The man behind the curtain pulling strings
Paula DockeryNine months ago, Polk County was united in its support for USF Polytechnic, satisfied that the branch campus, which has served Polk students for 23 years, had financial autonomy and a smart new emphasis on science, engineering and technology.
Published: March 23, 2012
Published: March 23, 2012
Then, with very little public discussion, a "Community Letter" was sent to the chairwoman of the Board of Governors, urging her to make Polytechnic a separate university — Florida's 12th. Media accounts portrayed a grassroots effort of community leaders introducing the idea to Senator J.D. Alexander, who then offered his support.
But just how did this so-called "Community Letter" come about? Enter Wayne Watters, a seemingly mild-mannered Tallahassee lobbyist and ally of Alexander's, who has gained a reputation as the senator's "enforcer" on important matters. In return, Watters is able to represent his clients before an influential senator who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.
Former State Sen. Rick Dantzler, who initially signed the "community" letter, said Watters pushed for his signature. Later, Dantzler withdrew his support after seeing how divisive the push had become. Several others also expressed regret for having signed the letter.
According to the Lobbyist Registration Office, Watters represents 13 clients in Tallahassee. Of the 28 local businessmen who signed the letter, he was the lobbyist for nine.
Some of the signers have interesting ties to USF Poly, some financial and some aspirational. Wesley Beck of Aspyre Properties had leases with the university for laboratory space. Carl "Bud" Strang of 6/10 Corp. similarly had leases with Polytech. Steve Scruggs, executive director of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, collects $5,000 in dues from USF Poly and another $10,000 in dues for the High Skills/High Wage Group. A few are officers of hospitals that would like a presence on the new campus. Several have expressed interest in serving on the Board of Trustees, where they would determine how tens of millions of dollars will be spent.
Events were scripted to provide the appearance of a grassroots effort. In reality, the community push was an impressive and carefully crafted narrative that Alexander spun to the BOG and on the Senate floor.
In the plot to make USF Poly independent, many local groups were played as pawns. Often, Alexander would show up at community meetings to drum up support. When he couldn't make it, Watters would appear.
Watters pushed the Polk County Commission and the Central Florida Development Council, of which he is a member, to make Poly independent. Then he lobbied the Polk County Builders Association. According to a Ledger article from Oct. 29, Watters and Jack Myers gave a 45-minute presentation in support of a resolution for independence. Roger Atherton, the association's president, said the two were there on behalf of Alexander.
The next step was to manufacture a crisis, or rather, a series of crises, a strategy that continues today.
This week, fearing a veto by Gov. Rick Scott, Alexander's latest manufactured crisis is scaring folks into believing that if the bill gets vetoed, there will be NO funding for Polytech or the 1,300 USF students who want to complete their degrees in Polk. He is urging people to send resolutions to the governor asking him to sign SB 1994. The first pawn was the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, whose board members include several Polytech Board of Trustee wannabes.
Watters is a nice enough feller, but one has to ask, why is he so relentless in his push for an independent university? Because of his love for our university system? Out of the goodness of his heart? Or maybe, just maybe, because his clients have a lot to gain. Just follow the yellow brick road.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at email@example.com © Florida Voices