Graham gains edge when not running

Everyone knows Bob Graham, right? A hard-working, decent (if overly earnest) political moderate whose every instinct is not to rock the boat; a solid, cautious public servant.

Well, guess what. A new Bob Graham is emerging: A guy who’s ready to sink the boat if that is what’s called for.

After 16 low-profile years in Washington, Graham is suddenly gaining a profile as a senator who’s willing to take names and kick butt.

What’s responsible for the change? I’d say the times we’re living in – and les freres Bush. Make that los hermanos Bush.

George W.’s you’re-with us-or-against-us campaign to take out Saddam Hussein has invigorated Graham in Washington.

In Florida, it has been Jeb’s willy-nilly abolition of the Board of Regents that used to run the state university system.

Graham and President Bush: As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Graham has access to some of the most secret information about threats to U.S. security.

He insists that the greatest threat to the United States comes from al-Qaida terrorists, not Hussein.

Last week Graham accused the CIA of “obstructionism” for failing to turn over enough information about what effect a war with Iraq would have on other Middle East nations. He also wants to see information about the agency’s covert operations inside Iraq.

He’s worried that, if the United States establishes a policy of pre-emptive strikes, India could use the same rationale to attack Pakistan, possibly using nuclear weapons.

President Bush, says Graham, “needs to tell the American people consistently and loudly what our goal is when we go to war with Iraq – and I’m starting to think it’s when not if -so that we’ll know when we’ve accomplished our objective.”

It strikes me as simple, much-needed common sense.

Graham and Gov. Bush: Graham was livid when Jeb Bush and the GOP-controlled Legislature dismantled the state Board of Regents, which had made policy for the state’s university system for 35 years.

Bush replaced the regents with the Florida Board of Education to oversee education from K to grad school. A “seamless system,” Bush likes to say. A politicized system, Graham says, particularly for Florida’s 11 state universities.

The governor has the power to appoint all 13 members to each university’s board of trustees.

In other words, the state’s top politician and his politically compatible appointees control all of Florida’s most critical institutions of higher learning.

Florida International University President Mitch Maidique is among the university presidents who like the new system.

He says that, under the Board of Regents, FIU might never have gotten funding for its new law school, or additional money for other new buildings and programs.

The Gators and ‘Noles had first dibs on most of the money under the regents, who were heavy with their alumni.

Under the new system, universities rely on their friends in the Legislature for funding. But this system invites lawmakers to micromanage and meddle in institutions that should be insulated from partisan politics. The Board of Regents used to serve as that buffer.

“I believe that the extreme politicalization in our university system,” says Graham, “where individual universities are now competing with each other rather than working as a system, has been and will be a significant factor in the decline in higher-education quality in Florida.”

As proof, Graham points to the new “Measuring Up 2002” report that gives Florida’s universities and colleges mostly lackluster grades.

What’s responsible for the change? I’d say the times we’re living in – and the Bush brothers.

The governor says that the new education system is an improvement: “Why go back to the old ways that didn’t work so well?”

Graham’s alternative will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot as Constitutional Amendment 11. It would create local trustees for each campus and a statewide Board of Governors to handle policy-making systemwide.

Polls show that a bare majority of voters favor Graham’s proposal. If he can get his message out, it may come down to this: Bob Graham thinks that this proposal is good for Florida; it’s better than Jeb Bush’s version.

Graham probably will win. Although Floridians like Jeb Bush, they like Bob Graham more.

It’s curious. Some years ago when Graham had his eye on higher office, his ambition seemed to neuter his ideas.

They and he were bland. Now that he’s not running for anything, he has found his voice and a vision – and bite. At just the right time.

Michael Putney is a political reporter for a Miami-area television station.