which would suspend the license of any physician charged with sex crimes against children or possession of child pornography from seeing patients. Book’s bill passed both houses; at press time, it was awaiting Governor Ron De Santis’ signature.

“The mechanism to remove a medical license is terrible in this state,” Book says. “There was a doctor prescribing opioids from his jail cell because he was still in good standing. And this pediatrician wants to see kids by telemedicine? If I weren’t a part of the legislative process, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this. If a child is in danger of being hurt, I am always going to do what I can to help and protect them.”

Book’s passion for championing the rights of women and children is born out of her own life experience. She is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, suffered at the hands of her family’s female nanny, but she says that experience has made her the person, mother, and fiery advocate she is today. A creator of mosaics—both in her life’s work and as a hobby—the 36-year-old has become adept at taking broken pieces and reassembling them into something more beautiful than they were before.

Underestimate her at your own peril.

The oldest of three children, Book grew up in the Aventura area in a household that she says was every bit as dysfunctional as it was focused on making a difference. While she doesn’t speak to the specifics of that dysfunction (it’s all spelled out in her memoir It’s Okay To Tell), she will say that the most important thing she learned from her father, famed lobbyist Ron Book, is the importance of helping others.

“Sometimes I can still see Lauren as a little girl, peering into a jar with a butterfly in it,” Mr. Book says. “As a child, she was sweet, kind, creative, focused, determined, and wanting to make a difference in the world.”

Book’s nanny began sexually abusing her when she was 11 years old. As she kept quiet about the abuse, she poured her energies into creating goodie bags for children at local hospitals, serving food to the homeless at holidays, and raising thousands of dollars for Rwandan genocide survivors. Book didn’t want other people to feel helpless, scared, and alone, but it took some time before she could be open about why she felt that way too. She finally told her family about the abuse in August 2001. She was 16 years old.

“The day I disclosed [my abuse], it was like an atom bomb exploded in my house,” she recalls. “There were no limbs, no zombies, no holes in the floor. But my mom didn’t know whether she was supposed to touch or hug me. My parents blamed themselves. While sexual abuse happens to one individual, it affects the entire family dynamic. Things will never be the same, no matter how hard you try.”

What followed was a process of healing that led Book to where she is today. In 2002, she successfully fought for a law that allowed victims of sexual assault to get their abuser’s HIV and AIDS test results. She then earned an elementary education and creative writing degree at the University of Miami, before becoming a classroom teacher. Although she loved teaching, she felt that the educational system wasn’t serving kids as much as it could.

Her father told her to run for school board, but Book had other ideas.

In 2007, she founded Lauren’s Kids, a 501(c) (3) that educates adults and children about sexual abuse prevention through in-school curriculum, family resources, awareness campaigns, and speaking engagements around the country and throughout the world. The organization’s Safer, Smarter Schools program is currently used in K-12 classrooms in 37 states to teach children about personal safety. It also holds an annual 1,500-mile walk from Key West to Tallahassee called “Walk in My Shoes” to raise awareness for childhood sexual abuse. Through its education and advocacy, Lauren’s Kids has pushed for the passage of almost two-dozen laws to support survivors and protect children from predators.

On election night in 2010, Lauren met Blair Byrnes, who was director of technology for Rick Scott’s gubernatorial campaign. Byrnes had a date that night, but says he was instantly smitten with Book, who was “the most accomplished woman I had ever met.” They talked (and talked some more), and began dating. They married in 2015; the following year she became a state senator and an expectant mother of twins. Two weeks after she gave birth, Book headed to Tallahassee, twins in tow, to begin the legislative session. Because her father cast a large shadow, Book felt she had to work to prove she was there on her own merits. People asked her whether she wore glasses to look smarter, and were surprised to find out that she was not, in fact, a dumb blonde.

“I was trying to be my own woman and forge my own path,” she says. “I knew I had to work eight times harder to prove myself, because people believed—and maybe still do believe—that I got there because of my father. I woke up every day trying to prove those people wrong and to prove I deserved to be there.”

Her father know what people were saying; he stresses that he has always tried to stay out of his daughter’s way. “I know how people see lobbyists, but I will not as a businessman and a lawyer get in Lauren’s way,” he says, emphatically. “I will sit on the sidelines and watch her do what she needs to do.”

As Book tried to step out from behind her father’s shadow, she also struggled with new motherhood. It was postpartum depression, and Book recognized she needed to get help “right away.” Friends, family, and staff say she got through the period through sheer force of will, setting up a toy-laden nursery in her office. Her path was different from most legislators, but she says it has led to good legislation such as child safety measures, paid leave after stillbirths, and expansion of Medicaid for postpartum care.

“The thing with Lauren is that if it’s easy, she’s not interested in doing it,” says Byrnes. She wants to move mountains, not kick over anthills. And she does. She’s tenacious. When there is an issue that she sees needs to be fixed, she becomes committed to understanding that situation or issue to the fullest extent possible.”

For example, after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Byrnes said Book read the 911 transcripts and all the police reports and watched the footage “over and over and over again.” Byrnes thinks she gets this from her father, who believes that in order to be effective, you have to understand a person’s problem better than they do themselves. She served on a statewide commission to analyze the causes of the attack and prepare against future tragedies, and ultimately voted against the NRA to provide what Book calls “the most meaningful gun safety legislation in Florida in decades.” It was what her constituents wanted.

This past April, Book’s colleagues elected her to lead Florida Senate’s Democrats through 2024. It’s the first time the chamber will be led by two women, and a signifier of Book’s clout within the state party. Because of statewide redistricting, Book will also be vying for another term in the fall of 2022. For now, she said she is focused on good policy, especially in the child welfare realm. The global pandemic has only reinforced the need to keep children safe, as many who were being abused took part in virtual schooling at home, which was the source of the trouble. Good policy takes time, commitment, and creativity and Book is focused on that.

“I have always had a servant’s heart,” she says. “And I will never turn down an opportunity to serve the people of the state I love.”

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