Alexander choosing his place in history

In the end, a career in public service eventually comes down to a simple proposition. After you leave office, how do you want to be remembered?

In the case of state Sen. JD Alexander, R-The Snidely Whiplash of Scholarship, the verdict alas is likely to be … well, unkind.

Alexander is in the sunset of his time in the Florida Senate, a term-limited, lame duck, shallow pol who will probably best be recalled as the guy who tried to implode the University of South Florida in a fit of immature personal pique.

By now, Alexander's plot to put the onus of statewide higher education cuts on the backs of USF and its students, faculty and employees because he didn't get his way in winning immediate approval to spin off the school's USF Polytechnic Lakeland campus as an independent institution has become the stuff of legendary Tallahassee thuggery.

The effort to saddle USF with a 58 percent budget cut clearly was the handiwork of Alexander, R-Mr. Dithers, who as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee asserts a Caligula-like thumbs up/thumbs down on virtually every appropriation request.

And merely because He Who Must be Obeyed was confronted with the inanity of trying to free up USF Poly before it could be properly accredited, the mother ship back in Tampa had to pay for the unmitigated irresponsible gall of engaging in due diligence.

If this power play had been the result of just another slack-jawed Tallahassee political troll, the whole thing might simply be written off as another example of scruples rotting under the rotunda.

But in Alexander's case there is much more historical irony abounding here.

JD Alexander happens to be great-grandson of Florida's 19th governor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who served from 1905 to 1909. More importantly, as USF historian Gary Mormino noted, it is probably fair to conclude that Gov. Broward was the godfather of Florida's state university system, the very system the now wayward bloodline is trying to blow up.

Broward was hardly perfect. He, along with President Teddy Roosevelt, thought it would be a simply bully idea to drain the Everglades. As Rick Perry might say: Oops.

But as Mormino observed, when it came to the state's higher education offerings, Broward saw "there was no order to the system." Indeed, in Broward's view, what passed for a quality university in the state could barely be considered much more than an extended high school education.

So shortly after assuming office, Broward undertook a protracted and politically charged fight to create a more coherent and better-funded university structure overseen by a Board of Control, a forerunner to today's Board of Governors.

And he won, with the first campus designated to be built in a sleepy little place called Gainesville. Whatever happened to that school?

Broward died at 53, about the same age as his great-grandson today. But in only four years as governor, he set in motion a vision to make Florida a better place, a place that would put a premium on education and find a way to pay for it.

So who leaves office with the more honored legacy: the governor who saw the long-term importance of an educated public? Or his great-grandson, who used Florida's universities, and especially USF, as a means to settle scores?

Sitting in his Senate office as the clock ticks down to the end of his term, Alexander might want to look across Florida history and decide which page he wants to be on.

There's the chapter, of course, of folks who came to Tallahassee and used their time to feather nests, or accept the odd gratuity, or advance their career at the expense of the public interest and/or their ethics. See: W.D. Childers, Tom Feeney, Ray Sansom, Johnnie Byrd, Mike Haridopolos, and that's just for starters.

Or there's the chapter on figures who came to the capital to try to do the right thing for the state. See: LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Toni Jennings, Lawton Chiles, Bob Graham, Jim Sebesta, Mike Fasano, and (fortunately) that's just for starters, too.

When the time comes to lock the door and turn out the lights, does Alexander want people to think: "There goes a good man," or "Good riddance"?

And what would Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward think of his great-grandson who laid siege to higher education?

Alexander choosing his place in history 02/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 4:42pm]

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