On Mike Pence’s new press secretary and her bizarre Florida connection

Katie Waldman, a former University of Florida student senator, was accused of helping discard independent student newspapers with a front-page endorsement of a rival party’s candidate. | Analysis
Vice President Mike Pence reacts during an immigration and naturalization ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Vice President Mike Pence reacts during an immigration and naturalization ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) [ ALEX BRANDON | AP ]
Published Sept. 21, 2019|Updated Sept. 21, 2019

If college is a training ground for the real world, an interesting case study is that of Katie Waldman — the University of Florida alumna named this week as Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary.

Political journalists were quick to point out that Waldman, 27, was a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who had defended the agency’s divisive immigrant family separation policy. Some added that she was apparently dating Stephen Miller, a key adviser to President Donald Trump and a main proponent of the border wall.

Publications also noted the inevitable Florida connection. More than seven years ago, Waldman was in student government at the University of Florida when she became involved in an incident that would help define her time there.

It started with the publication of the Feb. 20, 2012 edition of the university’s independent student-run newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator. It included an article reporting then-football coach Will Muschamp had endorsed a Waldman rival, a walk-on player who was running for student body vice president. Waldman was one of two students spotted discarding copies of that day’s Alligator.

I was a freshman journalism major then, trying to get my foot in the door at the Alligator, which is widely known as the place to be if you’re trying to work in traditional media. It was shocking to me at the time, but, looking back, it’s not that surprising in the context of UF’s student government.

Campus politics in Gainesville have long been controlled by a powerful few with the help of a voting bloc made up of social sororities and fraternities. Much of the power-brokering occurs in a highly selective organization called Florida Blue Key that includes a long list of former governors, senators, football stars and current VIPs, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

The ruling party has taken on many names over the years. It was once “Gator,” then “Unite” during the paper-tossing scandal, then rebranded “Swamp” when I was editor-in-chief of the newspaper. But the tactics have stayed largely the same.

A 2013 email from a Swamp party senator asked sorority and fraternity representatives to collect “I voted” stickers from members and donate $250 to the party. In the last line, she asked them to delete the email after reading it, adding that it was “sketchy, but do it.” The student was appointed a student senator the next month.

Five years earlier, more leaked emails surfaced instructing Gator Party senators on how to keep members of the opposing party off certain committees.

And then there was Feb. 20, 2012. Waldman was seen with fellow student Jason Tiemeier when he tossed copies of the Alligator in the garbage. Waldman, a Unite student senator at the time, denied that she threw away any papers and said she advised Tiemeier against it. At the same senate meeting she offered the denial, she was named chair of the senate’s appropriations committee.

Tiemeier, also a Unite senator at the time, first denied the allegations then penned an apology letter in the Alligator, naming Waldman as his accomplice.

“When Katie Waldman and I were walking around campus, I let my sense of competition get in the way of the integrity and everything I believe I have always striven for in my time at UF," he wrote.

Tiemeier, who now works as a transaction tax associate for Ernst & Young in New York City, declined to comment Friday. Waldman couldn’t be reached for comment.

Waldman’s appointment sparked chatter among my UF friends, Alligator alums and not. On Facebook, my former Alligator colleague Meredith Bauer, who worked as metro editor during the newspaper-tossing scandal, nailed why the actions of student politicians matter.

“This is the problem with letting morally wrong (student government) election tactics go unpunished,” Bauer, 29, wrote. “Everyone knows it’s a staging ground for state and federal politics.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally contained an incorrect last name for Meredith Bauer.

Kathryn Varn is a former editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator and graduated from the University of Florida in 2015.