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

By the early Nineties, formidable political and economic changes had affected Florida and the nation. The labor movement nationally lost its impetus after a restructuring of the economy had deprived unionized factory workers of stable employment. Republicans who wanted to reduce the size and cost of government had a majority in Congress and asserted their influence over Florida's legislature.

At the same time, the state's population was aging; a growing number of retirees had no children in school and resented paying taxes for newfangled programs. After all, students had failed to master the basics -- employers complained that they could barely count change and they lacked acceptable reading skills. In Florida's classrooms, teachers had been saddled with children's grievous social problems -- broken homes, violence, pregnancy, drug use.

State revenue shortages in 1991 and 1992 intensified the fight for school funding. To forestall education budget cuts, Tornillo forged alliances with labor's natural opponents, the state's school superintendents and administrators. He charmed Republicans he could work with and used union staff and resources to oppose those he could not. State Republican Party chairman Tom Slade was a man Tornillo could work with. Both men had been appointed to the state's Tax and Budget Reform Commission in 1991, and they combined efforts to foil zealots from both the anti-tax and pro-tax camps. The two men vehemently disagreed about charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and provisions in employment contracts that Slade believed protected the jobs of bad teachers. But they became buddies anyway. "I cannot imagine anyone I would rather sit around and have a drink with than Tornillo," says Slade. "On the other hand, I can't think of anyone who I more strongly disagree with."

Another Republican, former state senator Dick Langley, alienated FEA-United by repeatedly sponsoring a bill to institute merit pay for public school teachers throughout the state. Langley, from Central Florida, was scheduled to assume the powerful role of Rules Committee chairman, but the union helped defeat him in 1992 by running television ads that linked him to a convicted child molester. He lost after three terms in office. "[Teachers] had phone banks locally and they had people show up at every meeting and talk about my marital history," Langley recalls. "They have always opposed me. I was on the school board before I went to the legislature, and I gave them a hard time."

When Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor stepped down to become president of the University of South Florida, Tornillo personally led the fight against the man who sought to be elected her successor, Republican school administrator Frank Brogan. Having decided it was time to elect an African American to a state cabinet seat, and expressing disdain for Brogan, Tornillo supported former state representative Timothy "Doug" Jamerson, an ally in school reform. It was a miscalculation; Brogan easily won the statewide race. The battle against Brogan, however, did not stop with his election. Shortly after he took office, Tornillo filed an ethics complaint, alleging that Brogan improperly funneled state funds to his friends in the Florida Superintendents Association. The complaint was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Having lost the fight to oust or discredit Brogan, Tornillo changed his tactics. He held a press conference and offered friendship. Brogan responded by inviting Tornillo to a state cabinet meeting, lunch, and a private tete-a-tete.

A year ago Tornillo called a business meeting at Mario's Il Palio, the Italian restaurant near his Brickell Avenue home, where table 24 at the rear functions as a second office for the union boss. Three well-known political consultants attended: Eric "Ric" Sisser, Phil Hamersmith, and Jacqueline Basha. Sisser, who had lobbied for FEA-United in the Eighties, had already been working with Tornillo for more than a year in anticipation of this fall's school board elections, drumming up interest among Dade County's political and financial elite.

Tornillo wanted to identify a slate of candidates the union could work with, but candidates who could also win. And he was frank about his desire to block religious conservatives from dominating the board. His goals resonated with Hamersmith, who admired Tornillo's political instincts and knew that he would listen to advice and eschew unobtainable goals. That night Tornillo hired Hamersmith and Basha as campaign consultants. The four discussed available resources and divided up their tasks.

Sisser, who was donating his services, would hold fundraisers for individual candidates. He also would arrange key meetings between possible contributors and the candidates, as well as advise the school board hopefuls regarding which lunches and events to attend. Hamersmith and Basha would oversee the pollsters and give the candidates advice about direct-mail and television advertising. Tornillo would try to deliver the support of 100,000 labor union members in Miami, including some 19,000 teachers.

To that end Tornillo dispatched his top Dade lobbyist, Cindy Hall, president of Dade's AFL-CIO local, to meet with teachers. She showed a video reminding them that political leaders on the school board and in the Legislature controlled their paychecks. She carried voter registration forms to every meeting. And she planned a registration drive during new-teacher orientation in the fall and organized pre-election phone banks staffed by educators.

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