Sen. JD Alexander: respected, reviled, always powerful

Sen. JD Alexander's powerful influence is respected, feared and, at times, despised.
Published February 19 2012
Updated February 20 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Senators call him a bully. College students trash him. Bureaucrats dread his icy gaze through his black-rimmed glasses.

In a Capitol where clout is revered above all, JD Alexander stands alone.

From his platform as the longtime chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Alexander has the muscle to create a new state university in Lakeland. He has the power to influence how billions are spent in classrooms, on health care for the poor and on roads.

But it's more than position that makes the 52-year-old senator so respected, feared and at times despised.

Soft-spoken and studious, the sandy-haired Polk County senator and grandson of citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin Jr. has his own style. When he's passionate about something, he fights for it. He doesn't ask nicely. He doesn't schmooze.

He wants what he wants when he wants it. "I stand up strong for things I believe in," Alexander said.

The approach has made him plenty of enemies.

At the moment, it's the University of South Florida, which feels Alexander bulldozed his vision of a new Florida Polytechnic University through the Capitol, then slapped USF with an unfair budget cut.

Last week it was fellow senators who rejected Alexander's pitch to privatize prisons as callous and unsubstantiated.

He has tormented agency heads, unions, the Florida Citrus Commission, House Speaker Dean Cannon, Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist, to name a few. In a memorable floor speech last year, he emotionally defended the plight of illegal immigrants.

As he nears the end of his legislative career, Alexander is not going quietly.

The Lake Wales Republican's rise to power parallels an increasingly top-down Senate leadership system that concentrates more power in fewer hands, with Alexander solely in charge of the purse strings.

In years past, smaller budget subcommittees combed out the details of spending plans, voting on line items and handing finished products to the larger budget committee. Now subcommittees submit recommendations to Alexander, who makes many of the decisions.

"It's like a mini-Senate," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who has repeatedly clashed with Alexander. "Of course, there are two or three people above him, but they're allowing it to happen. And other members don't want to cross him because they think he has the backing of the rules chair, the president designate and the president."

Alexander's roommate during legislative sessions is Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who says Alexander is being unfairly maligned over the USF issue.

"He doesn't play favorites, and he's an effective guy because he's respected," Haridopolos said.

Alexander doesn't always get his way.

He suffered a rare public defeat last week when senators rejected his call to privatize more than two dozen prisons in South Florida. For once, Alexander's cost-savings arguments failed, and some senators resented the pressure to support leadership.

"Why are we breaking arms to get it done?" Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, asked Alexander, who denied intimidating anybody.

"I've certainly not broken any arms," Alexander answered.

He doesn't always insist on getting his way, either.

When the latest Senate budget passed his committee on Wednesday, every Democrat voted yes as a sign of respect to Alexander, who supported Democrats' pleas to preserve a prison in tiny Jefferson County at a cost of $10 million.

"There was a willingness to work with us," said Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich of Weston. "I wanted to recognize that."

After Tampa Bay mobilized a crusade against Alexander's budget cuts to USF, he discarded a plan to hold $25 million of USF's money hostage, pending its cooperation in giving up USF Polytechnic.

"He didn't have to do that. He had the votes," said Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, who pushed back on that proposal during a contentious seven-hour meeting on Wednesday. "It was a sign of good faith."

• • •

Alexander has shown flashes of anger and impatience in his zeal to bring Polytechnic to Polk County.

He has pushed the idea since it surfaced last summer, first at meetings of the Florida Board of Governors — which eventually voted to allow the campus to separate after meeting benchmarks — and now through the state budget, with a bill that would split the campus off right away.

According to one member of the Board of Governors, the fate of USF Polytechnic should not have been on the board's agenda in the first place.

"I don't think the rest of the Board of Governors wanted this. I think this was forced on us," said John Temple, one of three members who voted against the move. "It was all political pressure."

Michael Long, a sophomore at New College and the lone student member of the Board of Governors, called Alexander out at a meeting, saying that the senator hinted that if it didn't get done, he would find a way to punish the state university system.

USF Board of Trustees chairman John Ramil spoke out last week against what he called "an assault" on the university. USF president Judy Genshaft declined to comment.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican, was so angry about the USF funding cut that he wrote a letter to Haridopolos asking him to remove Alexander from his chairmanship of the Budget Committee.

Students on the USF campus mocked Alexander by passing out fliers with his face pasted onto the body of Veruca Salt, the bratty kid from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory who sings, "Don't care how, I want it now!"

"He holds the state university system hostage, using his power," said Damon Dennis, USF Poly's student body president. "He just abuses it."

Not everybody feels that strongly.

"Look, he was very straightforward about the fact that he wanted this Polytechnic," said Coral Gables lawyer Dean Colson, chairman of the Board of Governors. "He tells you what he wants."

That doesn't mean the board was intimidated into its decision, Colson said. After all, it didn't give Alexander exactly what he asked for — the board's plan would have delayed independence with benchmarks that would take at least several years.

"A lot of elected officials push you, push what they want," Colson said. "He lets you push back. He may not agree with you, but he lets you push back."

• • •

JD Alexander is a country boy with a farmer's firm handshake. He's smart and serious.

"JD doesn't suffer fools," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

He has a net worth of more than $10 million, but eats at Whataburger and drinks coffee from a tall Styrofoam cup.

His famous Florida bloodlines notwithstanding, Alexander has humble roots. Born John David (he goes by JD with no periods) at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where his Marine Corps father was stationed, the family settled on a cattle ranch in Zolfo Springs in Hardee County. At age 6, Alexander jokes that they moved to "the big city of Frostproof," population 2,600 at the time.

Like most everyone in Polk County in the 1960s and '70s, he was a Democrat who became a Republican after Ronald Reagan was elected president. His cousin is former Republican U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, who played a decisive role as Florida secretary of state in the 2000 presidential recount.

Alexander met his wife, Cindy, at an Alpha Tao Omega fraternity mixer while he attended Georgia Tech University. She couldn't work the tap on a beer keg, and "I, of course, could," he said.

He transferred to the University of Florida, where his grandfather's name adorns the Swamp, the Gators' football stadium.

Moving to Florida was a "culture shock" for his Georgia bride, Alexander said. They settled in Polk County and had two daughters, Britton and Keaton.

Britton is a journalism major at the University of North Carolina. Keaton is a dance and political science major at UF.

Alexander tells them to think about public relations, maybe law school, "to earn a living."

Alexander has assembled an agribusiness empire with interests in land development, mining, warehouses, citrus and cattle. Since 2007, he has cited 11 instances in which his votes as a senator could have affected his private business interests.

Senate rules require public disclosure of potential conflicts but do not prohibit senators from voting.

He likes to work. He often gets to his office before sunrise. Unlike many legislators, he's rarely seen socializing. Mostly, he spends time in the more private appropriations office, working long hours.

At night, he blows off steam by hitting tennis balls by himself.

• • •

After 14 years in the Legislature, Alexander is in the final weeks of his political spotlight, and he talks as if he can't wait to leave.

"I'm kind of over it," Alexander said. "I've seen the beast, and I don't want it. I've proven to myself that I can do it. I've done my best for my district during the period of time and tried to be reasonable and fair to the rest of the state — at least by my judgment.

"Thankfully for term limits there's a graceful way to get off the horse."

During his time in the House and Senate, he has worked to hold state agencies accountable, shrink the state workforce, and tighten the budget in the worst recession in recent memory.

But his legislative career is destined to be capped by this battle with USF.

Does he see the creation of the 12th university as his legacy? Does he want his name on a building?

No, he insisted.

But that doesn't keep him from pushing, even as students, professors, fellow legislators and even Gov. Scott question the plan's wisdom.

"I can be stubborn," Alexander said. "I try not to be."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected]