Episode 77

St Pete X features business and civic leaders in St. Petersburg Florida who share their insight, expertise and love of our special city. An initiative of the St. Petersburg Group, St Pete X strives to connect and elevate the city by sharing the voices of its citizens, and to bring awareness to the opportunities offered by the great St. Petersburg renaissance.

06/02/2021 | Episode 77 | 50:51

Helen Levine - Regional Vice Chancellor for External Affairs at USF St. Petersburg (USFSP)

Politics can be...political. And universities have their own unique kind of politics that can make government politics seem 101. It takes a deft touch to navigate either world successfully. Few have mastered both. Helen Levine is one of those few. Her recipe isn't complicated. Know who your client is. Be devoutly pragmatic. And listen. She leveraged these ingredients for decades to win the respect of those in power and a seat the table where the future was forged.

Joining me today on SPx is Doctor Helen Levine. Welcome.

Thank you. Glad to be here.

We don’t get t00 into bios, but still a lot of work in advocacy for USF and then Rick Baker before that. Then some other advocacy work before that, and recently retired. So, congratulations on a very successful career.

I’m delighted to have had such a fabulous career making a difference to folks in all sorts of organizations. Before joining Mayor Baker, I was over in Hillsborough County Government, where I really cut my teeth.

Mr. Karl.

Fred Karl was the revered county administrator. Then I got to work with another fabulous county administrator, a guy named Dane Clayman. Those two folks, we got a lot of good stuff done. We had a great board of county commissioners. But that’s where I started my advocacy career with Fred Karl, offered me that job.

As I’ve perused the many accolades and many tributes. And the love that has been thrown out there for you as you retired, one of the common themes was your ability to work with everybody. With our little news endeavor – The Catalyst, our mantra is… Our greatest asset is that we keep the most minds open to us at all times. Sometimes, I find that that takes sacrifices in the micro to keep that macro goal going. Looking back, can you talk about how important that was? And how intentional you were about that and potentially any sacrifices you had to make to do that.

First, a big shout out to Catalyst. You guys are making a difference in the community and that kind of value I think is distributed by everybody who reads and listens to all of your products. I think it’s so important. For me, I grew up in a Jewish liberal home. But the key at the dining room table, and for all the organizations that my parents volunteered in, was about sharing and it was about listening. Both my parents were social workers. I have an undergraduate degree in social work. I just think the listening is where it all begins. For me, does it really matter what your partisanship is or what you think? There is usually something we can connect on. I would focus on that. It has served me well professionally, but it’s also served me well personally. So, there’s lots of joy, and finding a way to talk to people. People are so interesting Joe.

As you yes, they are very interesting. That’s one of the benefits of the job. But as you get deeper into issues, listening lays the framework and sets the tone. I would probably guess that sometimes the listening was more one way than others. What comes next to you then with the information you’ve garnered from listening? At some point, it comes down to, “We feel this way,” another person feels that way. Then how do you take that philosophy to the next level?

I have worked in public sector. I always knew who my client was. In my Hillsborough County days, my friends laughed. We did three major sports initiatives. First, we did hockey. Then we did George Steinbrenner for first spring training. Then we did the box. My friends laughed, because I didn’t know the difference between a baseball and a hockey puck. I didn’t think that it mattered to have the Yankees in Tampa. I was wrong, but that was my task. My task was to help fund each of those initiatives. Each of those deals was totally different. So, early in my career I got to learn the power of sports, as power of franchises. I would not have chosen those assignments, but that is what the Board of County Commissioners wanted me to go do.

I think that knowing who your client is. And, candidly, coming to work every day knowing who your client is and what they want, gives me the focus. If I could not be comfortable with some of those decisions, they were reluctant, I was not. Then I needed to go find other work. But I think that that notion of not about me, about the client and what is their direction. Then you have to find the places where you can agree that are acceptable to the policy makers – various policy makers whether it’s the board of county commissioners, Mayor Baker or the legislature or the governor. I think it’s threading that need on each project is different, that the intent has to be the same.

As you engage with folks to do this work, did you find that as you’re moving in with the listening theme, did you find that as you listen to them obviously, hope was they would listen to you. Or at the very least, you could take what you learned from listening to them to help you do your job better, did you quickly see which of those two paths you were going to have to go down? Did you hope obviously they would open up and listen back and then sometimes they wouldn’t?

Just like every place. Lots of different personalities. Some folks, you can be really direct with, and just say, “It won’t work and this is why.” That they’ll be responsive. Others, it’s a lot of triangulation. So, if somebody won’t listen to me then I find somebody who they will listen to and I go make my pitch there. The good policy makers, the good elected officials want to know more. Most of them are curious. That’s why they’re in the business, some more so than others. But I also think that you start with, “Where are you?” while the lobbying industry is maligned. I think that it’s a mistake. What good lobbyists, ethical lobbyists do is provide information and facts. That’s magnified.

My career was so long. I remember when there were not term limits. But I think with term limits, even more so the members have a quick learning curve. They’re assigned to committees they may or may not know about. Really, the lobbyists who are in it for the right reasons, a lot of it is education and understanding how it all works together. Some of it is teaching. Some of it is helping them make the connections to the community whether it’s about higher ed or local government. But I think you have to really appreciate particularly, the focus in Tallahassee. It’s not a full-time job. It’s pretty intense. Most of them are on lots of committees. Working with them, and working both with the aides who are sometimes totally not acknowledged or valued, and also working with the professional staff.

One of the things about Florida is that, they actually have a professional legislative staff. That is not the case in every state. These are some of the smartest, most capable folks who are deep experts in their subject area. Working with them, they may be experts in higher education. They may not have ever worked on a campus. It’s different. Just trying to make those connections, providing lots of facts, and providing sometimes a nudge of, “Call your best friend.” Knowing who connects with who in the community is also a big asset.

Listening in the network, that all falls back onto trust, which is as interesting as you lay that over the idea of the negative view of lobbying. It’s funny, because we get this all the time where people will come out with this idea. More often than not, the first response to the idea is not about the idea. It’s about the motivation behind the idea, “Oh, this person was paid by a thinktank to say that.” I always have thought, “So, what?” it makes their motivation clear, but then the presumption is that they’re not just trying to put forth their perspective. They’re trying to bend the truth or bend stats to their will.

I’m smiling, only because my friend who went to undergraduate school with me Dominic Calabro runs TaxWatch. Every year he would come out with the Turkey List, which I frequently was on. I was so mad about that, because his definition of what’s a turkey is what was not in the governor’s presented budget. It’s the same kind of analogy you just made of, just because the governor didn’t put it in is budget, doesn’t mean that the legislatures in Pinellas County didn’t have some good ideas. I always thought it was rather a lazy way of deciding what’s a turkey and what’s not. Because the process is supposed to work. Legislatures are supposed to represent their constituents, whether it’s for an appropriation for a performing arts center, whether it’s for a road project. That’s one reason we elect them. I always thought that was a lazy way, because once you’re labelled a turkey, it does get harder. Dominic was right, but you had to then make your arguments even stronger to the governor’s staff about why a project should not be vetoed.

I think that having to process information as a legislator has only gotten harder, because of the proliferation of information, proliferation of expertise, and the advanced skill of putting that in front of you. A lot of times, it’s the consequences of not adhering to it publicly like even the Turkey List is now more powerful and pervasive than ever.

I think it’s tough. I have great sympathy for the legislators who just when folks come up from home, they’re always happy to see everybody. I’ve been with many of the – we lovingly call you day-trippers, the folks who come up for a day, and they get frustrated that they can’t see the speaker or the chair, because they’re from home. But those people are busy. It’s not just busy to busy. They are doing work, because it’s a 60 days session. I always try to encourage folks, if they want to talk to legislators, find them at home. Also, you should not be meeting them for the first time when you come to Tallahassee for your four-hour visit to the capital.

I want to explain a theme of the Turkey List. Those things are hard. And they are an injustice. That is just one of potentially endless examples of that sort of manipulation of information. Like you mentioned, you could be doing brilliant things. Because information is so limited, when placed on the list it can hose a shoe for a lot. What were your strategies for dealing with the inevitability that you can’t please everybody?

You can’t please everybody. Some of it is, every year also has a different context. Last year, so many good projects got vetoed by the governor, because we were just entering COVID. How do you complain about that? I encouraged folks last year not to complain about it. That it’s just a reality. Each year has a different opportunity for funding. Different sectors have good years and bad years. You have to really contextualize it all. And that every year is not going to be the space for workforce, or every year is not going to be the space for preservation of land. I think that there is some recognition of all the nuances of the process. Ideally, to have the governor in [11:22] to in a budget always helps. The work begins there. One of the questions I was always asked is, “What do you do after a session?” and it’s, the work has just begun. Because it is to maintain these relationships and to understand whether it’s the university or the board of county commissioners or the mayor’s office needs for next year. That work begins immediately, as does the relationships and the continuation of the relationships.

As I’ve mentioned a few of these potentially annoying things, I wish we were on video, because your smile enlarged. At each turn, you’ve come back to me with, “It makes the job a little harder,” or, “People don’t appreciate these other folks.” At no point did you say, “This makes me angry,” or, “This hurt my feelings.” It didn’t even seem like it flickered across your eyes as you were answering it. Is that an ultimate pragmatism job? First, don’t take it personal. Where does that play into your personal fortitude that you’re hearing that, and able to just roll with that?

I confess. There are some projects I care so deeply about, and then it hurts. Years ago, with probably my proudest accomplishment legislatively was, giving the authority to the board of county commissioners to fund the Indigent Healthcare tax. It was really tough. Lost one year for a renewal. It’s pretty unbelievable, because that is probably the last surtax that does not have a time limit on it. It’s before all of that. It only took a simple majority of the board of county commissioners. In the arch of my career then it went oh, you had to have a super majority to pass a tax increase at the local level. Now, you essentially just can’t do it. but it’s very hard. I think that those projects, when I’m so clear of the difference it would make, it’s not in that case with Indigent Healthcare, surtax that I necessarily knew my neighbor would benefit.

Because my neighbor probably wouldn’t benefit. I always lived in a lovely condo on Bay Shore. That’s probably not the target market. But the impact of providing healthcare to people who needed it were so profound to me. Again, proud daughter of social workers. I knew it would make a difference. That, when you just ache, but what you do is you come back and you figure out the better coalition. You figure out which legislators care or don’t care, and what the work is. It’s a motivating factor. It’s never in the appropriations process, which is what so many universities are about. I had some very good years. Thanks to our delegation members. Everybody says, “Oh, that was terrific. You must be happy.” It’s was just like, “No, I would be happy if I had gotten $10 million more.”

You’re never done. I think there is also a difference between some of the policy issues and the appropriations. Candidly, most folks just say, “Thank you,” and, “That’s great.” But when you lose or you don’t come home with money, folks are disappointed. They don’t know the context. They don’t know five great years doesn’t mean, the next year is going to be great. Some of it is understanding that people don’t really know how it works. But my guess is that’s true for how to build a bridge or other things. But for sure, some losses hurt more than others. My favorite story is of when I worked again for the board of county commissioners. The president of the senate happened to have a small contract. I’m being facetious, he represented one of the big rental car companies.

The board of county commissioners, my work which I take seriously, was to pass tax to increase the rental car tax. It didn’t matter that everybody in Hillsborough County wanted it. I think that project may have been for the Box. I can’t quite remember, but it didn’t matter, because that bill wasn’t going to get heard. That one actually didn’t hurt that much, because from the beginning I said, “It’s not going to happen.” Sometimes, they don’t hurt at all, but sometimes they hurt big. Then you just got to remember that some of the big initiatives take two or three years to get done. And not to give up.

In that specific example where I would have felt the grr of injustice is that it wasn’t heard. But you’ve seen enough of that. That that’s just the way things roll.

Yes, it’s called power.

As you look back, you spoke a little bit of the dutifulness with which you did your job, when you’re up in ClearWater. As you progressed in your career either, did you expand – let yourself get into things that drove a more personal passion in you or even would I say, looking back, do you wish you would have done that sooner or done it more?

I think life is a balance beam. I think that I had lots of ability to coach and support folks who are working on issues that were not mine, of suggesting how I might do something, while staying really focused on that which I was being paid to represent. I think there are ways of helping folks on those issues that we’re really passionate about. In my private life, I got to write the cheques to the people I wanted to write them to or organizations that I wanted to write them to. Again, coming back to my family, it was always about giving back. Whether it was time or when you had the resources to do that. That was just following my parents’ footsteps.

Following the thread of writing cheques, you and Katee are huge supporters of the arts.

We are.

Let’s talk about art in St. Pete a little bit. How are we doing? Where are we going? What do you think?

Katee is actually the visionary in the family. We don’t fight. Very infrequently do we fight, but we fought. Because she came home and told me that unbeknownst to me she had moved her art space. And she was in love. I said, “Did you sign a contract?” “Oh, yeah,” “How long would that be?” “Oh, a year.” That was a fight, but she was so correct, and I was so wrong. That was The ArtsXchange, her first space there. She then graduated to a 3000 square foot space, for which we did talk about, before she signed a three-year contract. But she had the vision specifically, for the arts exchange of what an important driver that was going to be. What the combination the synergy of the different artists – the fact that it provides some safe space, meaning it’s not going to get priced out.

Before, that Katee came to town and led the moor in, and understood from her New York experience and economic development that arts is an economic driver. These days I don’t think that’s particularly fresh here, but when we came it was. I think she understood the economic impact of a thriving arts community. I’m so proud that she really helped create it. With the arts exchange, we were proud to be one of the major funders of The ArtsXchanges it was getting going. There is so much pride when we go, and the work that’s been done there. Full parking lots pre-COVID, but it’s coming back. That whole energy, the fact that the fair grounds is coming. All of these projects, but going back we really got to give the shout out to Mayor Baker. He invested public dollars and parts of the community. Then the private sector comes in. That is so important.

What Liz Dimmitt is doing first, we start with The ArtsXchange which is subsidized, has all these different spaces. Now, you have the project that Liz and others are doing that are so important, and it’s private sector. That’s the role of economic development in the public sector. To plant it and then make sure all the environment is right to thrive. The Warehouse Arts District is just an extraordinary space. People come to town to see it. The artists are making a go of it, and changing our community. It’s extraordinary. We also support The Orchestra. We are a big supporter of The Holocaust Museum where I was on the board for many years. It’s a diverse range. I also think that’s a sign of a pretty sophisticated city that we can have such a range of museums. Some downtown, and compact area, others now with the Arts Exchange and the Warehouse House Arts District blossoming. A bit off the grid. There’s more coming. It’s enormously exciting and just fun.

You have a good awareness of placemaking and the value of placemaking. There’s never an end to the road, but obviously, we’re already seeing gentrification, conversations come up with the marina. And let’s get bigger boats in, let’s keep the smaller boats and affordable housing versus higher end housing. There is a cycle to art that tends to be done in the garages and studios to done in the nicer studios and nicer garages, to eventually it brings in money, which brings gentrification. Obviously, you mentioned the cap on the rental price of the… What do you think of that?

I think these are such important questions, just not for the arts but for downtown. When I started to work for Mayor Baker – you remember – the landscape looked very different. Beach Drive was dead. In a moment of humility, Mayor Baker used to say, “We’re a 20-year overnight success,” because before I joined his administration there’d been lots of attempts. Now we’re in this surge, but not just about arts, but all about development. I think there is something to be said for curated development. This administration has really tried to tackle that as far as what’s good, how do we keep local, what’s too big, will we push folks out if we have more condos and more traffic? I have a hard time believing that.

Only in my lobbying career I got to know so many different parts of Florida. We are such a good deal to other parts of the state. As our prices rise, so do theirs. There’s got to continue to be a thoughtful conversation about keeping St. Pete special. We also have to change. For the gentrification, it’s something that Katee and I talk about a bunch. I think it’s such a double-edged sword. So proud of the development, so proud of community engagement. We have to take care of the whole cloth. How we do that – some of that is public dollars, community interventions. Some of it is the private sector. I’m pretty happy that I keep hearing that more. The new expression is, “Workforce housing is coming.”

Yes, it is.

That’s so critical for what I think are the folks who are making our community better by being teachers, by being fire fighters, by being cops. Candidly, by being assistant professors who are not paid much, I just think that intellectual capital. The workforce housing and the incentives are the commitments that the public sector can help to begin to provide that. We want these folks to stay. What happens at USF frequently is that the assistant faculty member can stay in a condo he or she until they get married and then they want kids. Then what we found is that they’re moving to Manatee, making the commute. That’s a loss for them of time, but it’s a loss for us, because then, “How am I going to ask them to be on a local board?” because they went across the bridge and get home. There’s so much about the gestalt of why we want folks to be safe in their housing and can afford it. It’s one of the top issues that a lot of smart folks are working, but we’ve got to start practicing that.

It’s funny, because you had mentioned the 20-year overnight success. I’ve been hearing about the St. Pete renaissance for forever. To the point where I got – I won’t say frustrated, but I thought, “What does that mean?” as we actually started a series on St. Pete 2.0. When do we become St. Pete 2.0? In exploring that, the answer I came to was hopefully never, because the renaissance is the beautiful time. It is the time when we’re on the calm. Where we’re getting there. The closer we get there, what I see from the people who are making the get-there happen as a resistance to getting there, because this is the nice time. Some of those cycles were just inevitable. But the short answer is to really appreciate the time we’re in. And to prolong it as long as we can, but there’s still a lot with progressive developers. It is a lot of good areas to put that world class housing. Still, we’re not at the point that’s totally price prohibitive.

I don’t think so either. I think there are progressive developers that are certainly going to want to make some money. But I also think that again, the public sector help or some tax incentive, something to put these pieces together. As far as change, when I left Mayor Baker’s office to join Katee in New York. And I worked at a community college called LaGuardia Community College in western Queens. Queens continues to remake itself. New York does it as a whole, but I can’t speak to all of that. I had a walkin tour by one of the historians of Queens, and was the old Jewish deli area that was owned by [24:54]. It was the bakery that was Lithuanian, but that now was run by the Chinese. It’s just this whole iteration. Queens is the most diverse county in the country, or it was when I left a few years ago. Everybody comes in. So, it is wildly diverse. Some of the names of the stores and their product lines stay the same, but the people change and the investments change. Then the housing changes.

All to say is, we’re always changing. I think that there has to be some recognition of our possible different roles. I do think that more jobs in the different sectors here in St. Pete is helpful. I think we’re more than a suburb to Tampa, but how to nurture that is really significant. We just have the assets to put it together, but the iterations I think will continue and continue. I think it’s a strength. I say that until something happens that I don’t like. Then I’m grumpy, but I think it really is. It’s not atypical for a thriving place. The alternative is to be stagnant. We did that for a lot of years.

One of the other challenges is, as people find us, how do we connect them in the community? I’ve had this conversation with so many folks. Folks come, they discover us, but then how do they become part of our community? How do they give here, not just financially but their support or their network? I don’t know if any of us have cracked that well. I think you guys start to do that, but it is still… It’s almost some curation of new relationships to get folks plugged in. I don’t think there’s a systematic way to do it. Maybe it is just bumping into folks up, cower and starting a conversation. Then introducing them to 12 people you know.

Just because you brought it up, the Catalyst as I envision it is just on the first step of its journey. I’d love to build those tools. So, the picks and troubles for those connections to happen. I see a world where we give a newspaper tool to every high school. We give a newsletter tool to every neighborhood association. Every writer who’s passionate about a topic can use our newsletter tools or our subscription tools to put their content out there. Then you put a fence around it and call it a community. As the 11th grader writes a really great piece of high school A, it bumps up to the high school page. All the best writing from our high schools are there. Then if one of those who really excels it bumps up to maybe our daily edition, but then all the folks who care about startups or about Lake Maggiore’s ecosystem or about [27:37] fire hazard or whatever. They can all have a place to express their content. That’s why we started the Catalyst to solve exactly that problem that the idea of meritocracy meets connection. We set a lot of silos. Even locally, we have a lot of silos. I think mixing ideas is the way to solve that.

The political world, we call that communities of interest. As we start reapportionment next year, in the old days it used to be, how you could draw the lines well if there is a community of interest. But I think sometimes we get so segmented that if you’re a person is into the environmental issues or the rain science issues. That we don’t think to cross them over to arts and culture. It’s not quite that straightforward, but I do worry about the segmentation. But also, if I was coming to town, I would probably look at arts and culture first. I think that it’s so tricky. The good news is there is a lot of content out there. the bad news there is a lot of content out there. I want to make sure people are still for me old school talking, and seeing each other and bumping into folks and starting conversations. I think that the tools really help in creating places where folks can connect. I think that if folks can connect in St. Pete, then it will be more than just a place, their second house or even their first house to live. And to leave for other places, but to actually settle here and then contribute.

Words to live by. [29:01], you’ve been in the room where so much has happened. Your experiences and your memories are so valuable. I’d like to just cover a couple of phases of your life and what you remember just for folks who’ve lived through St. Pete. You fast-forward into St. Pete working with Mayor Baker. How did that start? What sticks out as your time there?

My good friend Steve Cybert who has returned to St. Pete after being in Tallahassee for lots of years, as a county commissioner, he actually introduced me to Rick. I think we were at a conference together. Rick needed a ride home. Anyway, we ended up in a car together. I’d not spent any time in St. Pete. I was a south Tampa girl working for the board of county commissioners. To Charleston who was his strong right hand, had worked in Hillsborough County as well. The Baker plan was education. I came over early one morning and, “Folks, you know Rick won’t be surprised.” It was a very long conversation, wide ranging. But he had the clarity of what he wanted to accomplish.

I use Rick as an example of folks who come to St. Pete. They show up. They do what they say they were going to do. They become leaders. Ricky was a new attorney, came up. Ended up being the chair of the chamber and then that launched his career. But he spent 15 or 20 years engaging. He really had thought a lot about how to transform this city. No secret. He’s a serious Republican, and I am seriously not. At the time, even more so, but what we could agree on is the opportunity. The first initiative with him was to create Mayors, Mentors and More. That was his commitment to get kids college scholarships. But more than that to do what – as a social worker – I would call wrap around services. How can we help them, and how can we also help the principals? How can we help the school?

It was a systems approach. That program went on to win awards. Mayor was very engaged in helping raise the money for the scholarships, which we used for sixth graders. And then they had to make a commitment. That was a big, big initiative. He was right. It was absolutely Rick’s vision to start with middle school. Because he said, “These are tough years.” But it was a great way for me to learn the community. It was maybe my second day on the job. Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said, “You’re coming with me.” Gore Juiz remains one of my most important and dearest friends, took me to every middle school that I was going to be implementing the mayor’s vision. He introduced me to every principal who he knew well. And just gave me the stamp of approval.

I remember getting back in the car with Goliath. He’d said a million nice things about me. This was day two I said, “How do you know that stuff? He still a police chief.” He just looked at me and said, “I just made a few phone calls to focus on Hillsborough.” Classic go, but I think his support and his understanding of certainly the schools that were struggling really helped me. Being in the mayor’s office gave me that cat bird seed of meeting the important folks. For that, I’m always grateful to Mayor Baker for that opportunity. It was started out as a schools’ initiative. Then the mayor kept asking me to take on some additional responsibilities. Ultimately, my portfolio was pretty big and included lobbying after 911, the city’s longtime lobbyist for [32:43] called up to active duty. The one thing I had wanted to get away from was lobbying. My friends just laughed, because I was back in the mix.

Given that you had political differences. You were on different sides of the spectrum then. Did you find that your interactions were tied more deeply to specific programs or did you develop a more general mix of conversation?

All my friends, it raised their eyebrows. But for Rick and I, it wasn’t an issue. Local government – and I’m not a purist or I’m not naïve. But it’s a non-partisan office. We had lots and lots of work to get done. It really did not come up again. He was my client. I understood that the places where we were going to have differences, they didn’t really impact our daily life. More than times than not, it was easy. I was not the only democrat in his administration. We sometimes on occasion would double team him. It was really about moving things forward in lots. He was very serious about having a seamless community. I don’t think we’ve gotten there. But the investment that he made in midtown is really extraordinary.

I remember being at a meeting with the president of Johns Hopkins. Not of the medical school, but of the actual president of Johns Hopkins who’s a Canadian guy. We’re all in one of the big conference rooms. Rick was doing his spiel and the president just interrupted him and said, “Excuse me Mayor. I must have gotten wrong information. I was told you were a Republican.” Rick kind of blustered a little bit and said, “I am a Republican.” “But you’re doing so many good things. And you care about so many different kinds of things. Are you sure?” he was just playful. But it was in that very dry Canadian delivery. But I think that Rick was genuine about caring about different parts of the community and demonstrating it. That way it was great to work in that administration.

Now that you have endless, on-the-ground data about other mayors in other cities or not. It feels like your takeaway was that he was very authentically connected to the community when you’re having Goliath there driving you around to the schools. I don’t want to call it throwback, but is that a fair statement?

I think in his time, it wasn’t about social media and campaigns. Rick spent time in midtown before the election. Their wrap always is that the candidates always come to the Black churches three weeks or four weeks before the… That wasn’t the case. I could walk with Rick in midtown and everybody would know him. Of course, he was 6’ 7” and I’m five feet. We made a funny couple walking the streets. But people knew him. They knew him in all parts of the town. He’s a very active, energetic guy at that time. He was really known. Again, I think it was before social media was quite as potent as it was. But he’s a hard worker. He was out in the community and he knew most parts of it pretty darn well.

That damn social media. We’ll take a break from gathering institutional knowledge to talk about love. That you decided to make the jump out of Baker’s administration and out of Florida all together for love. Tell us about that.

It was the funniest moments. I went in to see Mayor Baker. First, I had lunch with Tish Alston who is a dear friend and an extraordinary leader in this community. We were walking back to City Hall. I said, “Oh, I’m going to see the mayor in an hour.” “What’s on your mind?” I said, “I’m going to resign.” It was a showstopper and Tish said, “Why is that?” I said, “I’m going to join Katee in New York. It’s time. This long-distance stuff doesn’t work for us.” She said, “Will you give me a month?” I said, “I have to quote my very good friend. I can wrap everything up in two weeks, because that’s what Tish asked me to do when I left Hillsborough County.” And gave me a very serious talk about, “You can wrap anything in two weeks Helen.” Tish sent me off with love and I said, “Oh, Mayor is going to have a bad afternoon.”

I walked in and the mayor looked at me and said, “I don’t have time for bad news today, because I don’t have a very good poker face.” I said, “It’s not bad news for you. It’s definitely not bad news for me.” I told him I was leaving. He said, “Why?” while he is very astute at many things, he had failed to understand that Katee was coming. We were traveling back and forth. That she was really the love of my love. I said, “I’m going for Katee.” It was one of the few times when Mayor Baker was quiet.” Off I went, and it was an extraordinary… I said that I was moving for the love of my life and that was true. My time in St. Pete was so special. When Katee and I were leaving New York a few years later it was really, come here or come to Tallahassee where her family and some of my family were at the time. St. Pete absolutely won out, because we had spent so much time here. And it’s such a special place.

It was a bit of a surprise to Mayor Baker that I would leave his administration. But I saw it through year three that he was about to announce for reelection. It was fun. Katee and I have known each other since we were kids in Tallahassee. We lived on different parts of town. I was in the poor faculty section and she was not. Her dad was a very successful developer. We shared the geography of lots of different places. Tallahassee was so small. Then maybe when my parents got to FSU in 1953, it was 13,000 students. It was tiny, but we have that shared geography of loving north Florida as well. Went to New York. Had a grand time there. Katee’s career was rocketing and I had the great experience of working in Queens for a community college with another visionary leader. It was a good run. I was ready to come home.

How did Katee come to be in New York?

Katee came to New York – she was there about 15 years. She too followed someone, and made a career there after a really successful career at East Carolina University. She was doing economic development. She worked in lower Manhattan and did a tremendous amount of work there.

This was your initial coming together then. You were completely distanced relationship from day one.

Yes, we actually had our first chapter when we were in our 20s. I say we were young and dumb.

Got it.

We were, and she says, “We went and worked out our neurosis on other people.” Then when she was getting ready to celebrate her 50th birthday, she came and found me. It was our second chapter, which is much easier and better than the first one when we were young and dumb. It’s a magical story. We feel so lucky to have the second chapter. I visited with Katee two weeks before 911. I knew enough. Though I’d been traveling to New York. It’s my favorite city, but I didn’t know her part of the city that well. But I knew enough after visiting with her two weeks before 911 that her office was near World Trade Center.

Actually, it was maybe my 11th day on the job working for Mayor Baker when 911… I sat with Mayor Baker as the second tower was hit. All I could think of, was Katee safe? Indeed, she was at the World Trade Center during 911. It’s one of our many miracles that she survived. For that, I’m grateful. It really energized me when Mayor said, “You’ve got to go lobby for us.” It was just thinking, “Katee lived, other people lived. There’s so much work to be done. We’ve got to make this world safer.” I’m happy to go to Tallahassee. A lot of the lobbying was about security money back then, but it was very personal for me.

Understood, it’s a beautiful story. Back to our regularly scheduled institution download. This is the one I’m ready for, the down and dirty – consolidation.

Uh-huh. It’s definitely a dirty word.

Obviously, you were there. I’m just going to let you riff.

Consolidation was a surprise to many of us. I’m not saying it was a surprise to everyone. I don’t know what our colleagues in Tampa knew. As we talk about things continue to change. Certainly, the story of consolidation is not yet done. The decision to consolidate was one of the priorities for now Speaker Sprowls. He is another guy we haven’t spoken of much this interview. But he is extraordinarily smart, energetic. He doesn’t do anything casually. And has been a very good friend to me and continues to be. What the speaker really believed is that all parts of the university needed to be stellar. That his belief in consolidation was that it would distribute some of the resources and some of the intellectual capital that a university – particularly a research one – can offer a community. That was his driving force, was towards excellence.

That was difficult for people on every campus. It wasn’t just USF, St. Pete. It was also USF, Tampa. It was Sarasota, Manatee. Probably the folks that stayed the most neutral least impacted was USF Health. But the other major parts of the organization has ramifications for everyone. No one was happy. The pain point truly where you sat on that one is how you ended up feeling. It was clear to me, because throughout my career, one of the things I am really good at is understanding power. I understood that the Pinellas delegation wanted this to happen. At that point, representing my client it was how can I be as protective as I can for USF, St. Pete. The original bill filed was quite different than the bill that was passed. The downtown partnership weighed in really heavily about how if it’s going to happen, here are some ways to protect the campus. To protect the community.

So, a larger campus board, some focus on what programs were going to be achieved here. One of the things we all agree on regardless of where we sit is that marine science is so critical to that community. And to the economic development community of this city. We’re able to make some changes. This past session there is some funding that will continue the rise to pre-eminence. There will be some other resources. It’s still in the early stages of coming to fruition. The business community is critical to continuing to speak for the campus. The campus board is now an advisory board. But having the right people on that board to advocate for the campus and to make the connections will remain critical.

As you introduced, if I recount. You mentioned that it was driven mainly by one person. That no one else was happy about it. Then you mentioned the word power. On the romantic side of that, I can see a visionary who saw something. And people don’t like change, but then on having been more ingrained in the St. Pete side. And really seen nobody happy with it on the St. Pete side, let’s take the thread of that power versus vision. Then real effect in real lives, how would one reconcile that if as we [44:46]?

I actually think it’s pretty easy to reconcile every good idea. It starts with the champion and the legislature. I would have Chris Sprowls be my champion for any issue that’s important to me, because he works hard. While, he certainly owns that he was one of the driving forces of it. He had the whole delegation supporting him. He had people in the education space in the legislative arena supporting him. I think that he absolutely was one of the driving forces of it. By then he was already speaker designate. People recognize that, but it’s a persuasive argument that there should be quality in all places. You asked earlier about other things that hurt or are painful. I think that consolidation became a very personal issue here. Folks really were disappointed in the outcome. But I also think it’s too early.

You say, nobody is happy with consolidation. Nobody is happy with consolidation yet. I do think that this notion of strengthening marine science, having undergraduate programs feted, there are all sorts of good things, strengthening things that will happen. Some of that is about accountability. Again, the business community particularly has to continue to hold all of us accountable of the programs that are supposed to come here that were thoughtfully designed or thoughtfully named. It wasn’t out of context. If you read the law, it’s supposed to be about some of our tech. It’s supposed to be about marine science. It’s supposed to be about arts and culture. Some of those programs really resonate here. The roadmap is there. Now, we have to have the focus to persevere about reminding our policy makers – who again with term limits change – about why these programs make some sense. That’s critical.

It’s a long game, but there are some pluses and minuses to it that will continue to emerge. If I was focused in Tampa, if students come here, they actually don’t want to go to the Tampa setting. Unless, they really want football or they really want Greek life. As more students come to discover USF St. Pete as a campus, it is wildly different. More and more students will discover it. Certainly, our residence hall. It’s almost the same for you that you have Joe of such beauty and class size. I think that this will create more choice. I remain optimistic. Though, I have many bruises, but I still think that what Speaker Sprowls envisioned with the right follow up and tenacity will benefit the city.

Then you mentioned of yet, is what will lead you to my follow up thought is that there is a lot of roots here. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell being probably a little harsh way to say it, but the weeds from the flowers. We have a lot of legacy institutions in and out of the university. And in and out of the public sector, private sector, neighborhood sector that could use some innovation. There’s always going to be resistance to that.

Higher ed is another whole space that’s changing. Coming out of COVID, I’m very curious to see what remains or how this past year impacts the whole delivery of higher education. We’re all into long distance learning, but it wasn’t a mandate. Our faculty members at USF St. Pete – and my assumption is universities and colleges across the nation – got so much better about creating community online. There’s all these different techniques. There’s all these different pedagogies now. That will really change things. But if you look at the long arch of USF St. Pete, and my staff ran the celebration of its 50th anniversary, it’s been a lot of different things. It used to just be junior and senior. We didn’t lose that. We were still undergraduate. You can still come to this campus. Again, it is a separate kind of experience. The faculty and staff who are drawn here fit the gestalt of St. Pete. I don’t think that goes away. I do think that there are some areas of excellence that are just natural for us. And that that gets stronger and stronger with time. Again, only with diligence and expression of support from the private sector will that aspiration be reached. I don’t think there is anything wrong with aspirations. Folks still have some angst over the process, but that’s in the rearview mirror. The object is to go forward. How do we get energy around that? How do we understand that the support is for this campus, because it’s so critical? It’s a little tribe, but every great city has a great university. We certainly need that particularly, as other parts of our community just continue to blossom.

Wonderful, and whatever greatness our little university here has is in no small part to you. Thank you for that.

That’s kind of and generous, but thank you.

Helen Levine, thanks for joining me.

You bet.

Write Review
Share this article

1 Reviews on this article

Sylvia Rusche
22. 06 2021, 09:33:0101
Excellent interview Joe with an extraordinary woman I’m privileged to call friend. Her influence in St Pete, then and now cannot be overestimated. And her work for USF…legendary. Thank you for spotlighting one of our very best!