We hear it so often — the need to work together as a team, not as separate individuals. I know I heard that repeatedly in 1982 as the newly elected Chairman of the 30-member Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation. After all, we were easily the largest bloc of votes in the 160-member legislature, but had a reputation of canceling out many of our votes by voting against each other.
My Senate colleague, Harry Johnston of West Palm Beach, once said, “The Miami-Dade legislative delegation would not even vote together for a Mother’s Day Resolution.” It got so bad that a fistfight broke out on the floor of the House of Representatives in the late 70’s between two men . . . from the Miami-Dade delegation.
So, as the new chairman of the delegation, I came up with a secret strategy. It occurred to me that since the Greater Miami area covered hundreds of miles, over 2 million residents, and 27 disparate municipalities, it was entirely possible that not all of us were friends — or even if we really even knew one another and our families. I called it my Engineering Unity Project.
I started out by producing a handbook of the members, their family and staff. After conferring with Rep. Tony Fontana of Hialeah, the vice chairman and the ranking Republican member, and Rep. Tom Gallagher of Coconut Grove, I appointed delegation leaders including the vote counters for both parties, called “whips.” We had regularly scheduled delegation meetings over lunch, which was gladly provided by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
The most effective part of my engineering unity strategy was to schedule a series of social events for delegation members and their families to get acquainted, or better acquainted. I scheduled them all around the county — social mixers, picnics, family entertainment, and even a raucous softball game at Mark Light Stadium. As one of the senior members said to me, “I didn’t even know there was a Sweetwater in Miami.”
But what about the results of Engineering Unity Project?
That year was 1982, and the most important legislation was the 10-year reapportionment of the state of Florida. It was also an election year. If there was ever a time for unity, this was it. It was also after the terrible riots in downtown and Overtown.
An august group of Miamians, led by Alvah Chapman of The Miami Herald and respected developer David Blumberg, had formed Miami Citizens Against Crime to lobby the Legislature for what otherwise would be an unpopular sales tax to fight crime. With so much at stake, I thought it prudent to conduct a formal survey of members prior to the session.
Shockingly, the survey revealed a general agreement on reapportionment, and a near consensus on raising taxes to fight crime, particularly in Miami. Gov. Bob Graham, a fellow former member of the delegation, praised members of the delegation for its unity and leadership in passing the tax, which benefited the entire state. Neither the governor nor any others knew it was, at least in part, the result of “engineering unity.”
Robert W. McKnight, a former Florida state senator and House member, represented South Dade County and the Florida Keys from 1974-1982.