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Genshaft learns Capitol customs

Doing a turn in what's an annual rite for state university presidents, USF's Judy Genshaft lobbies lawmakers.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


Doing a turn in what's an annual rite for state university presidents, USF's Judy Genshaft lobbies lawmakers.

TALLAHASSEE -- As she hurries to yet another meeting in the state Capitol, her 11th in the past 24 hours, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft smiles broadly and declares this a very good day.

It started at 9 a.m. with a quick briefing for state Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg. It won't end for another 12 hours, when Genshaft will finally finish a series of "meet-and-greets" at the Silver Slipper, a well-known political watering hole.

But this is midafternoon, shortly after Genshaft has finished lunching with state Sen. Don Sullivan, the Pinellas Republican who worked furiously last year to sever USF's campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota and make them independent schools.

Genshaft says Sullivan has just told her he sees no problems with measures that would give the campuses more autonomy, but leave them under university control.

Hence, her beaming smile.

"I'm really enjoying this," says Genshaft, who this week is experiencing her first extended stint as a Tallahassee lobbyist, an annual rite for every university president in Florida.

The state's 10 presidents share lobbying duties during the 60-day legislative session. They argue on behalf of their institutions, but they also fight to protect the collective interests of Florida's university system, since an idea that threatens one school generally threatens them all.

It is not the most dignified of assignments.

On her arrival, Genshaft was given a $26-a-day rental car and a room at the Marriott Courtyard.

She has had to endure awkward conversations with hangers-on -- "Me Jim, You Judy" -- was the clever introduction offered by one community college lobbyist -- and is learning some painful truths about Tallahassee.

"Up here, merit is nothing but a cigarette," advises Kathy Betancourt, USF's chief lobbyist and a veteran of the legislative wars, having previously twisted arms for the city of Tampa and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

Betancourt is Genshaft's field guide during her four-day sojourn that began Sunday afternoon. She does the scheduling, makes the necessary introductions and explains the local customs.

"When you meet with a legislator, the first thing you do is thank them for something they've done," she says. "And when you leave, make sure you ask them if there is anything you can do to help."

Florida's frenetic session is new turf for Genshaft, who came to USF last spring from New York, where she was provost at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

She says her strategy is to concentrate on a handful of issues.

Her first priority is to head off problems with the regional campus bill, the product of a complicated deal involving several lawmakers, including Sullivan and John McKay, the powerful president of the Florida Senate.

But she is worried about threats to enrollment funding, which could cost USF millions of dollars next year. She also would like to get more money for medical school facilities and to expand high-tech programs along the I-4 corridor.

All are complex issues, particularly for lawmakers reluctant to digest anything more complicated than a four-course meal.

Genshaft knows she will have to keep her pitches short. She gets prepped Tuesday for an appointment with state Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Cape Coral, while racing down a Capitol hallway.

"He's a USF grad, a really good guy," says Betancourt. "He represents southwest Florida."

The briefing lasts longer than the meeting, which is little more than a handshake and an exchange of pleasantries.

Genshaft isn't discouraged.

"It's important that they know who you are," she says.

Some clearly do. At the end of his chat with Genshaft, Justice hands her a card with the name of an acquaintance who has just moved to Hillsborough County. The person is interested in possible employment at USF.

Genshaft says she will look into it.

Later, she says that's all she intends to do.

"I will pass the name along . . . and I'll tell them that if this person is appropriate, fine," Genshaft says. "But I will not force anything."

The day grinds along in a blur of smiles, pleasant exchanges and closed-door conversations.

She meets with a community college administrator. Does an interview with a Tampa Tribune reporter. Shakes hands with Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

She passes state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and says hello.

She leaves with Sullivan for lunch.

"Oh, we're just catching up," says the senator, when asked what will be discussed during the meal. "I expect it to be pretty hum-drum."

Later, a pleased Genshaft says Sullivan's prediction was accurate.

"It was very nice," she says. "He was very charming. He said he sees no problem with the regional campuses."

At 2:10 p.m. she meets with state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. It is her longest meeting of the day, so long that at one point there is a traffic jam in the waiting room.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Cal Henderson is cooling his heels along with a top aide and state Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Moore.

They talk about the Aisenberg investigation, which all agree is a mess. They discuss Darryl Strawberry's latest problems, which elicit little sympathy.

When Genshaft finally emerges, hugs and handshakes abound. Henderson is a USF alum, one of many Genshaft has encountered in the Capitol.

"You're doing a great job," he tells her.

She is already out the door.

A few minutes later, she is meeting with state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg. Then she dashes off to a session of the Senate's Education Appropriations Subcommittee, where the regional campus bill is scheduled to be discussed.

It's over before she gets there. A legislative aide tells her it was "a slam dunk." There wasn't a single question from the committee.

"That's good," Genshaft says. "Does that mean we don't need to go?"

Don't count on it, says Betancourt. "There are a lot of people there you really need to meet."

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