Heads turned when the man who controls the state's budget dropped by a meeting in Miami last week of the board that oversees Florida's university system.
State Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales and head of the Senate Budget Committee, wasn't on the agenda. But a matter of critical importance to him was: a proposal to make USF Polytechnic in his home county of Polk an independent institution.
"I heard there might be a couple of questions on funding, so I decided to stop by," Alexander said casually as he took the podium.
He assured Florida's Board of Governors that the costs of transforming the commuter college into an independent polytechnic, capable of churning out engineers and math majors, would be "very minimal compared to the return for the people of Florida."
Indeed, the cost of not approving it might be more than the board — and the 11 universities that rely on Alexander for funding — are willing to bear.
Saying legislators will always find money for educational programs that put people to work, Alexander suggested he might take a harder look at some liberal arts programs.
"If you really scrub the numbers, there could be degree programs somebody can't find a job in," he warned. "But if you've got a polytech that can revolutionize training and help grow the economy, that's another thing."
Time is of the essence for Alexander. He will be forced out of office by term limits at the end of 2012. And five board members leave at year's end, meaning the proposal would have to be reintroduced in January if no decision is made at the board's next meeting in November, when it is set to discuss the proposal again.
Rick Dantzler, a former state legislator from Winter Haven, has known Alexander for decades and thinks he's looking to leave a legacy.
"I assume J.D. sees this as something he can be very proud of long-term," Dantzler said. "He's told me that in a term-limited environment, you sometimes have to be a little heavy-handed or you run out of time before you can get anything done."
• • •
In throwing his considerable clout behind a new university, Alexander, 52, appears to be carving out the next notch in a family tradition. He's the grandson of legendary Florida rancher and citrus grower Ben Hill Griffin Jr., whose name is emblazoned on the stadium at the University of Florida.
His uncle, Ben Hill Griffin III, has a hall named after him at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, which was built on land donated by the family.
Alexander, a multimillionaire who runs two family-controlled companies with vast land holdings in Polk and southwest Florida, last week denied that he stands to gain financially from an independent USF Poly. "I have no property closer than 10 miles away," he said, referring to a struggling housing development in Winter Haven in which he is a partner.
Alexander has represented Polk County since 1998 and has long been a strong supporter of USF Polytech, which now shares a campus in Lakeland with Polk State College. Alexander was instrumental in getting land along Interstate 4 for the new campus in 2003 and securing $35 million this year to start construction — the only new-construction money for universities not vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Now Alexander wants to see the commuter school, which has about 1,660 students and graduates mostly business and elementary education majors, transformed into an independent university churning out engineers and math majors.
It's a vision, Alexander told the Board of Governors, that is "fundamentally at odds with the general consensus of what USF is," hence the need for separation.
In 2007, a consultant hired by the Board of Governors warned against political interference in choosing university sites.
"A new campus is a prize indeed for any community and a feather in the cap of any legislator who can deliver one," said the Pappas Consulting Group report. "Often the most 'misplaced' campuses were in rural, thinly populated areas where legislative power resided."
Alexander's power was evident in his ability to get community leaders on the secession bandwagon. In late July, Wayne Watters, a longtime Polk County resident and lobbyist with ties to Alexander, asked dozens of community leaders to sign a letter supporting the split. He gathered more than two dozen signatures, including that of Publix vice chairman Barney Barnett, in a matter of days.
The authorship of the letter, which cites "regional needs and priorities" as rationale for independence, is unknown; Watters, who had several clients among the signers, did not return a call for comment.
Victor B. Story Jr., a Babson Park citrus grower, signed the letter despite clashing recently with Alexander over major changes the legislator rammed through at the Florida Department of Citrus.
"The senator doesn't worry about style points — he doesn't have time for tea and crumpets, he's more interested in results," Story said. "But overall, he's represented me, my industry and my county well."
David Touchton is a certified public accountant and member of the Central Florida Development Council, which was recently asked to support independence for USF Poly. Touchton, 68 and a Polk County native, declined. He worries that a "me-too attitude" has prevented supporters from asking hard questions.
"They tell me it will be better for economic development, but I said show me how, show me the study," said Touchton, who graduated from USF's Tampa campus in 1965. "I cannot think of a good reason to lose USF's footprint in Polk County."
• • •
Before community leaders had even mailed their letter to the board, Alexander was telling the Tiger Bay Club in Bartow that USF Polytechnic "needs to become Florida Polytechnic" during his last term in the legislature.
During that same speech on July 25, Alexander said he wished he'd been able to be successful without so many conflicts. But he claimed to be driven by a higher goal: "To lay out the strategic foundation to change the economic future of our region and to help our children and grandchildren want to live here and have opportunities. I think we've made amazing progress in making those happen."