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By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
Ten years ago, two men, a Democrat and a Republican, talked for two hours about education and politics. They hit it off right away. The friendship blossomed, and for two strong-willed men who saw beyond party lines, it has proved mutually beneficial.
But lately, it's a friendship that has become a very public burden for the Democrat.
He is Steve Uhlfelder -- lawyer, lobbyist and two-term member of the Board of Regents. The Republican is Gov. Jeb Bush.
Uhlfelder's problem? His old friend Bill McBride is running against Bush for governor. McBride was Uhlfelder's closest friend at the University of Florida 30 years ago and gave him his job at the state's biggest law firm, Holland & Knight.
This convergence of the personal and the political pains Uhlfelder. Yet it's consistent with the ebb and flow of his career in politics. He takes a bold stand, then frets over the consequences. He's an agitator, ridden with angst.
"I like to be provocative," Uhlfelder says, "but I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings."
Torn between two friends who are running for governor, Uhlfelder sent $500 campaign checks to both Bush and McBride.
"They're both my friends," he says. "But in this case, Bill is trying to replace a friend who I thought was doing a good job."
If McBride is angry, he won't say so publicly.
"I've never taken this personally. His involvement with the governor precedes my consideration of running for governor," McBride says. "The politics of it are difficult for him because he has a legislative practice. I recruited him for the firm to do the legislative practice, and supported him. And to build that practice, you do a lot of things." Including, it seems, being flexible about party loyalty.
To further complicate things, Uhlfelder's son Daniel worked as a campaign aide to McBride, which put father and son in opposing political camps. Daniel Uhlfelder has since left McBride's campaign, saying he did so for several reasons, including a shift in priorities after the terrorist attacks and a desire at age 29 to nurture a Panhandle law practice.
The son says he still supports McBride, but that his father's estrangement from McBride was a factor in his decision to leave. "Working for Bill was creating an unnecessary strain between me and my dad," he said.
For three decades, Steve Uhlfelder, 55, has been a constant, at times unsettling presence on the public stage. He has made a habit of challenging sacred cows, from faculty tenure to former University of Florida president John Lombardi.
As a student leader at UF, he was once taunted by a Gator coach after he criticized the university for emphasizing athletics over academics. Now, as a prominent Democrat actively helping Jeb Bush win re-election, he once again finds himself going against the grain and agonizing over it.
Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe calls Uhlfelder "a Democrat in name only" and "essentially a Republican at this point." He says Uhlfelder's value to Bush is that he's a Democrat, which enables Bush to claim bipartisan support.
"I would question what Uhlfelder's motivations are," Poe says. "Where has he benefited from this relationship? It becomes clear when you look at the rewards he has gotten for that support."
Gov. Bush went to bat for his friend a year ago, sending a letter of recommendation for Uhlfelder for a seat on the Federal Communications Commission. President Bush appointed someone else to the bipartisan FCC.
Uhlfelder secured a presidential appointment to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, a group with many powerful members that awards student grants for overseas exchange programs.
Uhlfelder says his relationship with Jeb Bush was forged on friendship, not something as crass as access.
A few weeks after Bush defeated MacKay, Uhlfelder sent Bush a memo that amounted to a blueprint for the Governor's Mentoring Initiative that Uhlfelder now leads. Bush implemented an Uhlfelder suggestion, that every application for a gubernatorial appointment include a line urging applicants to mentor a child each week.
"Steve is a good friend," Bush says. "He has been an awesome leader of our successful mentoring initiative. We share a passion for making sure all children are given an opportunity to learn. I do rely on Steve for advice. He has much institutional knowledge of the process in Tallahassee."
Uhlfelder's lengthy resume exudes influence, but for all his success he still comes across as edgy and unsure of himself. His mind runs in several directions at once. He ends sentences with exasperated sighs. His voice rises and falls abruptly as thoughts form in his mind.
"He's not slick. He's just real," says his wife, Miffie. "They know he's showing them exactly what he is. That's very appealing. And he doesn't mind saying something a little controversial, even if he goes a little overboard and it gets people talking."
Bush and Uhlfelder met over lunch at the exclusive Governor's Club a decade ago when Bush was a real estate developer with political aspirations. What was supposed to be a one-hour meeting between two education policy wonks lasted for two.
"We hit it off," Uhlfelder recalls.
Uhlfelder's byline soon appeared in the first edition of Outside the Lines, a monthly publication of Bush's between-campaigns think tank, the Foundation for Florida's Future. The topic was Florida's "failed system" of tenure for university professors.
Bush listened to Uhlfelder and seemed to appreciate his advice, and that meant a lot.
"I think he got to know Jeb well and liked him, and Jeb looks after him. So it's sort of a sibling relationship," says former Senate president Phil Lewis, a longtime friend of Uhlfelder's. "One thing about Steve: He's pretty much an independent thinker."
Uhlfelder and Bush don't agree on everything.
As a regent, Uhlfelder opposed Bush's education overhaul that abolished the Board of Regents Uhlfelder led. He testified against it in the Legislature but eventually accepted it. Bush later appointed him to Florida State University's board of trustees, though Uhlfelder's first choice was a seat on the more powerful seven-member Board of Education.
But they found common ground on other education issues, especially the value of mentoring programs for poor black children, something Uhlfelder has participated in for years.
Because this lifelong Democrat crossed party lines at a time when Republicans were gaining power, it looked to some like a pragmatic business decision by a corporate lobbyist.
"Steve is not a friend of mine, but I wouldn't pick on him any more than anybody else," said Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat and candidate for governor. "These folks who are lobbyists, in order to make a living, have to make a decision."
Born and raised in West Palm Beach, the son of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany in 1937, Uhlfelder learned about injustice early in life. Both of his father's parents died in a Nazi concentration camp. His father, Willie, an eighth-grade dropout, ran a modest moving business and was appointed the first Jewish city commissioner in West Palm Beach.
Motivated by family experience, Uhlfelder vigorously defended black students who staged a 1971 sit-in during his tenure as UF student body president. He vilified university president Stephen O'Connell for belonging to an all-white country club and for arresting black students who protested racial policies on campus.
"I think he's a person of great conscience who cares deeply about things," says Uhlfelder's other best friend from college, Don Middlebrooks, a federal judge in Miami. "He's upset about racial injustice. It's always been something he has cared a great deal about.
"I think he's very idealistic. Sometimes he feels passionately about issues and isn't afraid to express himself. A lot of people hold back, and Steve is sometimes undiplomatic in the way he expresses a strong feeling."
Four years ago, as chairman of the Board of Regents, he pilloried UF president John Lombardi for calling Adam Herbert, the black chancellor of the university system, an "Oreo" at a dinner party. Uhlfelder's criticism of Lombardi so enraged loyal UF boosters that they urged Holland & Knight clients to take their business elsewhere.
During that time, when Uhlfelder said he felt abandoned by many fellow Democrats, Bush privately offered encouragement, even sometimes initiating the calls. The Lombardi imbroglio brought the two men closer.
"I was sort of alone, and Jeb would call me on the phone and talk to me, and he both privately and publicly supported me," Uhlfelder says. To the end of this sentence he adds, "as did McBride."
Some Democrats are disappointed in Uhlfelder for his allegiance to Bush but won't say so publicly.
"It is very, very uncomfortable for him," says lobbyist and friend Jim Krog. "He's been helpful to the governor, and he's interested in a lot of the same issues the governor is interested in, like education and mentoring. At the same time, he's known Bill McBride his whole life. He suffers from angst anyway, so this has got to be really wearing on him."
MacKay, who was displeased with Uhlfelder's handling of the Lombardi mess, declined to discuss their past differences. "I think it's better for me not to say anything," he said.
Uhlfelder is a trusted member of the Bush circle. He was invited to a news conference Wednesday on a new mentoring program and then flew to Washington for a campaign event with the Bush brothers that raised more than $500,000 for Jeb Bush's re-election effort, including checks from Uhlfelder's client Microsoft.
"Part of life is paying a price for decisions," Uhlfelder says. "My father taught me to never do anything you can't be proud of. I can look myself in the mirror very easily, supporting Jeb Bush."
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