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Learning from professor Haridopolos

TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Mike Haridopolos is last to appear for the 7:15 a.m. meeting, the only one who brought coffee, his blond hair still wet from a rinse in his office shower.

He claims a black leather chair at the head of a glass-topped table and moves right into the hour's focus.

Who's ready to talk about Lyndon Johnson's turbulent years in the U.S. Senate?

The most powerful member in the Florida Senate, Haridopolos, 40, isn't meeting with lobbyists, advisers, colleagues or reporters.

Twice a week, just after security officers unlock the Capitol's doors, he lectures University of Florida students from a conference room typically used for senators' group policy meetings.

The students are spending their spring semester in Tallahassee, interning across town and attending his class. The self-proclaimed academic oversees a one-hour undergraduate seminar, IDS 4930: Florida Politics.

That's more face time than a lot of Capitol insiders can boast. The students know they're lucky and value professor Haridopolos' candid perspective and laid-back approach.

"We see what he says in the media," said Nicolas Torres, 22, "and he might be a little more honest in what he says to us."

• • •

The students are ambitious, decked out in suits, blazers and heels, all interning for power players in Tallahassee. They chat about summer internships — "You can bring your dog to Google!" — and check their smart phones before class begins.

This is Haridopolos' biggest spring class, 19 students.

Sometimes it starts with a discussion of readings from three books: David Colburn's breakdown of modern Florida politics, From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans; Robert Caro's account of Lyndon Johnson's wheeling and dealing, Master of the Senate; and David Plouffe's memoir of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, The Audacity to Win.

A thorough rundown is often lost in favor of current event analysis from one of the state's biggest players.

That's junior Joy Minchin's favorite part. Hearing how the Senate president perceives what's going on is "so much more of a learning experience than a typical classroom."

A recent lunch session centered almost exclusively on the governor's budget unveiling in Eustis the day before. Haridopolos asked for a show of hands from students who thought the rural rollout was a good idea. No one approved.

One said the move added fuel to the governor's already adversarial relationship with the press corps. "Why not a different city that people recognize?" asked another.

Haridopolos sat back, considering points and calling students by name. Eventually he offered his reaction, saying he respected the governor's willingness to take on some "sacred cows." He explained that reaching out to tea party advocates was a political move.

"I see it as he kind of went to his base," he said. "If he had held it at a public school, I would guess it might not receive the same welcome."

His students composed the majority of a small audience recently for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. They had to show up, as they do each Wednesday, for a 5 p.m. guest lecture.

Former Senate President Jim Scott, Haridopolos chief of staff Steve MacNamara and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam have already made a stop, leaving some starstruck.

"These are, like, influential policy decisionmakers," said Jerry Bruno, a 21-year-old junior public relations major. "These are people you read about in the paper, and you're like, 'Wow, I've met this person.' "

Haridopolos hopes to get Gov. Rick Scott to visit one day.

• • •

UF hired Haridopolos as a guest lecturer in 2008. Officials wanted the senator to use his experience and coordinate student internships with the Bob Graham Center for Public Service. He teaches courses in Gainesville in the fall and does the internship program in the spring, balancing his teaching duties with running the Senate and a 2012 U.S. Senate campaign.

His perch atop the state Senate earns him $41,181 a year. His salary as a UF lecturer is $75,000, paid for by private funds. He is tied for having the most expensive salary among six lecturers overseen by the provost's office, according to UF figures. The average is $57,610.

Critics questioned his academic credentials, as he has not finished his doctorate at Florida State University. That doesn't seem to matter to several current students. "I would say he's very thorough," Bruno said. "He's been in Tallahassee for so long that he knows how the process works."

• • •

Haridopolos reserved the last 15 minutes of class for a discussion of the Wisconsin union showdown, in which 14 Senate Democrats left the state to block a vote on a spending bill. "What do you think about that?" he prodded.

A young woman derided the Democrats' methods as a waste of taxpayer money and time. Four more students weighed in before Haridopolos called on Torres. "In my mind, I would have done the same thing," he said.

Haridopolos jumped in, saying if he were president of that body he would have lengthened debate. "This is setting all the wrong examples," he said. "You can't just leave your job."

Haridopolos questioned why government workers would need protection; they have, he said, equal pay and better benefits than private-sector employees. Still, "both sides could use Miss Manners classes," he said.

Haridopolos had the last word, and class dismissed.

Katie Sanders can be reached at (850)224-7263 or [email protected]

Learning from professor Haridopolos 02/27/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 28, 2011 6:57am]
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