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Chamber official forges coalitions

He cuts a striking image: Lounging cross-legged in his perfectly tailored gray suit, with his perfectly coifed gray hair, in a chair set before a roomful of reporters, he looks perfectly at ease.

But then again, he should be at ease: He has spent the past 20 years in this milieu.

Meet Bob McKnight. Once a member of what Miami Herald political editor Tom Fiedler called "the most liberal delegation of legislators in the state," McKnight, 50, is now the executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, vanguard of the state's business interests.

What gives?

"His role at the chamber seems to be to give it a more progressive voice," said Fiedler. "I guess you could say it is a meeting in the middle from two different ends of the political spectrum."

McKnight just laughs and says that the differences only appear to be great.

Although he is best known for his liberal takes on social issues, he was a businessman before and after he was a Dade County legislator from 1974 to 1982.

McKnight says he was the No. 1 salesman for IBM on the East Coast in the early '70s. Since leaving public office, he has been partner and developer in real estate projects valued at more than $50-million, according to his resume.

But business interests weren't what he was known for as a legislator. He supported increased taxes and funding for welfare programs, environmental programs and equal rights while a member of the Florida House (1974-78) and Senate (1978-82).

These are hardly ideas that business traditionally supports. But he has always shared one goal with the business world: cut government waste. He said it as a legislator; now it is his war cry for the Florida chamber.

"If we can cut the bureaucracy, the red tape, we'd get a lot more bang for our buck," McKnight said in a recent interview.

He crossed party lines in the late '70s and again in the early '80s to help unite Pinellas County Republicans and Dade County Democrats in an "urban coalition." The idea was simple _ forget about donkeys and elephants and concentrate on common problems.

"We were in a political situation where both the House and the Senate were controlled by rural, North Florida Democrats," said Curt Kiser, a Pinellas Republican who helped forge the coalition. "Those of us from urban areas had a difficult time getting things done, particularly when it came to school budgets and water management."

The results of the union were beneficial for both groups. Locally, Pinellas county won from the state $9.5-million more in the public school budget in 1977. And both counties got more control over their water management districts. In 1982 the coalition pushed forward a penny sales tax increase, earmarking some of the money to roll back property taxes and create a crime package.

"McKnight was interested in efficiency of government," said Kiser. "He has always had the view that you need to get things done. Businesses won't mind government as long as government doesn't hold them up, taking six months to accomplish things."

Getting things done is exactly why Frank Ryll, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, hired McKnight in 1992.

"He understands government and how to market ideas," said Ryll.

Like marketing himself in front of the press, McKnight has learned to market a concept of bottom-up management in the state chamber, which represents more than 13,500 companies and is the largest state chamber in the country. He has coordinated an extensive surveying system of the members so the board of directors knows what the members want. More paperwork, more charts, seemingly more red tape.

But the result is more accountability to small-business owners.

"In the past, the board, which is predominantly made up of big business, made the decisions they thought everyone agreed to," said chamber member Barbara Ann Blue, president and CEO of Business Performance Group, a small Tampa company. "Now decisions are based on the survey and what they learn from all of us. He's made the chamber more responsive to our needs."

And better known.

One of McKnight's babies is the Pro-Biz/No-Biz awards. The idea is to recognize government agencies that are business-friendly and chastise agencies that aren't.

The result: The state chamber gets a lot of press. Every time it announces a Pro-Biz/No-Biz award, it is guaranteed ink. And to boot, some agencies have promised change, like the U.S. Census Bureau, which has pledged to reduce some of the paperwork business owners must fill out.

"He has helped raise the visibility of the state chamber and he has helped get things done," said Ryll. "That is exactly what we want."

McKnight just smiles and says, "I haven't changed my politics; it is just that now you see me as a businessman."