John Thrasher, a longtime champion of Florida State University, is about to become the next president of his alma mater.
To be sure, there has been controversy about the choice of Thrasher to lead FSU as the tenured bureaucrats are up in arms about it. Most of it has focused on process but there have also been questions about Thrashers background. Ignoring his juris doctorate from FSU -- and, yes, a J.D. is a professional doctorate -- the professors union is questioning Thrashers academic credentials and claiming his political influence is at work as he is the only candidate being considered.
But Thrasher has a long history of being in FSUs corner. Long before he led the Florida House and became, to use Don Gaetzs phrase, the conservative lion of the Senate, Thrasher graduated from FSU and eventually went to law school there. Thrasher led the FSU board of trustees and, during his years in the Legislature, proved a valued ally to the university. Theres a reason the FSU Medical School building is named after Thrasher.
Thrasher has tackled education during his long political career. He got his political start back in 1986 when he was elected to the Clay County School Board. Thrasher currently sits on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and he did put in time as the vice chairman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
The professors union might not like it, but politicians have proven successful leading colleges and universities in Florida. Despite her time in higher ed, Donna Shalalas success at the University of Miami has relied more on her years in Bill Clintons Cabinet. After eight years as Jacksonville mayor, John Delaney has done well at the University of North Florida. Even at a lower level, politicians can help a college move in the right direction, like Joe Pickens leading St. Johns River State College. And, of course, Frank Brogan won applause at Florida Atlantic before moving on to become chancellor of the Florida universities and now chancellor for Pennyslvanias state system for higher education.
While he led the Republican Party of Florida and is a leading conservative in the Senate, Thrasher is shrewd enough to play ball with the Democrats. Theres a reason Sandy D'Alemberte, a former FSU president and a prominent Democrat, backed Thrasher even as the senator chairs Rick Scotts re-election effort. Thrashers connections with the Republicans who reign in the Legislature and who arent going to be dislodged anytime soon can only help FSU, even if Charlie Crist beats Scott in November.
And FSU needs the help. Unlike other states on the East Coast, Floridas schools have generally been late bloomers without the pedigree of schools in the Northeast or even states in the South like Virginia and the Carolinas. FSU is a distant third in the Florida pecking order. Cracking the U.S. News and World Report top 100 rankings in recent years (being ranked 91 in 2013), FSU is still well behind the University of Florida and the University of Miami. No matter what the football rankings show, FSU is far from No. 1 in Florida.
Catching Florida and Miami will be a challenge for FSU, but Thrasher -- who served as an Army captain in Vietnam -- has shown he can win uphill fights. Thrasher steered George W. Bushs Florida campaign in 2004. Despite predictions of a repeat of the 2000 mess, Bush beat John Kerry by 5 percent. Inheriting the mess left by Jim Greer, Thrasher led the RPOF to big wins in 2010 in spite of an ugly primary between Scott and Bill McCollum and a nasty attorney general primary.
Though 70, Thrasher still has tons of energy as anyone who has seen him work the Senate and on the campaign trail can attest to. With his record, Thrasher can be relied on to shepherd funds to FSU and he is a proven backer of the university. Despite the faculty unions protests, Thrasher has the background to lead FSU as it tries to make up ground on Florida and Miami.
Tallahassee-based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.