Local News Columnist
1:40 PM CST, February 16, 2013
Chances are you haven't heard of Christina Bonarrigo or Johnny Castillo.
A couple decades ago I could have almost guaranteed you'd know at least one of them some day.
That's how certain the pathway was from student politics at the University of Florida to the Governor's Mansion, the halls of Congress, the state Legislature, even the Florida Supreme Court.
Both Bonarrigo and Castillo are vying to be the next UF student-body president in this week's election on the campus of 50,000 students.
No matter who wins, the chances that he or she will bounce to automatic political stardom off campus seem less likely today.
Nothing personal. I talked with both of them, and they are committed to students and the Gator Nation.
It's just that — and you know how we Gators hate to admit this sort of thing — we're going through a bit of a dry spell.
Call it the political equivalent of the Ron Zook years.
The domination once held by UF alumni who cut their teeth through the traditional campus political machine is fading.
And if you've been in Florida longer than a couple of days, you likely know that talking about UF student politics also means talking about Florida Blue Key.
For those of you who just crossed the state line, I'm not referring to an island destination south of Miami.
Florida Blue Key is known as the most prestigious leadership society in the state, and one that for decades pulled the political strings at UF and beyond.
To give you some idea, in the 28 years from 1971 to 1998, every Florida governor except one came from Blue Key.
Only Bob Martinez wasn't a graduate of UF or a member of the club. And he just served one term.
The 14 years since Jeb Bush took office — followed by Charlie Crist and current Gov. Rick Scott — is the longest Florida has gone without a UF alum in the governor's mansion since at least 1949.
For the Gator power structure, losing Gov. Lawton Chiles was like losing Steve Spurrier. The team knew it would be rough for a while but hoped to get past the inevitable rebuilding years.
Why does any of this matter?
Because this is Florida, where people either love or love to hate the Gators. And because if Blue Key's grip on power is loosening, then it's a sign that the old system of clout is shifting — the result of growth and diversity at the University of Florida and across the state.
It's still easy to rattle off a list of Blue Key-trained power players: U.S. Rep. John Mica and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, for example.
And Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam or Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, both Blue Key members, could throw their hats into the ring for governor.
But now that Dean Cannon's term is up as speaker of the Florida House, eight of the nine people on the leadership teams in the House or the Senate — Republican or Democrat — are non-Blue Key.
The lone exception is House Majority Leader Steve Precourt, a UF grad inducted into Blue Key just four years ago, according to a UF Government Relations spotlight on the legislator.
Technically, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is a member, but he wasn't involved in Blue Key during his days in Gainesville.
"Student government at the time was largely dominated by fraternities and sororities, and I wasn't in a fraternity," Rubio told me last week.
If he had been a Blue Key alum, Rubio might not have been gasping for water under those hot lights during his response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union Speech.
Because those who have been through the UF political machine have said the real world pales in comparison.
"I never encountered, in state and federal politics, activities as aggressive as at the University of Florida," Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator, told the Independent Florida Alligator last year.
But Rubio is so famous now that Florida Blue Key wanted to claim him. So a few years ago it offered him an honorary membership, which he accepted. (Martinez, Bush and Crist are now also honorary members.)
"They didn't pick me while I was there," he said.
That's at least one thing Rubio has in common with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the national Democratic Party.
Wasserman Schultz successfully ran a campaign against the Blue Key party to become president of the Student Senate in the mid-1980s. She politely declined an offer to be honorarily inducted.
"Florida Blue Key had the reputation and tradition of electing Florida's future leaders," she said. "It hasn't had that type of reputation in years."
That could be the result of a hit to the organization's image after a lawsuit in the 1990s that alleged a history of dirty tricks by the organization. A jury awarded a six-figure verdict in favor of the former student candidate whom Blue Key opposed.
But even more of a factor is that as the state and the university have grown, members of the exclusive club have simply become outnumbered and seen their influence diluted.
In the past decade prominent figures with a Blue Key pedigree fell short: Bill McCollum and Bill McBride lost bids for governor, and Chris Dorworth, once slated to be House speaker, was defeated last year.
But like football, these things are cyclical. Let's not forget who came after Ron Zook.
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