News Service of Florida

 

Tallahassee attorney Steve Uhlfelder has had any number of roles: corporate lawyer, state official, children's advocate, civic fundraiser and media consultant.

Along the way, six governors —Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott — have tapped Uhlfelder for a wide range of duties. He was special counsel to Askew. Graham appointed him to the selection commission for the 1st District Court of Appeal, which Uhlfelder chaired. Chiles put him on the state university system's Board of Regents, which he also chaired. Bush chose him for the university system's successor Board of Governors and for the Florida State University Board of Trustees. Crist and Scott appointed him to the Children and Youth Cabinet, and Scott put him on the board of Volunteer Florida.

Uhlfelder also has served as general counsel for the old Department of Community Affairs and on the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. As a lawyer and lobbyist specializing in public and administrative law, Uhlfelder has represented General Electric, Kaplan, Pearson, American Express, Tenet Healthcare, UPS and ABC News.

 

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Steve Uhlfelder:

 

Q: Your family has been in the news lately over opposition to the Confederate flag flying at the courthouse in Walton County, where you have a home. You also recently re-posted a column you'd written about family members lost to the Holocaust. What's the relationship between the two?

UHLFELDER: Well, my life and my history have been tremendously impacted by the Holocaust, because most of my father's family were either killed or placed in concentration camps for over four years. And I learned from him and from my knowledge of history that when good people stand on the sidelines and watch bad things happen and do nothing, that's as bad as doing the wrong itself. And I've tried to teach my children that you should never be silent when people are being harmed. You know, silence can be deafening.

And to me, as Gov. Bush has stated, (the flag) is a racist symbol. I realize a lot of people in the South don't look at it that way. But it's recognition of the Civil War. And it's irrefutable that the Civil War was fought by the South to protect slavery, which was inexcusable.

Q: Governors Askew, Graham, Chiles, Bush, Crist and Scott all appointed you to leadership posts. That's a pretty bipartisan record.

UHLFELDER: I'm a big believer in bipartisanship. Florida is a very divided state, and I think there need to be people that can bridge both sides.

Most of the governors, I think, once they get elected, are more interested in getting things done and less interested in who gets the credit. And most of the people that run for and get elected governor, most of the time, want to achieve their goals. You know, I guess during the Chiles administration, you had pretty much a divided government, between the Legislature being Republican and the governor being a Democrat. But he was able to successfully work with people of both parties and get things done.

Q: You've served on the Board of Regents, Board of Governors and Florida State University Board of Trustees. How has our higher-education system changed since then?

UHLFELDER: What I think I pushed hard for was more performance funding. And I was less successful then (than) the governing boards are now. I think accountability for student success is much more significant than it was when I was on there, which I think is very good.

(Is that it?) We pay our football coaches a lot more. (Laughs.)

Q: You led a $23 million campaign in 1986 for start-up funding for pre-K education. But early education doesn't get the same kind of support from state leaders that K-12 does. You've been among those pushing for the Children and Youth Cabinet, for instance, to do more on early learning.

UHLFELDER: I'm very impatient. While particularly children are already without health care and without adequate early childhood education and without parental support, there's no time to waste.

I mean, in '86, I headed what they called a children's coalition for Betty Castor, a business group. And the business people who got together got lobbied for the original $23 million for the pre-K programs. And back then, to get the business community involved in pre-K was pretty significant. Today I think the business community recognizes as much as anybody that if we don't have people that are properly educated before the age of 5, they're not going to be successful. It's not rocket science any more.

(But state funding for early learning continues to lag. Why don't those programs get more attention and money from state leaders who clearly want to improve K-12?) I think that they're improving. Because of people like David Lawrence, who kept the spotlight on this issue, things are improving. I think one of the things — in addition to funding, which is important — is evaluating the quality of education they're getting in addition to just the amount of money they're getting.

I think sometimes you have to put a spotlight on an issue in an emphatic way in order to make some gain. Our goal should be to make sure that kids are not just in child care and pre-K, but that they're in quality programs — not just being babysat. I mean, we could do much better, but we're much farther along than when we started. We're making progress.

Q: You chaired Jeb Bush's mentoring initiative, a role for which you have great passion. How did you get into that?

UHLFELDER: Thirty-five years ago, I started spending time in at-risk schools. I was PTA president at my kids' school in middle-class neighborhoods. And I wanted to contrast that to totally separate but not equal schools where particularly kids of color were not getting the same kind of (education) that other children were getting — primarily because they didn't have parental support.

Before Gov. Bush got elected, he and I had lunch one day, and I told him what I saw as a mentor and how mentoring could improve opportunities for at-risk children. He asked me to put together a paper. … And after he got elected, he created a mentoring program and kicked it off with (former U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell. And as a result of that, we increased mentoring by tens of thousands in Florida. He set the example; he mentored every single week he was governor. We changed the state rules so state employees could have an hour off a week to mentor. We created programs for corporate recognition.