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

A short, white-haired man whose compact body has recently broadened despite regular workouts in his back-yard swimming pool, Tornillo's endurance often outstrips many of his younger staff members'. His early-morning work schedule stretches into the evening, and about three times each week he holds dinner meetings. By the next morning he'll have loaded down his top officers with booklets and studies he's read late the previous night. "No one has his drive," says one union member. Adds Tornillo: "I've never needed more than six hours of sleep. Sleep robs you of life."

Tornillo's tenacity has led to recent clashes with some members of the executive board at FEA-United, where he has served as president since 1978. The board members, all presidents of their own union locals, have bristled under his centralized management. Disagreements this year, in fact, were spawned by their attempts to tweak the management structure in a way that would slightly reduce Tornillo's power. "Pat is very much the strong mayor," complains Broward union leader Tony Gentile. "There's a number of us who feel we pay the freight; we should have more of a voice in the operation of the state [union]."

So far the Nineties have not been particularly kind to the United Teachers of Dade. Membership has declined among young teachers (Tornillo has already instituted programs to boost their numbers); his influence over the legislature has waned as Republicans have replaced his Democratic allies. His perennial dream of merging with Florida's other teachers union (Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association) seems to have stalled. Even his own mortality has become an issue. Across the state, underlings and allies are quietly wondering when he will retire and who will replace him. "Pat is the union and always has been the union," says long-time friend and former union staff member Yvonne Burkholz.

In fact, the union's fortunes have come to be so closely identified with Tornillo that many say he has allowed no room for someone to develop the negotiating skills to replace him. "No one gets to stay forever," comments veteran school board member Janet McAliley, who has clashed with Tornillo over the years. "I don't know how it ended up the way it has. It's not in the best interest of our employees. But we know him. We generally have good management-labor relations. He's strong enough to be able to press for what he wants. He's strong enough to take some risks."

Tornillo acknowledges that his succession is an issue, but he points out that UTD members continue to re-elect him. "How do you replace someone who has been there a long time and built up relationships and built up positions of power in both the legislature and locally?" he asks. "That's not easy. It will take some time for anyone who comes in to replace me. I hope I will be involved in that process and will have an opportunity to guide it -- not to choose my successor, because that person will have to run for office. That's the difficulty."

In 1994 a federal court ruled that the Dade County School Board should be expanded from seven to nine members, and that these members should be chosen from specific districts in order to provide minority neighborhoods an opportunity to elect one of their own. That change, the court ruled, was to take place this year.

For Tornillo the move represented a threat to his union's power, as new board members could upset the relationships he's built with an entrenched board whose members have almost always counted on his leadership. The move also threatened the stability of a school system already beset with problems -- comparatively low test scores, classroom violence, unbridled growth. "It has the potential to be divisive," Tornillo worries. "It has the potential of school board members only being concerned with their districts. It has the potential of them cutting deals with one another."

Tornillo began working behind the scenes two years ago in an effort to influence the outcome of the elections. He met with Dade's most powerful lawyers and business leaders. He ordered his staff to turn out as much of the union vote as possible and to enlist teachers' support for UTD-endorsed candidates in their neighborhoods, precincts, and at their polling places.

The results thus far have shown that at a time when most men are already retired, Tornillo still holds substantial power. All of the union-backed school board candidates garnered the highest number of votes in the recent primaries, and most are poised to win easily in the November general election. Tornillo's county commission and state legislative picks took first place as well. "I think we did succeed," Tornillo understates. "I think one of the biggest things that came out of this was the high involvement that we were able to generate from our members. We've had more teachers actively involved in this election than we've had in any other."

Tornillo inherited a taste for politics from his Italian-American mother, who was president of the Fifteenth Ward Clean Government Club, a center of Republican Party activity in his working-class Newark, New Jersey, neighborhood. As a young man he joined the navy, and served in the great South Pacific battles. He was training to invade Japan when the war ended.

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