Feisty politico forges enemies as he tackles the issues
By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
When he invited Phil Handy to meet with the University of Florida faculty last year, associate professor Richard Briggs wasn't sure Handy would show.
"He had to know it was not a friendly environment," said Briggs, president of the UF Faculty Senate.
The professors were angry. About the demise of the Board of Regents. About the top-to-bottom reorganization of Florida's education governance system. About the speed of the overhaul. Handy, the chairman of the task force that recommended those changes, was a convenient target.
Handy showed up. And the faculty members let him have it.
"It was brave of him to come," said Briggs, an associate professor of radiology. "That doesn't mean I agree with him. But he did show up."
Handy, 57, never has never shrunk from a fight. The Winter Park financier, who has become one of the most influential voices in education policy in Florida, has a long history of taking on overwhelming tasks in which the only sure thing is the potential for making enemies.
Handy has certainly developed a few enemies in the Florida Senate. A Senate committee has failed three times to vote on his confirmation as chairman of the new state Board of Education, the seven-member board overseeing kindergarten through graduate school.
The holdup in what typically is a routine vote -- Handy is a Republican and the Senate is run by Republicans -- has been interpreted as a slap at Handy and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who nominated him. He appears to be a victim of the battle between Bush and the Senate over Senate President John McKay's controversial plan to overhaul the state tax system.
It also could be the result of Handy's personality, which walks a fine line between blunt honesty and arrogance. After his nomination was initially held up for a week, Handy publicly criticized legislators over redistricting. His nomination was then held up again -- indefinitely.
For Monday's committee meeting, Handy's name was removed from the agenda on McKay's instructions. While the committee confirmed two other nominees -- T. Willard Fair of Miami and Julia Johnson -- Handy will have to wait because of concerns by some senators.
"We are giving them time to allay any of their concerns," said McKay spokeswoman Karen Chandler.
"No, Phil doesn't make everyone happy," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who has known Handy since 1986 when they helped elect Bob Martinez governor. "But a guy who makes everybody happy, he's not doing anything. Phil is doing plenty."
Handy's resume would impress most people in most settings.
After a middle-class upbringing, he was educated at Princeton and Harvard. He made quite a bit of money buying troubled companies, turning them around and then selling. He worked on Jeb Bush's two gubernatorial bids. He led a statewide term limits referendum and won big. He chaired the state's Education Governance Reorganization Transition Task Force.
Handy's resume was called into question as soon as Bush nominated him to lead the state's new education "super board."
"He is bright. He is personable," said associate professor Briggs. "However, he is unqualified for the position. The business model is a bad model when you apply it to universities."
Handy knows that many educators don't trust him, or can't relate to him.
In some ways Handy embodies a conservative Republican ideal: the successful businessman who brings the ethos of the private sector to government, eliminating all that is wrongheaded and unresponsive in the bureaucracy.
"Not qualified? He's a Harvard graduate and he has studied management systems," said Education Secretary Jim Horne, an accountant and former state senator who now works closely with Handy. "Phil may irritate people from time to time, but he is tenacious and he is determined to make this education system the best in the world."
Handy's longtime friend John Sowinski, who worked with him on term limits, said Handy bristles when labeled as "a finance guy or a political guy."
"Phil is a policy guy," said Sowinski, an Orlando public relations consultant. "What fascinates him are the important, high-stakes issues. That's why he loves being in the middle of this education issue. There's a lot more to Phil Handy than politics or business."
Last week was typical for him.
Monday: at Florida International University for a board of trustees meeting. Tuesday: a visit to an Orange County elementary school, then a meeting with a group of principals. Wednesday and Thursday: a business trip to Chicago. Friday: in and out of his Winter Park office, talked with Gov. Bush on reading initiatives and next week's Board of Education meeting.
Handy declined last week to talk about his difficulties getting confirmed. But if it is bothering him -- and it appears to be -- it likely is not because of the snub, but because he wants to get on with the job.
"I love what I'm doing," Handy said. "We're talking about important things. Things that matter. I just wish it didn't include all this other political stuff."
-- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
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