A non-partisan leadership program helps prepare business-minded candidates for public office.
Politics 101 at the Jacksonville Regional Political Leadership Institute. Participants learn how to file for office and are briefed on public budgeting, economic development and strategies for balancing public and personal life, among other topics. [Photo: Ken McCray]
Like so many who toy with the idea of running for public office, Lori Boyer says she always felt she had a lot to contribute to the political process but dreaded the thought of campaigning. It wasn't the public speaking or fundraising that made the Jacksonville businesswoman apprehensive. She had done plenty of both for the non-profits she was involved with locally. It was the "ugliness, the mudslinging, the nasty part where people aren't civil" that bothered her.
At the suggestion of friends, Boyer last year enrolled in the Jacksonville Regional Political Leadership Institute, a program sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce that helps business leaders explore the idea of running for office. For Boyer, who since 1993 has run a real estate investment and management business founded by her late husband, the program provided invaluable tips about how to run an effective campaign and gave her the confidence to take the next step. In July 2010, Boyer filed to run for a seat on the Jacksonville City Council, and in March she was elected without a runoff. "The way I set up the campaign had a lot to do with the information I got in the course," she says.
Other graduates of the Jacksonville institute include Alvin Brown, a Democrat who was elected mayor of Jacksonville this year, Greg Anderson, a 25-year veteran of the financial services industry elected to the Jacksonville City Council, and Jim Love, an insurance agent and retired Navy captain, also on Jacksonville's City Council.
The institute is the brainchild of Mark Mills and John McReynolds, two former aides to U.S. Sen. Connie Mack. As Mills tells it, the two old friends were bemoaning the declining quality of public leaders and the challenges created by term limits and decided "there had to be a candidate-focused program" that could help prepare business-minded candidates for the rigors of campaigning and elected office. McReynolds, vice president for external affairs for Universal Orlando, took his idea to the local Chamber of Commerce, and in 2007, the Central Florida Political Leadership Institute — the first of the program's institutes — was born.
Mark Mills [Photo: Ken McCray]
Graduates of the central Florida institute, which Mills administered until last year, have been elected to the Florida House, the Orlando City Council and the Orlando mayor's office. Mills has replicated the program in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and most recently Gainesville. He's also been consulting with business leaders in Virginia and Georgia who are interested in creating similar programs.
Applicants are carefully screened. The institutes admit just 25 applicants per year — the Gainesville program kicked off this year with just 12 participants. Mills says the institutes seek individuals who have demonstrated previous leadership experience in their communities and are seriously considering running for office but need more information and skills. Businesspeople are an obvious fit because they have "real skills balancing budgets and creating jobs" that translate well to public service, he says. "We're not interested in professional joiners" or "networkers," says Mills.