Few visions of the historical imagination more vividly portray an image of absolute power than the "thumbs down" of a Roman emperor. The ultimate power over life expressed in a simple hand gesture -- bringing a gladiatorial contest to an unquestionable and permanent conclusion, the literal termination of the losing side.
The one place many Americans would have least expected to be reminded of such expressions of absolute power would likely be the Democratic Party's Platform Committee meeting.
Yet this was exactly how many participants and observers in Orlando felt this past weekend. As I sat strategically in the bar I observed the feeling of the room that C-SPAN's cameras were unable to capture -- a sense of a fundamentally divided party being irreversibly reinforced in its factional split despite the many attempts at rhetorical declarations that "unity" had been achieved.
Nothing signaled the Party's civil war had only deepened more than my discussions on the final night with a group who had left in disgust as Maxine Waters called desperately for a signal of unity from the crowded room after a last minute midnight "unity" amendment to insert the name of Hillary Clinton into each plank of the platform. It had to be reluctantly withdrawn as the Sanders delegation and the crowded "peanut gallery" filled with many non-committee member delegates nearly revolted amidst a cacophony of boos and jeers.
But it was the description of the process whereby the Hillary delegates were kept in line with the campaign's directives that stood out most to me. The vision of silver-haired Ambassador Wendy Sherman, clad in white pants, black long sleeve shirt, and a black and white checkered sleeveless sweater, often frantically thrusting her emphatic thumbs-down into the air. Standing strategically off-camera, just in front of the section reserved to the party-bosses presiding in the background, Sherman spent the weekend as party under-boss ensuring the loyal unity of the Hillary delegation to the campaign's pre-determined positions on proposed amendments.
As one member of the National Nurses contingent present throughout the weekend described her shock at witnessing this I could not help being reminded of my own rude awakening to the boss and machine style that has historically been at the center of Florida government and politics.
Former Democratic Governor and long-term U.S. Senator Lawton Chiles once noted that his education in politics at the University of Florida (UF), in its student government, introduced him sufficiently to the dark and dirty side of politics to never be surprised at what he encountered in his years in Washington D.C.
In 1989 I was given the role of the Minority Leader of the Senate at the University of Florida, the leader of a minority of Independents who opposed a political machine that controlled every aspect of government -- from the legislative to the executive branch to the conduct of elections and the counting of ballots. A machine-style government, with a set of party bosses who gave out perks and positions based on the "Art of the Deal" rather than merit, that historically employed a set of under-bosses to ensure that the members of the Senate did not stray from the party's predetermined path. The rules and the law were never an impediment to the will of the party bosses.
For more than a century a small set of elites on campus have hidden in plain sight the undemocratic machine within a self-selected "leadership" honorary known as Florida Blue Key (FBK). And for most of that century everyone who was anyone in Florida politics knew -- this university machine held "the keys to power" in Tallahassee. If you name a prominent political leader in the state's history -- a governor, US Senator, member of the state legislature -- more likely than not you will find that they are connected with FBK.
Its dominance has never been successfully challenged on the University's campus and its heyday in state politics coincided with the state's historical one-party system. The Democratic Party's unchallengeable rule began shortly after Reconstruction. Its domination only began to lose an absolutist grip in the 1980s when, with anything but "all deliberate speed," the U.S. Supreme Court began to impose the changes it mandated via the Voting Rights and Districting cases of the late 1960s and early 1970s. With the Democratic Party's decline as the state machine the power of FBK also began to wane -- at least now both had to share power with others.
When South Florida, with its emergent urban center in Miami, was finally able to compete electorally with the Democratic machine of North Florida, amply named the "Pork Chop Gang," the Republican Party gained its first foothold in State politics since Reconstruction. The two-party system only then became a reality in Florida politics - but the disproportionate role and influence of the largest University and its training for politics via the machine nature of student government did not cease even if no longer absolutely dominant.
Throughout this year's national presidential campaign, I was often struck by the parallels to the manner in which the UF "Party Machine" dominated government undemocratically with little official objection. Only the weakest of facades was employed unsuccessfully shielding the overt violations of the laws and rules from public view. As I said -- anyone who was anyone in Florida government, much less University politics, knew that the machine ran the show with an iron fist. If anyone was in doubt I was able to dispel those myths in a Florida Court in the late 1990s. At the core of the case, Grapski v. Florida Blue Key et al, was a finding by the Court that this was established as an "indisputable fact." To many of the State's elite this was a controversial ruling and many attempts were made to use their influence to overturn it -- but the Court remained firm and re-affirmed its factual conclusions.
The attorneys in their initial defense attempted to maintain
the weak facade -- this was an honorable leadership society that has nothing to
do with politics or government -- and demanded a Summary Judgment from the Court
dismissing the lawsuit. They described
it as the mere rantings of a disgruntled individual jealous of the true campus
leaders that sought to discredit through slander the States' self-described
"most prestigious leadership honorary." I
could not prove, asserted the defense, that FBK was anything less than
honorable. Although I had never sought
membership in the organization, the case -- which centered around defamation of
me during my Presidential candidacy in 1995, was an attempt to tarnish the good
name and reputation of an organization through the courts. After a jury found the organization and
several members guilty of both defamation and conspiracy at the conclusion of a
two-week trial, they offered me membership.