One of the most powerful Republicans in Florida, State Sen. John Thrasher from St. Augustine, is the new president of Florida State University. He put in his papers and submitted to interviews, and last week, university officials announced his appointment to the post. Still, he got kicked around some in the process.
Thrasher’s qualifications are impressive. He brought a medical school to the university, after all, providing new prestige to the Tallahassee institution. But while his proponents salivate at the possibilities — and money — that President Thrasher will bring, his detractors are no doubt still kicking and screaming.
Why has it been so hard for Thrasher to get any Seminole love? The answers have more to do with the nature of his résumé than his formidable skills.
When you put on war paint, it appears, you can’t ever scrub it off completely. And try as he might, Thrasher retains the mark of the warrior. Evidently, it’s not something we want to see on our executive-types.
A look at the U.S. presidency makes the case: Only two presidents in recent history, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, ascended to the top job from a legislative role. While race has certainly played a role in Obama’s embattled tenure, so has partisanship. It’s difficult to go from ideological water-carrier to Supremely Respected Executive.
It’s a truth Thrasher hasn’t escaped. Before formal interviews began, FSU’s Faculty Senate denounced him as an illegitimate contender, citing his lack of academic credentials.
The acrimony isn’t mysterious. At heart, university professors are teachers — and Thrasher declared war on teachers in 2010. That year, he introduced a bill to tie public school teacher evaluations to student test scores. The measure prompted a veto from then-governor Charlie Crist, but it was passed the next year under Thrasher’s leadership (and with Rick Scott’s signature).
Thrasher has also acted as point man for another kind of presidential contender. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is considering a 2016 White House bid, and his marquee issue is education reform. He’s relied heavily on Thrasher to deliver votes on testing, teacher accountability and privatization since 2009, when the former representative-turned-lobbyist Thrasher got elected to fill the Senate seat of the late Jim King.
Carrying ideological water for the Republican Party of Florida, though, entails denying that real water is rising around the peninsula. Disavowing climate change is one of the stupider tenets of modern conservatism. That politicized stance drew the derision of a group of FSU graduate students at Thrasher’s open interview event on Sept. 15. The students heckled him when he was responding to a question on climate change, prompting him to scold them and threaten to walk out. The News Service of Florida reported him saying, “If I’m going to get heckled from the front row, by people laughing and making jokes about it, then I’m not going to stay. I don’t think it’s fair to you and me.”
The students quit jeering and Thrasher carried on. The exchange may mark the first of many inevitable battles to win the hearts and minds of academics at Florida State. Can a university president be effective when his professors and students don’t support him?
The de facto leader of the state Republican Party has certainly shown he’s capable of surmounting bigger challenges.
He’s washed away the taint of ethics violations incurred when he lobbied too soon after serving in the Florida House. (He publicly apologized for the violation.) He’s also avoided the stink of the embezzlement scandal that rocked his party and put former Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer in prison. Despite having signed a “never consummated” contract that sought to absolve Greer with a $123,000 severance package from the state GOP, Thrasher came out smelling like a rose.
In fact, he’s credited with restoring the Republican Party of Florida.
In just one year, Thrasher assumed party chairmanship, raised more money than Greer in one-third the time, and oversaw the massacre of Florida Democrats in numerous elections.
One of those elections was the race for governor, won by an upstart from Naples who unexpectedly toppled the party’s chosen candidate, Bill McCollum, in the primary. Adaptable as ever, Thrasher immediately united the party behind tea-partier Rick Scott, who beat Alex Sink by a hair’s breadth.
The war paint remains on John Thrasher. And it’s difficult to graft it onto the image of benevolent consensus-builder, or patient leader, or reflective university president.
Will FSU President John Thrasher overcome the curse of the warrior? It’s unlikely that he’ll ever put down his sword.
The fighter still remains.
A version of this column originally appeared on Context Florida.