Above the big game, a power game
By BARRY KLEIN
GAINESVILLE -- For four straight years, Toni Jennings received one of the state's most sought-after invitations -- an offer to sit in the President's Box at the Florida-Florida State football game.
She ate hot dogs with U.S. congressmen and slurped Cokes with state Supreme Court justices. She slapped the backs of state Cabinet members and schmoozed corporate CEOs.
Two years ago, Jennings stepped down as president of the Florida Senate. She hasn't received an invitation since.
"That's how things work," says Jennings, who now helps run her family's construction business in Orlando. "Universities are very good at knowing who they have to suck up to."
There may be no better tool for that task than the President's Box at UF, where every seat serves as a measure of power and status. That's especially true on a night like tonight when the Gators are matched against the Seminoles -- a game that divides this football-obsessed state every year.
Getting an invitation "is a badge of honor," says state Sen. Don Sullivan, an influential Republican who has been among the invitees in recent years. "This is the political social event of the year."
The President's Box is decorated in orange and blue and sits high atop the 83,000-seat Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The seats are located in the open air, with a glassed-in suite behind. A private elevator transports guests upstairs.
But the box only has 176 seats. So the university spends a lot of time prioritizing its list.
Some invitations are automatic, says Sandra Hayden, the executive assistant to UF President Charles Young. She is the keeper of the invitation list and very popular this time of year.
U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, for example, don't need to check their mail. Neither does Gov. Jeb Bush, Senate President John McKay or House Speaker Tom Feeney.
As long as they hold their office, they will have seats, Hayden says.
But many of the invitations are discretionary.
Some are used to thank generous donors or to woo new ones. Others are used to cozy up to state legislators, especially those who will be doling out education money.
Six members of the state Senate Appropriations Committee, for example, were offered seats this year.
The university can be ruthless in culling its list. Most politicians who lose power -- even those who are UF graduates -- are dropped quicker than an ex-husband at an in-law's holiday party. Former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack is off the list. So is every member of the state Board of Regents, which was abolished this year. Their seats have been given to the new members of the UF Board of Trustees.
"Power is fleeting, and getting into the box is fleeting," says Steven Uhlfelder, a UF graduate and former regents chairman who was not on the university's initial list of invitees. He was later invited as a member of FSU's Board of Trustees.
"It's a supply and demand thing," says Christopher Brazda, a spokesman for the UF Foundation, which raises money for the university and, not coincidentally, helps shape the list. "We don't have room for everyone."
But while only invited guests get assigned seats, there are other ways to get into the President's Box.
The seats open into the suite that constitutes the actual box. It includes several televisions, plenty of refreshments and a few hundred "friends of the university" who are granted access during the game.
One of them is Bill Emerson, a St. Petersburg resident who gave the University of Florida $3-million to build an alumni hall across the street from the stadium.
He says he will be in the box tonight.
"There are television sets all over so you don't miss anything," he says. "Everyone is just very pleased to be there."
The university forbids alcohol in the box. But a number of people who have been there for games say drinks are only a few yards away. The box is connected to a number of private suites that are amply supplied.
"It is not at all uncommon for people to wander down the hall," Sullivan says.
Though it hosts many of the same guests, the President's Box at Florida State University's Doak Campbell Stadium is considerably less exclusive. There are about 200 stadium seats connected to it, and school officials last year added about 100 bar stools so people could more easily watch the game from inside the suite.
Most important, there is no assigned seating.
"The president doesn't believe in an invitation list," says Dawn Randall, an FSU spokeswoman. "He prefers an access list that is first-come, first-serve."
Last year's game provided one of the more surreal scenes in Florida's recent political history.
It was played at FSU during the middle of the controversy over Florida's presidential vote recount. Several state Supreme Court Justices were in the President's Box. So were several of the state legislators who were hoping the justices would stop the count.
At one point, according to the Wall Street Journal, Justice Major Harding went into a bathroom.
"Can I lobby you now?" a man jokingly asked him. "No, I'm concentrating," Harding dryly replied.
In boxes at both UF and FSU, people are expected to obey certain rules of decorum. Lobbying is heavily frowned on. So are overt expressions of political partisanship.
That doesn't mean there isn't griping. Former regents chairman Jon Moyle says he got so tired of it he finally stopped using the Presidential Box at UF.
"I went to the football games to watch the games, but a lot of times when I was up there I had to listen to people harp at me about all the things we were doing wrong," he says.
Such a conversation would not violate the state's Sunshine Law, but it's easy to see how such a large gathering of politicians members could become problematic.
But the Sunshine Law is not automatically triggered just because they are all in one place, says Assistant Attorney General Pat Gleason.
She said it is only a violation if two or more members of the same board or commission discuss the public's business outside of public view.
After tonight, the Big Game won't be back in Gainesville until 2003. By then, the university will have competed a stadium expansion that will add dozens of new seats to the President's Box.
That means one of the state's most sought-after invitations will be a little easier to get.
But only a little, says Brazda, the foundation spokesman.
"There will always be more requests than we can accommodate," he says.
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