The Old School of Power

He has been enormously influential for 34 years, yet Pat Tornillo -- politically astute leader of Dade's teachers' union -- remains a mystery to most

The day begins early and ends late for Pat Tornillo. He rises at 5:30 a.m. to take his vigorous morning walk along Brickell Avenue -- his mind already alive with plans, for he has many jobs to do. Most mornings, he arranges a breakfast meeting, either at his office near Coral Way or at a restaurant close to his home.

He has been the driving force behind Dade's teachers union for the past 34 years, now holding two top leadership positions as executive vice president and chief contract negotiator for the United Teachers of Dade (UTD), which represents 20,000 union members, including teachers and paraprofessional staff. He also heads UTD's statewide affiliate, the Florida Education Association-United (FEA-United), the state's most powerful teachers union, and he sits on more than 25 boards and committees from here to Tallahassee that not only control schools but influence communities as well.

As the chief spokesman for educators in the nation's fourth-largest school district, he also plays a leading role across the country, heading up two committees for his national union affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers. In three decades, Tornillo has done more to shape Florida's schools than any other individual. Yet outside the halls of the state capitol or the chambers of the Dade school board, his activities remain virtually unknown.

Teachers elected him their leader in the early Sixties during a wave of national social and political activism that would shape his career. Recognizing early that teachers' success depended on decisions made by politicians, he has forged alliances with leaders of both political parties and has not been afraid to compromise when necessary. Still, he's known as a firm, almost unmovable advocate whose negotiating success has been based on the trust he has inspired among a wide group of political players. "Relationships are power," observes Tony Gentile, head of the Broward Teachers Union. "That's the key to Pat's longevity, and the key to his success. He's developed relationships."

Apart from building such relationships, Tornillo's reputation for risk taking, deal making, and political maneuvering has kept the 71-year-old on top for decades, and has helped his union withstand the conservative forces that threaten teachers' paychecks and independence. As lead negotiator, he has continually won salaries topped only by those of teachers in New York City and Los Angeles. As a state legislative lobbyist, he has expanded the influence of teachers and whittled away management's hegemony. Every sitting school board member owes his or her position in part to Tornillo's support. From 1988 to 1994, 75 percent of UTD-endorsed candidates -- from Congress to Dade County Commission -- have won their races. The key to Tornillo's power: He is in a position to influence the votes of at least 100,000 union members in Dade.

For this amassing of union power, Dade's teachers pay Tornillo $186,262 in salary and benefits, including the permanent use of a two-story Brickell Avenue home. His annual raises are linked to the salary increases he secures for teachers, an average of five percent annually since 1990. Varying percentages of those salaries are returned to UTD in the form of membership dues, the most recent reporting of which listed a total $9.2 million. (United Teachers of Dade will not release its actual membership numbers, nor is it required to do so by law.) Teachers have also rewarded Tornillo with their loyalty -- returning him to office by majority vote at three-year intervals. He's been opposed only once in his career, and has expanded the full-time paid union staff from one person to fifty-five.

The union leader disarms his opponents by concentrating on common goals. For instance, Tornillo works with the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, a management group, on joint lobbying proposals at the state legislature. After opposing the charter-schools concept for two years, Tornillo invited its best-known proponent, Jeb Bush, to lunch and to speak at a teachers' conference this past spring. (Bush accepted the invitation, and Tornillo no longer makes public statements opposing charter schools, though he and his staff have worked to weaken charter-school legislation in Tallahassee.)

In meetings, Tornillo has perfected the art of defusing potential antagonisms, and he does so using nothing more than an engaging smile. After many long years spent campaigning for the same goals, he still maintains a remarkable sense of optimism, a lightness that balances his stubbornness as a negotiator. One example: He loves Christmas, and festoons his office and his home with decorations during the holidays. His computer screen-saver promotes the idea of the Christmas spirit all year long. "Both my wife and I are Christmas freaks," he acknowledges.

A family-oriented man, Tornillo plays the father to many of his employees. When a younger union staffer told him last year she was expecting a child out of wedlock, he vowed to support her no matter what she decided to do. On the infant's first Christmas, Tornillo and his wife Donna gave her a set of clothing. At home he cares for his 91-year-old mother Geraldine. Three of his five children have followed him into careers in child care or education.

Tornillo is also capable of unleashing tirades, sometimes at unexpected moments. Then, observers say, his face turns red and his language profane. He's been known to lose his temper at the merest slight to teachers. In 1993 he publicly scolded a deputy superintendent for failing to credit teachers for their donations to United Way. When the deputy protested, Tornillo wrote a letter to Superintendent Octavio Visiedo demanding that the deputy be demoted. Tornillo has also been known to use negative campaign ads to block the election of lawmakers whose policies he opposes.

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