The Inside View
Professor and politician team up to show students how politics really works
By Warren Miller ’90MBA and Renée Anduze ’04HH
Last fall, Hamilton Holt School students got the inside scoop on local politics in an innovative course taught jointly by Richard Crotty, the mayor of Orange County, and Richard Foglesong, George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Professor of Politics and chair of the political science department. Politics and Political Science brought theory and practice together in a unique format, with college professor teaching political theory and local politician providing firsthand information on actual cases, side by side. “Mayor Crotty provided that ‘inside baseball’ knowledge—who said what to whom to get things done,” explained Foglesong, “and I provided the historical and theoretical perspective.”
“We were an odd couple in some respects,” Foglesong said of the teaching team. “We’re the same age, we have the same first name, and we’ve been at our craft for the same number of years. I’ve been teaching and he’s been in office for 30 years.” It turned out to be an ideal match.
The course, which focused on actual Central Florida projects—both successes and failures—involving issues ranging from taxation and transportation to economic development and growth management, brought a valuable new twist to the traditional case-study format: thanks to Crotty’s connections, students got an in-depth look at the politics of these initiatives through the eyes of many of the key players, who were invited to the class as guest speakers. In fact, an invitation to speak to the Rollins class became something of a hot ticket, according to Crotty. “When word got out about it, friends approached me wanting to participate.” The one requirement, he told them, was that they be willing to speak frankly about the politics of the subject at hand.
In one case study, former Orlando mayor Bill Frederick and Central Florida businessman Rick Walsh, both participants in the Mobility 20/20 transportation initiative of 2003 (Walsh volunteered as the campaign’s chairman), joined Crotty and Foglesong to present their perspectives on the project. Born of a 21-member commission formed by Crotty and headed by Frederick, the $8.8-billion proposal to solve Central Florida’s transportation problems was thought to be a shoo-in. In the end, it was defeated, leaving its proponents stunned. From the firsthand accounts of the speakers, students gained insights not only into the process of the initiative, but also into why it failed. “I was surprised. I learned that timing, behind-the-scenes planning, and networking are why things work,” said environmental and growth management studies major Garreth Bender, an Orange County deputy sheriff who aspires to become Orange County mayor some day.
In another case, the class was addressed by most of the central figures in the $1.1-billion effort to fund a wide array of arts and sports venues in downtown Orlando, including Steve Hogan from Florida Citrus Sports, Alex Martins from the Orlando Magic basketball franchise, Jim Pugh of the Arts Center Board, and Kathy Ramsberger from the Orlando Performing Arts Center.
“Having access to such big-name officials was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and for my peers,” said environmental and growth management studies major Brendan O’Connor.
The significance of the guest speakers went far deeper than the celebrity factor, Foglesong explained. “The students learned about the real challenges of exercising power successfully. The founders of our country thought that a divided political system was the antidote to too much power at the top. As a result, politicians have to form coalitions to make anything happen. Our students got to see how that’s done,” he said. “They also got to see the role of serendipity—the stars have to line up for anything to succeed, and sometimes they don’t. For example, the medical village at Lake Nona came about in part because [Lake Nona developer] Joe Lewis ran into a Burnham Institute board member at a golf tournament and had the opportunity to pitch him about the benefits of being in Orlando.”
Both the downtown arts and sports venues and the medical complex are moving forward. But the difficulties of funding transportation projects were as much a lesson as the successes. Both the Mobility 20/20 plan, which failed to win in a special referendum, and the commuter rail proposal, which was defeated in the State legislature shortly after the class concluded, were stark reminders that nothing in politics is assured.
“We walked through the challenges—which jurisdictions would offer what funding level and who was involved in the negotiation,” Crotty said. “The commuter rail plan had the federal government in at 50 percent, State government at 25 percent, and local government at 25 percent. Within local government, there were four counties, one big city, and minor terminals in other small cities. It got pretty complex. Students left the class thinking it was a done deal—which it should have been. Every local government voted for the plan, so one would think that the State would almost automatically fall in line. But it didn’t.”
Both Crotty and Foglesong were impressed with the level of participation of their students, who followed the issues closely. “We had to answer a lot of well-studied, detailed questions,” Crotty said. “On the last day of class, I had a sense that it was like the end of boot camp or a political campaign, which is a feeling of bonding with the people who’ve gone through it with you. I hope that maybe, because of my experience, I was able to share some information that was useful.”
According to the students, who gave the course rave reviews, it was a unique and valuable lesson in politics. “It was a great opportunity to be a student in such an innovative class that combines books with real-life experience,” said political science major Sabrina Ramirez. “Local leaders have the hard task of making great things happen, yet they have very limited power. I have a newfound respect for them.